SINCE 2000, Holocaust Memorial Day has been commemorated on 27 January, the anniversary of the liberation of the largest death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a day to remember the victims of the Holocaust and later genocides, and also to honour those who stood — and are standing — against such massacres.
With the passing of time, the memory of this event might fade, but each act of remembrance keeps the memory alive. We can listen to the survivors’ stories, read their books, and visit memorials, but there is a further group of objects that helps us to get closer to the victims.
Between 1939 and 1945, thousands of drawings and other works of art were created by prisoners of ghettos and concentration camps. These fragile works are moving and, at times, haunting. They are a testament to people’s resilience, courage, and continued hope in the face of evil. I came upon them when I taught about the art and artists of the Second World War. I was deeply moved, and so were my students, who showed great interest. Our responses to the drawings left me with the desire to tell more people about them and perpetuate their witness.
©Yad Vashem Art Museum, JerusalemBowl of Hot Soup by Halina Olomucki, 1945, pencil on paper; from the collection of the Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem (gift of the artist)
MOST of the works were done with pencil on paper. These materials were not only the easiest to find, but also the easiest to hide, or smuggle out of the ghetto or concentration camp. In Stuffhof concentration camp, in Germany, the Jewish artist Esther Lurie (1913-98) was able to draw portraits of fellow prisoners, thanks to a pencil that she obtained from one of the secretaries. She drew on wrapping paper from packages of cotton wool collected for her by a Jewish doctor at the infirmary.
Many others used art supplies that they found through their work assignments as illustrators, painters, or decorators. A Polish Jew, Halina Olomucki (1919-2007), was 18 years old when she was deported to the Warsaw ghetto. In May 1943, she was transported to Majdanek concentration camp and, immediately afterwards, to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
There, she was assigned to paint signs and make decorations for the barracks. While in Auschwitz, she also created more than 200 drawings in secret, and hid them between the wooden planks of her barracks.
After the war, she managed to find clandestine drawings that she had made while in the Warsaw ghetto and that she had given to a Polish friend living on the other side of the ghetto wall. She retrieved only a fraction of the drawings that she had made in Auschwitz.
IN THE ghetto of Theresienstadt, north of Prague, the artists Leo Haas (1901-83), Bedrich Fritta (1906-44), Ferdinand Bloch (1898-1944), and Otto Ungar (1901-45) worked in the Technical Department. Before the war, they had been painters and graphic designers, and now had to use their artistic skills to produce illustrations for Nazi propaganda. The pictures that they were forced to create were supposed to reinforce the image of the ghetto as a self-governed model settlement, where the Jews did indeed live in isolation, but in acceptable conditions.
The department quickly became a centre for unofficial work. All four used the department’s materials secretly to realise hundreds of drawings that depicted daily life in the ghetto. These clandestine drawings led ultimately to their arrest in 1944. Haas, Fritta, Bloch, and Ungar were accused of creating “atrocity propaganda” (Greuelpropaganda), and of attempting to smuggle it out of the ghetto.
They were subsequently incarcerated and tortured in the ghetto’s prison, where Bloch died in October 1944. The others were deported to Auschwitz. Fritta died shortly after his arrival; Ungar experienced the liberation of the camp, only to die in 1945 owing to his weakened state. Of the four, only Haas survived. He was later able to retrieve some of the drawings: he found them where they had been carefully hidden, plastered in the walls of the Theresienstadt ghetto.
There was not always someone left to retrieve the drawings. In 1947, drawings were found in Auschwitz, hidden in a bottle, which was itself concealed beneath the foundations of a barrack. This series of sketches, known as “The Sketchbook from Auschwitz”, depicts, in troubling detail, the murder of Jews in the extermination camp of Birkenau. They are some of the very few first-hand visual records of what happened in this death camp. Their value as documents is thus considerable; in a few instances, drawings were used in trials as prosecution exhibits.
Auschwitz-Birkenau MuseumA page from the Sketchbook from Auschwitz by an unknown artist, done in Auschwitz, c.1943, pencil on paper
CONSIDERING the fragility of these works, and that they were often lost, destroyed, or confiscated, the number of drawings that have survived is remarkable. That so many were created, despite the danger and difficulties, shows how strongly the prisoners were motivated. An art historian and curator at Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Agnieszka Sieradzka, says of the “Auschwitz Sketchbook”: “You can clearly see that the author was determined to present the largest number of details. Badges of functionary prisoners, number plates of the trucks, train cars on the ramp, as well as block numbers are carefully depicted. The author of the sketchbook hoped that someone would find his work so that it would become a witness to extermination” (quote in “Witness to Extermination” by Alex Macbeth, in Der Spiegel, 2012).
Many of the artists who survived incarceration have spoken of the strong and irrepressible need that these drawings fulfilled: they were part of an effort to become visible, and to tell the world what was truly happening. Olomucki remembered: “While I was in Auschwitz-Birkenau, someone told me, ‘If you live to leave this hell, make your drawings and tell the world about us. We want to remain among the living, at least on paper’” (quoted in Spiritual Resistance: Art from concentration camps, 1940-1945, by M. Novitch, L. Dawidowicz, and T. L. Freudenheim, 1981).
Olomucki’s drawings, created in the Warsaw ghetto before she was deported to Auschwitz, as well as those made by Haas and Fritta in the Theresienstadt ghetto, were a deliberate effort to document daily life under Nazi persecution. They depicted, among other things, the coming and going of transports bringing in new prisoners or sending them on to concentration and extermination camps; roll-calls; executions; forced labour; distribution of food; cramped sleeping-quarters; and theatre performances on makeshift stages. In this way, they complement other initiatives, such as the creation of secret archives.
This effort at documentation was a way to regain control over the telling of history rather than disappear into the Nazi propaganda machine. Prisoners were aware that their community was threatened with total annihilation. Together with teaching children and holding religious ceremonies, or gathering in prayer groups, these clandestine activities were a form of “spiritual resistance”.
The drawings were a way to affirm one’s existence, both as an individual and a member of a community. Dehumanisation was central to the Nazis’ strategy of extermination. The functioning of concentration and extermination camps was aimed at depriving prisoners of any sense of individuality. A former inmate quoted by Raul Hilberg in The Destruction of the European Jews (Yale, 1961, 2003), recounted that, in Auschwitz, only “the anonymous, the faceless ones, survived.”
This makes the number of clandestine portraits created of the artist’s fellow inmates particularly telling. Portraiture is the most represented genre in the graphic works produced by prisoners during the Holocaust.
Auschwitz-Birkenau MuseumPortrait of a Young Woman by Zofia Stepién, done in Auschwitz in 1944, pencil on paper
THE Polish artist Franciszek Jazwiecki (1900-46) was a political prisoner in Auschwitz. Between 1943 and 1945, he made 114 portraits of other prisoners, who are represented in their striped uniforms; exhaustion and despair can often be read on their faces.
Sometimes, the portraits were commissioned by the other inmates, and artists could barter them for food. This is what the Polish Jewish artist Zofia Stepién-Bator (b. 1920) did while in Auschwitz. She later explained that she had intentionally made everyone look better than they actually did. She represented the sitters with normal clothes, instead of the prisoner’s outfit; gave them good hairdos, and fuller cheeks.
With these portraits, the artists and her sitters seemed to have refused to let what was happening to them define who they were. The portraits restored a sense of self.
If Jazwiecki and Stepién-Bator both insisted, in their portraits, on the dignity and humanity of their fellow inmates, these works also served a crucial purpose for the artists themselves. Being able to barter food for her drawings increased Stepién-Bator’s chances of survival.
Auschwitz-Birkenau MuseumPortrait of an Unknown Prisoner by Franciszek Jazwiecki, done in Auschwitz in 1942, pencil on paper
Jazwiecki observed: “For a moment of happiness, or actually forgetting . . . I have been making pencil portraits in the camp. The portraits were made on the sly, in secret, and were a moment of forgetting for me. They took me to a different world — the world of art. I simply disregarded the fact that drawing was punishable by death; I did that not because of courage. I just didn’t pay any attention to the danger; it was so attractive to be and work in this world of mine” (quoted by M. Bohm-Duchen in Art and the Second World War, Princeton, 2013). The act of creation became a momentary escape.
IF SOME of the drawings are very factual in their depictions of scenes from ghettos and camps, others are clearly more concerned with artistic aspects. When Bedrich Fritta represented a group of people leaving the ghetto under the surveillance of a soldier, he skilfully tilted the lines of the buildings and trees to emphasise the movement, and reinforce the way in which the prisoners’ bodies are bowed down by the heavy burden that they carry.
Such attention to aesthetic effects reminds us that these drawings are not simply documents, but works of art. Like acts of solidarity, the creation of art conveys hope for humanity. Even when totally surrounded by death and alienation, human beings were driven to do good and beautiful things.
Dr Caroline Levisse teaches art history at the Workers’ Educational Association, and is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Centre for Arts and the Sacred at King’s College, London.