Visual Art in the Holocaust (introductory essay)
Dr Pnina Rosenberg
Art Curator, Beit Lohamei Haghetaot
I never rationally thought that I was going to die, but there was an unbelievable urge to create. I was in the same position as all the people around me, and I realized that they were close to death. But I never thought of myself like that. I was floating. I was outside the reality of existence. My task was simply to portray what was happening. I was a spectator.
In these words Halina Olomucki relates to the works of art she produced in the Warsaw ghetto and in Auschwitz. She was one of many artists who continued to paint and draw in the ghettos and concentration camps. As well as bearing witness to the rich and intensive artistic activity that took place during the Holocaust, these works of art - mostly sketches or watercolors - provide valuable information on the life of the inmates. They are historical documents, and the first to acknowledge their importance were the artists themselves.
Although this resource focuses on the visual arts, other artistic and cultural fields also flourished in the ghettos and camps. Concerts were performed, plays written and produced and lectures given on a variety of topics. These events are also reflected in the paintings and drawings (view examples). The level of artistic activity rose and fell according to the situation - during the deportations it more or less came to a halt.
The conditions that made artistic creation possible
Artists were imprisoned in all the various camps and ghettos and in each one the circumstances were different. In some cases works were commissioned by the Jewish leadership; in others, by the Nazi authorities. Some artists worked clandestinely, using materials from their official jobs as artists or draftsmen.
In the Kovno ghetto the Judenrat asked Esther Lurie to devote most of her time to documenting ghetto life through her drawings. They arranged her release from work assignments, and, assisted by people in the ghetto who stood watch while she drew, she was able to portray much of the daily life in the ghetto.
In some of the camps (in France, for example) the Nazi authorities regarded artistic activity favorably - as long as the works could not be considered subversive. In these camps the artists received assistance from various Jewish and Christian welfare organisations, including the YMCA, the JDC and ORT. They supplied materials and even helped mount exhibitions.
In some of the ghettoes, such as Theresienstadt, the artists were employed in the graphics and technical drawing departments, where they had access to art materials. Works commissioned by the Nazis were done during work hours and works depicting daily ghetto life done in secret - with the knowledge that discovery could cost an artist their life. This fate was realised when the Nazis discovered their underground activities, torturing and, in some cases, executing the artists involved.
Subjects and style of the works of art
Most of the paintings and drawing were small, realistic in style and with few colors. There were practical reasons for this - materials were very limited. The most common media were pencil, ink, charcoal and watercolor.
Despite the varied cultural and artistic backgrounds of the artists and despite the fact that they were isolated from one another, unable to communicate with their fellow artists in other camps, they tended to paint the same themes: views of the camp, with its barbed-wire fences and watchtowers; portraits of inmates and depictions of their daily activities, such as searching for food, washing and using the toilet; scenes of disease and deportation and death.
These paintings and drawings succeeded in portraying and documenting scenes that would have been hard to capture in words. From them we learn of the appalling conditions in which thousands of people were held - and where even the most basic needs were more or less impossible to fulfil.
The greatest problem for the inmates of the camps and ghettos was constant hunger. Food rations were minimal, and, in many cases, continually being cut. Several drawings depict inmates scavenging in the garbage for scraps or waiting in line for food. These pictures portray not only the starvation that the inmates suffered, but also their dehumanization. Dr Fleischman, a doctor and artist from Theresienstadt, recorded:
Midday in Theresienstadt is quite different. The streets, courtyards and alleys are packed with people. Wherever you look there are queues lining up by steaming pots of food [...] you see people shaking, clutching a little food in their hands to take home. Note how they cross the crowded streets with great care, in case someone bumps into them and, in a flash, their precious food ration for the day will be lost.
Sanitary conditions in the camps and ghettos were totally inadequate. Men and women, the old and young, all contracted illness and disease because of the lack of sanitation, food and medical care. Many drawings document going to the toilet in public, with no privacy (view examples). The artists chose to depict these unaesthetic scenes not only as documentation of the daily reality but also of the complete desecration of the norms of human society. This forcing into public an act usually performed with modesty in private represents a further stage in the brutalisation and degradation inflicted on the prisoners.
Some drawings show the attempts of the inmates to improvise washing facilities with a bottle (view example) or other primitive means (example), as well as their desperate struggle against fleas (example). These pictures, some revealing a sense of humor, illustrate the daily battle of the inmates to keep clean and healthy.
In some camps and ghettos inmates were assigned to forced labor, while in others they were not allowed any kind of occupation and were condemned to debilitating idleness. The paintings not only portray this emptiness but were in themselves a means of overcoming the enervating inactivity. The inmates are depicted outside their quarters (view example) or inside the barracks in a state of apathy and listlessness, resulting from their realisation of the absurdity of their situation (example). These scenes are many and varied - some suggest efforts at activity (view example) while others depict inertia and helplessness (example). This reflects the differences between the camps and the artists themselves. Some were used to the feeling of being uprooted, having been displaced since the Nazis came to power (for example, Leo Haas and Karl Schwesig); others had been taken to the camps or ghettos straight from their homes and their regular life (Amalie Seckbach). The way they coped with their new situations were affected by their recent experiences and are reflected in their paintings and drawings.
Many artists portrayed the landscape surrounding the camps, which, in many cases, was extremely beautiful. The difference between the grim camp enclosure and the open scenery and freedom around is often striking, emphasising the isolation of the camps. This contrast is forcefully brought home in Karl Schwesig's painting Mount Canigou in the Snow showing the mountains beyond the barbed wire fences of St Cyprien camp. In the foreground the camp is portrayed in dismal shades of brown, with the vertical fence posts creating a barrier which cuts off the camp from its surroundings. Beyond, the panorama of snow-covered mountains against a blue sky gives a feeling of freedom and space.
Esther Lurie portrays the road that led to the "Ninth Fort" (view this work) - where hundreds of Jews from the Kovno ghetto, including large numbers of young children, were cruelly tortured and executed. The beautiful road stands in stark contrast to the torture and murder. Lurie writes:
A subject that I painted many times, in all seasons, was the road from the valley where the ghetto was up to the "Ninth Fort" on the top of a hill. The tall trees lining the road gave it a special character. This road going up the hill is etched in my memory as the "road of torture" along which thousands of Jews passed, Jews from Lithuania and from other parts of Western Europe, on their way to the death camps. There were days when the overcast sky created an atmosphere of darkness and tragedy, which well reflected our feelings.
The huge numbers sent to camps and from there deported to the death camps were portrayed by various artists (view examples). In these pictures the artist usually depicted faceless masses rather than individuals being sent on their last journey, facing spiritual and physical death. Yet in several pictures we see, amidst the endless lines of people stretching beyond the horizon, the face of one of the deportees, often a child clinging to its mother. In this way the spectator identifies more strongly with the cruel fate that awaits them. Even the most hardened of camp inmates, who had become almost immune to the horrors of the camp, were moved by the fate of the children. Dr Karl Fleischman, a doctor in Theresienstadt who, with tragic irony, worked to cure sick inmates and children who were subsequently sent to their deaths, wrote:
Death no longer frightens me, but on the face of a six month old child it is worse than a hundred bodies in the morgue. My senses have not yet been completely dulled.
A significant proportion of the paintings and drawings that have survived from the period of the Holocaust are portraits. The portraits, whether commissioned or chosen by the artists, reveal a feature that is unique to Holocaust art - the works include, alongside the name of the artist, the name of the subject, the exact date (day, month and year), the place and, in some cases, a dedication (view example).
By adding this unconventional information to their portraits the artists turned their work into unique historical documents. The combination of text and visual expression lends greater significance to the subject, turning a gallery of portraits into an intimate family album.
This transformation of the portrait into an historical document is characteristic of the works of Karl Schwesig, an artist who was imprisoned for four years in four different camps in the South of France. Some of his works moved with him from one camp to another and, in some cases, he added information he learned after completing the work. This might include the fate of the subject: death or deportation back to Germany - usually a death sentence (view example). Schwesig survived the Holocaust and continued to add information to his portraits. This was also done by artists who had been interned in the Free Zone of France.
Often, the transformation of a portrait into an historical document was achieved through subtle hints, in which the viewer would receive just enough information to decode the work. Aizik-Adolphe Fèder, for example, often enhanced the appearance of the subjects of his portraits, making them look beautiful and healthy, with no indication of the miserable reality of their lives. This was particularly true of portraits commissioned to be sent as a greeting to relatives. Fèder added seemingly trivial points of information to the portraits, such as the date and place (view example). But by combining these two kinds of information - the visual and the verbal - each picture takes on a new tension. It becomes immediately clear that this is not a conventional portrait, but a document and, frequently, a final record of the existence of the subject. The pictures must be "read" in stages, revealing level after level of information. The artists left subtle hints and it is the task of the viewer to "read between the lines."
It is possible to explain the repetition of motifs and themes in these works by suggesting that the artists were depicting the common elements of life in the ghettos and camps. But the work of each artist also represents their own individual viewpoint. Any objective element will be depicted in completely different ways, even when portrayed by artists in the same camp at the same time. Barbed-wire fences, for example, have become a major symbol of the Holocaust. Sometimes these look like thin, delicate wires, yet they still entrap and immobilize the inmates. In other works the fences are sharp, dangerous and threatening. At times, there is even an element of humor, with the artist painting washing hung out to dry on the fence. But, however depicted, the prevalence of this motif stresses the sense of confinement the inmates experienced.
The repeated use of such motifs stems from the fact that the artists, caught in an irrational and arbitrary world completely different from their previous life, were anxious to depict and document its main characteristics, believing that their testimony would be of great significance. They were aware of the value of visual description, a universal language that crosses borders and provides a clear picture of the reality of their world.
Art as escape from reality
The works of art fulfilled other functions apart from documentation. Art enabled artists to confirm their own existence as individuals, connecting them in some way to their past life as artists. It gave them an occupation with which to fill long hours of enforced idleness, while in many cases it was undeniably a way of escaping to another world. This can be seen in the works of Amalie Seckbach, produced in Theresienstadt (view works). She portrays herself and her present experiences in the guise of a fantastic and surrealistic world. Yet she never neglected to introduce into this fantastic world, in almost brutal fashion, the exact place where the picture was produced. This undermines the surrealism of her paintings, since she clearly hints that the reality of the world she finds herself in surpasses all imagination. A figure that seems to be an Eastern princess (view this work) has a thin chain around her neck, on which is inscribed a number similar to the number tattooed by the Nazis on the inmates' forearms. It is here that the artist records the date of the painting, and below it, creating a framework to the two faces that surround the figure of the princess, Seckbach writes the word "Theresienstadt." This is the border, beyond which there is no escape, except on the wings of the imagination, and then only for a brief interval. The inhuman reality they are experiencing is omnipresent, even in dreams.
Art as a means of barter
Art works were commonly used for bartering. Artists were commissioned by both inmates and camp administrators, in most cases asked to copy portraits of relatives from photographs. In turn they received favours such as better food or messages through the post. This was the experience of Halina Olomucki in Auschwitz and Esther Lurie, who wrote of her time at Stutthof:
I managed to get hold of a pencil and some scraps of paper. I started to draw some of the various "types" among the women prisoners. Young girls, who had "friends" among the male inmates and who used to get gifts of food, asked me to draw their portrait. The payment - a piece of bread.
Art, then, was part of the daily life of the camp, providing a means of passing the time, and, sometimes, some material gain.
Art as a means of connection with the outside world
Artists sought to use their work as means to make contact with the outside world and let people know what was happening "on the other side of the fence." They did this despite the danger inherent in such activity, as can be seen in the fate of Leo Haas and Karl Fleischman, inmates of Theresienstadt, who paid a high price for their efforts to smuggle their works out of the ghetto. In preparation for a visit of the Red Cross in Summer 1944, the Germans searched the artists' quarters. They did this because they realised the truth about their "model ghetto" was likely to be revealed in paintings being smuggled out of Theresienstadt. The artists refused to talk and after being interrogated and tortured and then were taken to a Gestapo prison. Eventually they were deported to Auschwitz, where Fleischman died.
Contact with the outside world was of tremendous importance to the camp inmates, and in many cases it was art that paved the way for this. In some camps, such as Gurs and Compiègne (see Poster for an Art Exhibition), exhibitions were held. These exhibitions were visited by the Nazi administration and, in some cases, members of the public from the surrounding area. The inmates felt, for a brief moment, as if they had broken through the fence and were involved in the outside world. It should be noted, however that these events were not mentioned in the press, who used to stress that the camp inmates were parasites and profiteers. Presenting them as creative and productive would not have fitting this negative stereotype.
The artists, like the other inmates, were engaged in a constant struggle not only to survive physically but also to overcome the feeling of ostracism from society. Their efforts to maintain a semblance of humanity and civilized existence found expression in the spiritual values of their creative work. Art was one of the elements that helped them survive their abnormal state of imprisonment, isolation and exile.
Dr Karl Fleischman, who worked ceaselessly as a doctor and as an artist in Theresienstadt, wrote:
I too have done all kinds of things. I helped others, thereby helping myself. I took up pencil and paintbrush and used them as a springboard to enter the world of the imagination. I wanted to see the world differently, experience it differently. In all the hundreds of paintings I have produced I always painted the same world, yet also a world that changes every second. A world beyond time.
I ignored reality. I read chronicles, I studied physics, chemistry, economics, languages and the history of art. I read books about geography and voyages to all places and at all times. I would close my eyes and still feel compelled to see everything. The doorbell rings - a threat. Crossing the road - torture. A note left on the table at lunchtime - trepidation. The door of my mother's apartment - fear and worry. This is what life is like in the twilight.
 Karl Fleischman. A Day in Theresienstadt. Theresienstadt Archives, L303 401, p.5. Translated from Czech by Rachel Har Zvi.
 Esther Lurie. Living Testimony - Ghetto Kovno. Dvir, Tel Aviv, 1958. p.10
 Karl Fleischman. Erich Monck - A Shadow of a Man Theresienstadt Archives, L303 401, p.5. Translated from Czech by Rachel Har Zvi.
 Esther Lurie. "Notes of an Artist", from Notes for Holocaust Research, Second collection, February 1952, p.113
 Karl Fleischman. Erich Monck - A Shadow of a Man, p.1.