Art and The Holocaust

Art and The Holocaust
   The response of artists to the antiSemitic policies of Nazi Germany began in the early 1930s and continued throughout the Holocaust. Many of these responses by artists to Nazi persecution were those works produced by concentration camp inmates and Jews confined in the ghettos. Working under impossible conditions, the artists were determined to provide through their art an eyewitness account of what they observed, from the cattle cars to the Selektion process, through the brutality of the Forced labor camps, to the gas chambers, and the stack of dead left unburied by the Nazis. A second motivation of inmate art was to resist dehumanization and bring some sense of their person in the drawings that were penciled on paper that was difficult to obtain. These works of art were, therefore, an affirmation of life and the only way to maintain their dignity.
   Among works of art that survived the Holocaust, for example, were those of the underground artists of Theresienstadt, Felix Bloch, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, Karel Fleischmann, Bedrich Fritta (his art sketches were intercepted by camp guards and subsequently Fritta was executed in 1944), Leo Haas, Alfred Kantor, and Otto Unger. Their work exposed the pretense of the so-called model ghetto, and their drawings revealed the starvation and death that existed daily in the camp.
   In Auschwitz a number of artists through their drawings recreated the horror of the death camps. These included Alfred Kantor (who was transferred from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz and sketched daily life in the death camp), Diana Gottliebova (whose life was saved because Josef Mengele chose her to sketch pictures of Gypsy women for purposes of his medical experiments), and Karl Stojka (a Roma artist whose drawings recorded the brutal treatment of Gypsy life in the death camp).
   There were also the drawings of Simon Wiesenthal, who was a survivor of five concentration camps. An architect by training, and better known as a “Nazi hunter,” Wiesenthal was also a sketch artist. He drew numerous sketches of the horrors he encountered in the concentration camps and he was able to salvage many of them when he was liberated from Mauthausen on 5 May 1945.
   Common to many artists whose work centered on the concentration camps or their ghetto memories was their representations of the Holocaust through the use of symbols, such as a chimney or barbed wire, to express their experiences. Samuel Bak, for example, who at an early age survived the destruction of the Vilna Ghetto, uses the chimney as a stand-in for the camps. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the Austrian painter and architect whose mother was Jewish, drew on his Holocaust past by juxtaposing three symbols: the crematorium chimney, a garden of blood, and his personal symbol of hiding, the labyrinth. Even Buky Schwartz’s “Pillar of Heroism” at Yad Vashem is perceived from the distance as a chimney.
   Barbed wire was used in the abstract art of Igael Tumarkin to give a specific Holocaust meaning to his work. Chaim Gross and Marc Klonsky are other artists who used barbed wire as symbols of the Shoah. Biblical symbols were also used to oppose Nazism, such as the image of David killing Goliath, found in the works of Jacques Lipchitz. The use of Hebrew Testament imagery is also found in the art of Mordechai Ardon, Frederick Terna, and Nathan Rapaport. In Lipchitz’s art, he sought to convey to non-Jews that Nazism was a threat to everyone and not only to Jews. These artists used Hebrew Testament images to convey to God their despair, using the traditional image of the sacrifice of Isaac in a Holocaust context. In Rapaport’s “Job,” he places a number on Job’s arm to symbolize his faith despite everything.
   The crucified Jewish Jesus, often wearing a prayer shawl, is also a frequently invoked symbol of the Holocaust. Artists who have invoked this symbol include both Christian and Jews alike, including Christians such as Otto Panokok, or Jews such as Marc Chagall, who use their art to address the Holocaust to the Christian world. Many of the artists who used this imagery, such as Giacomo Manzu, Ernst Fuchs, and Mauricio Lasansky, used their art to denounce the church for not doing enough to save the Jews. The influence of camp and ghetto art will continue to attracts future artists, inasmuch as not only does the cache of the sketches and drawings found in the postwar years provide evidence of the barbarity of the Nazi perpetrators, but also the art serves as a commitment to Holocaust memory.

Historical dictionary of the Holocaust. . 2014.

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