Creation in a world of destruction: Art as survival in the Holocaust

The Holocaust in art and the art of the Holocaust are two distinctly different forms of art. The former refers to any art depicting or alluding to the Holocaust. It includes works created both during and after the war, by victims as well as people not directly threatened by the event. Whereas the art of the Holocaust is limited to works created by the victims from 1939 to 1945. What is most important about the art of the Holocaust is it’s means of reflecting its time both in its subject matter and in what it reveals about the artists themselves and the condition in which they worked. These people who struggled through the most deplorable conditions risked their lives to produce art. Art became their reason to live, and they used their talents to survive.

Expressionism was the prevailing artistic force in Germany and Eastern Europe in years preceding Hitler’s rise to power. It was a movement born a round the turn of the century, in artistic and social ferment, a rebellion against the formalism and sterility of academic art, which promoted the ideas of the bourgeoisie and the German empire. The Expressionist artist was driven by “inner necessity” to express his longings and anxieties. As a result the many artists of the Holocaust inherited the traditions of Expressionism and social criticism. When the Nazi’s came into power they were quick to condemn “modern art”, which, to them included abstract and Expressionist styles. Such works, along with those produced by Jews and those depicted inferior racial types, were considered evil and degenerate. Three months after Hitler came into power, they were banned from museums and art schools, while Jewish and undesirable political artists were forced to cease working, by 1937, 16,000 works of degenerate art had been confiscated. The Nazi’s considered art as a tool to use as a service to the Reich, and they required that it support the myth of the noble heroic German. The approved mode was an academic static style known as sentimental realism; the favored subjects were portraits of soldiers, idyllic landscapes, virile German youths, and noble wives and mothers. Both style and subject had to conform to Nazi ideals, there would be no place for art that served the private self or expressed the artist inner passions. Although the art of the Holocaust is rooted in prewar artistic traditions, the victims labored under circumstances that no group of artist had ever been forced to deal with. Constant torture, mass executions, excruciating hard labor and malnutrition, we would expect, would lead to the disintegration of the victims will to survive. Though this was true for a very small percentage of Holocaust victims, most of who never stopped fighting, and this was prevalent in many works left behind by both the victims and survivors.

Under normal conditions an artist struggle begins when he is faced with the task of transforming materials into the image created in ones mind. The Holocaust artist’s problem began with the attainment of simple materials. The art that was finally created was affected by the availability of these materials and specific conditions dictated the media in which the artists were able to work. Thus, art produced in various areas the ghetto, the concentration camp, or hideouts, often had distinctive characteristics. Within each area similarities appear in works by very different artists. Artists in the ghetto and those in hiding, were often able to acquire, with difficulty, professional art supplies. Their works were large and painted in watercolor and oil. Many of the works done in hiding remain unfinished because the artist were caught and deported. In contrast to the colorful pictures made by artists in urban hideouts, those done by partisans hiding in the woods are quite primitive. Art supplies were rarely included in the fugitives’ gear, and most of their work was done in pencil, or burn tree twigs. Conditions in transit camp were less deplorable than concentration camps, thus many watercolors survived, as do many works done on fine art materials brought in by the Red Cross. It is assumed that a greater percentage of the works created in transit camps was saved because of the comparative leniency there. Regulations in these camps allowed for interaction between prisoners, and groups did some of the works. Artist in the concentration camps had the most difficulty, both in acquiring materials and in preserving their works. Not only did they use the primitive materials, they generally worked in miniatures so that they could more easily hide their creations. The most extreme conditions were experienced in the killing centers. Almost no work survives from these camps. And it is impossible to tell whether this is because they had no opportunity to work or were unable to protect their works from destruction.

Ironically, the situation that reduced men and women to mere numbers also occasionally provided them with the opportunity to create. The establishment of the ghettos and camps created a bureaucracy involving hundreds of thousands of clerks, engineers, architects, carpenters, welders and other skilled laborers. The Germans with their penchant for painstaking record keeping provided the bureaucrats with huge quantities of paper, pencil and inks- materials that could be used by artists. And it is interesting to understand how the majority of artists obtained their supplies. The Nazi’s finding themselves with some of the worlds finest artists in captivity could not resist using this talent for their own purposes. While some prisoners were given materials for official artwork, others obtained supplies in a less official manner. A Nazi official would order a portrait or other artwork, such as a genealogical chart, in exchange he might give the inmate artist materials. The Auschwitz artist Peter Edel was once approached by a high SS officer who bought his some of the finest paper and ink he had ever seen and ordered him to draw Easter cards. Edel says he tore the paper in half as soon as the Nazi left, used half of it for the cards, and kept the other half for himself. Inmates who worked as clerks had access to office supplies and often pilfered from these areas. And those who were not artists themselves often went to great risks to supply artist with materials. Hundreds of works were created on the backs of used documents and forms. Art supplies along with food and clothing became part of an underground economy. Artist would trade portraits of fellow inmates for more materials, food or cigarettes. In Sachsenhaudsen Leo Haas was able to exchange his drawings for enough food to feed his entire barracks. Many inmates also brought their artist supplies from home. They made the effort to carry supplies with them, since limitations on personal belongings meant that for every sketchpad packed into one small suitcase, something else of vital importance had to be left behind. When artist could not get the materials they needed they improvised. Auschwitz artists scavenged empty toothpaste tubes from officer’s garbage bins and used them to store and mix pilfered paints. Brushes could be made with human hair, straw or feathers. Old SS circulars, target papers full of bullet holes and torn-up office papers, wrapping paper, tissue paper, anything found was used to draw upon. Artists squeezed colors from vegetables and other foods or from scraps of clothing. Paints were tinted with rust and diluted with water to last longer. Nothing was ever wasted even potato rations were saved to make potato cuts, and later eaten.

Even mere acts of defiance gave hope to the inmates. In the ghetto of Therensienstadt, the Nazis had set up a different sort of camp, also known as Terezin, it became the Nazis showplace. Here they brought carefully selected visitors, who wished to see how the Third Reich was treating its victims. Over 100 of these inmates were artists sent there to work on authorized projects, such as architectural drawings, propaganda posters. In there spare time, with pilfered materials, they created pictures of the deplorable conditions they lived in. An art collector smuggled out these items and they made there way to the International Red Cross who were planning an inspection visit to Therensienstadt. In preparation for the visit, the Nazis fixed up the exteriors of the buildings and deported many inmates to Auschwitz, to remove the appearance of overcrowding. During the inspection the Red Cross revealed the depictions and demanded to see the scenes they depicted. Upon their departure all the artists were arrested by the SS and sent to Auschwitz, only one, Leo Haas, survived. Auschwitz artists, like those in Buchenwald, were ordered to decorate their letters and postcards home (all ready censored for any references to the actual conditions within the camp) with flowers and landscapes. But even these sentimental decorations could be used to translate messages. Wincenty Gawro recalls in his memoirs “Our eyes are painted to show the hopelessness of our current plight, everything we cannot write about, our hope was not only to warn but to save as well. We were telling them to hide.” (Gawro 42) Even working directly under Nazi command inmate artists managed to instill some glimmer of themselves in their work. The metal workers responsible for fashioning the Arbeit Macht Frei sign at the entrance to Auschwitz managed to deliberately flip the B upside down. Placing the smaller circle of the letter on the bottom. Clear to all the inmates this act of defiance was never noticed by the inmates.1 In Maidanek, Maria Albin Boniecki’s sculpture, The Column of three eagles, erected with German consent in 1943 is a clear work of resistance. It represents three birds half doves, half eagles, symbols of innocence and of Poland and victory, rising in flight. Mounted on a high column, it contained a secretly placed can filled with ashes from the camp crematorium. It escaped the Nazis notice.2 In a more sinister vein, Auschwitz artists were forced to contribute to the documentation of the medical experiments carried out there. Dunikowski was ordered to depict the deterioration of prisoners injected with various poisons. Leo Haas was forced to paint portraits of twins who were the subjects of Dr. Mengele’s genetic experiments. Dinah Gottlibova had to paint portraits of gypsy women in Birkenau as part of Mengele’s research on ethnic types. All of their paintings constitute as some of the clearest examples of artist defying the spirit. Though they were created under orders, they convey a quality of humaneness and individuality. They are artistic renderings of dignified individuals.

The Nazis tolerated some artwork even though it was not officially ordered or sanctioned. In their free time, prisoners could do certain work that did not have to be hidden. As long as it did not have anything offensive to the Nazis (anything that was considered “degenerate” or depicted conditions of the camp or its victims and the brutality of its persecutors was considered offensive.) Therefore a large percentage of these “tolerated” works were portraits. In some cases, these were smuggled out of the camps to the inmates’ families, they were assurances that their loved one’s were still alive. Abstract paintings were rare, but they do exist as well. These works were seen as flights into a world of fantasy and memory, permitting the artist to escape the reality of the Holocaust. However, the portraits became precious gifts that could be useful in trading for better conditions and art materials. Many of the portraits pay careful attention to the sitters rank and number and to define the sitters current existence as a victim of dehumanization. Every effort was made to render a likeness though, idealized, that was human and individual. These portraits offered the sitter hope of permanent presence among the living, a matter of profound significance for people who existence was so fragile. And to increase the sitter’s significance in life often the artist would have them sign their name on the portrait as well. The function of the portrait to preserve and immortalize continues to this day. Several survivors now in possession of such portraits stated the wish that they be “reproduced here as a way of immortalizing someone we had lost.” (Lenz 74)

Artists worked for the Nazis to save lives, either their own, and those of their companions or to improve their living conditions. Whether they were employed in workshops or under private command, their art placed them in a relatively privileged physical environment and delayed the threat of deportation or death for as long as their work was in progress and the artists proved themselves to be of value. Franciszek Targosz avoided punishment for illegal drawing by convincing Rudolf Hoess, the commander of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, to set up the Auschwitz Museum. He had been caught drawing a horse, as it was a punishable offense, Tagosz suggested that Hoess establish a museum in one of the camp’s blocks. It felt it would provide a place of culture for Nazi officers stationed at Auschwitz. It would exhibit fine examples of Nazi approved art, praising German virtues and myths. Hoess immediately saw the propaganda potential and ordered Targosz to organize the museum. The building stayed open for two years and Targosz life was saved. Jozef Szajna, a courier spy, was caught and questioned at the border of Poland. Szajna, who had received no formal art training, protested the he was no a spy and invented the profession of a window display decorator for himself. The German guard thrusted a paper and pencil at Szajna and ordered his portrait to be made. Though it was his first attempt at a portrait, the vague resemblance won him a reprieve. Charlotte Buresova, a Theresienstadt artist was part of the Sonderwerkstatte, (special workshop) decorating tiles and painting copies of Rembrandt and Rubens for the Germans. An officer who admired her technical proficiency asked her to paint a Madonna. While Buresova was working on it the Nazi examined the unfinished painting. He toughed the canvas to wipe off what he thought was a bead of moisture near the Madonna’s eye, only to be confounded by Buresova’s trompe l’oeil; the artist had painted a flowing tear. Touched the Nazi rewarded her with her life. He told her “As long as you are working on it, you will not be deported to the East.” (Aden 23) Buresova remained at Theresienstadt. As Zoran Music states, ” For an artist it is not possible to not create…art gave me the force to survive, and the danger of being caught was even more exciting.” (Aden 28)

The artist’s view of himself as chronicler to a future audience bespeaks an amazing optimism, a profound hope that he would someday live to show his work to people who would share his fury. And even if he himself did not survive, his work would speak for him to a world of the future, a world returned to sanity. It would be a remembrance not only of the conditions but also of the artists’ very existence. Like the portraits I spoke of earlier, other forms of art shared a dual objective: to preserve for posterity both the subjects and some physical remnant of the artists themselves. The artists were making sure that something they had touched and created would live on.

As these works are now being unearthed and studied a highly organized feat of recording, in the form of archives set up by Emmanuel Ringelblum, was accomplished in Warsaw. Israel Lichtenstein explained his contribution to the archives saying that he knew he and his “family would be killed, and I wanted to leave behind something for people to remember us by, we would draw everything around us and of our situation, it gave a great sense of hope to know we were doing something.” (Aden 47) But artist could not have worked in hopes of having their work preserved. It is amazing that we have as much as we do, because the artists, themselves, destroyed a lot of it. For the artist, much of the benefit of his work was “reaped at the moment of creation.” (Blatter 32) This is easy to understand with art that does not have a Holocaust theme. It seems painting landscapes, abstracts, and still life’s all helped the artists evade their painful reality and establish an illusion of normality.

They could think of something normal that did not hurt. As captives, they had no control over the clothes they wore, the food they ate, or of the brutality and humiliation they received. But as artists they had control, they were responsible for the tone and fiber of their creations, the focus and subject, and what they wanted to be immortalized. Ernst Ludwig believes, in retrospect, that “through my art I was able to create a universe which commanded a power denied to me in reality, and I needed that to live. (Blatter 33) Art became a form of dignity and self worth that was preserved. The artists were victims only until they picked up their pencils and drew.

The Holocaust did not nurture any particular art style, because in the very act of creating, the artists were refusing to acknowledge its terrible power. They were rejecting the horrors even while they were drawing them. By working in styles they were already familiar rather than developing new ones to portray their changed conditions, the artists were retaining their original identities. They were keeping alive the persons they were before the war. “Artists tried to hold on to the last vestiges of the culture and civilization they once enjoyed and to connect themselves with those values rather than with the evil they saw around them.” (Aden 55) The functions of the old art styles, as preservers of the past culture and sustainers of the artists identities become visible upon comparing art of the Holocaust period to postwar art created by the survivors. The iconography of art created during the Holocaust does not conform to our notions of typical war imagery, which consists of screaming victims, mutilated corpses, and gruesome scenes of destruction. Certain images do appear repeatedly in art of the period , barracks, guard towers, barbed wire, stunted trees, camp identification badges, Jewish stars, empty baby carriages and lines or clusters of people. In contrast, work done after the war more closely resembles the stereotype of war. During the war, artists had to put some distance between themselves and their circumstances. They used an almost muted style as a buffer, as if to dilute the horror of their circumstances. They refused to accept the Nazi approved sentimental realism, preferring a style more conductive to telling their truth. Moreover, not all artists registered indignation at their conditions, their responses were often compassionate, and displayed their overwhelming sense of hope. Once removed from the situation they could safely express the full force of their pain and rage in works of fury and damning satire.

What unites the art created by victims during and after the Holocaust is that all of it expresses the intense need to give meaning to human suffering through creative self expression. Whether it meant going without a meal, a beating or death, the artists had the ability to create because they all carried one unifying feeling, hope. These people who struggled through the most deplorable conditions risked their lives to produce art. Art became their reason to live, and they used their talents to survive. The art depicts a “landscape of screams,”3 and, like a scream, it affirms the individual soul for the artist who being was threatened by anonymous death, whose voice the Nazi’s sought to condemn to eternal silence. Through art the victim asserted his uniqueness. The art of the Holocaust breaks the silence with the resounding beauty of the defiant human spirit, which, although assaulted and weakened, is ultimately vindicated. The body of material that has been left behind by both the victims and survivors of the Holocaust is small. It marks as a historical record of the crimes of the regime and the agony of its victims. The images can reveal much of the era in which it was created and about the role of culture in an epoch dominated by atrocity. Unfortunately, very little has been done about this art. Most museums have either ignored it or only promoted small portions. Over 30,000 works survive in America, Europe and Israel, sadly the majority of these works have never been seen due to lack of interest and “artistic” merit. If not realized soon, everything these victims worked so hard to preserve for the future, could seem, hardly worth the sacrifice.

1.) “Through on-site investigation of the Auschwitz sign corroborates this story told by Auschwitz Museum staff, it should be noted that German typography of the period exaggerated the size of the upper half of letters. Compare the type of the Auschwitz sign to the “Arbeit macht frei” in Sachsenhausen.” (Thoren 66)

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Creation in a world of destruction: Art as survival in the Holocaust. (2018, Nov 14). Retrieved June 24, 2019, from