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S. Leuschke

Paintings and Drawings of the Holocaust

Where photography was mainly a means of recording the scenes and people involved in the Holocaust, the more personal artistry of painting and drawing served a different purpose. Those who created images during the war were able to use the medium as a release for their torment, reactions, or hidden feelings about World War II and the Holocaust. Many survivors have used painting, sketching, and drawing as a form of therapy for years, expressing their deepest hidden feelings through their imagery.

Paralleling event history with art history, Hitler's rise to power, the consequential systematic extermination of the Jews, and World War II coincided with the latter part of the German Expressionist movement, whose meanings and proponents were profoundly critical of materialism. It was an age when the avant-garde dominated the art scene. During this time, the Reich Chamber of Culture exercised a profound influence over hundreds of thousands of German artists and entertainers. There are numerous studies and analyses examining the "complex pattern of interaction among leading Nazi figures, German cultural functionaries, ordinary artists, and consumers of culture," with special attention in some cases given to "Nazi efforts to purge the arts of Jews and other so-called undesirables" (Steinweis viii).

One major contributor to the concept and physical production of Holocaust art was Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945), a remarkably talented draftswoman, sculptor, and printmaker. Eventually, through apprenticeships, Kollwitz found that the simplified purity of lithography suited her involvement in social issues. Focusing on monetary expansion, strike conditions, bureaucratic imprisonment, and dying, the abrupt shapes and stiff blacks and whites emphasized her social statements. The thrust of her social assertions sprang from the Holocaust, though she was not directly involved. With Hitler's rise to power, she was unofficially prevented from exhibiting, but ironically, the Nazis used some of her famous images for their own propaganda images.

Other prominent German Expressionists who painted and drew images concerning the Holocaust included Yitzhok Brauner, Roman Kramsztyk, and Gela Seksztajn.

Not every German artist of that time period was lucky enough to only be unofficially prevented from exhibiting, though. Two of Kollwitz's contemporaries became so controversial within Germany during the Holocaust that Hitler and the Nazi soldiers had them publicly declared as prohibited: Nolde and Schmidt-Rottluff. Additionally, Hitler's tastemakers sometimes misused and abused art as a method of indoctrination to advocate the idea of a conformist, generative, and congruous society.

Art contrived by the prisoners of camps and ghettos was created at the jeopardy of their own lives. Inmate art eroded the German goal of concealment, displaying to the world an eyewitness testimony from the cattle cars to the labor camps to the gas chambers and the stacks of dead. Beyond using what they produced as first-hand, primary source documentation, artists in the camps retained their individuality with their sketches and drawings, sometimes enough to successfully avoid the dehumanization that so many experienced in the camps and ghettos. Fernand Van Horen has produced an impressive testimony declaring how drawing saved his life for the duration of his time at a labor camp.

David Olere was a prominent artist who survived nearly two years at Auschwitz, an evacuation death march, and his eventual liberation by American soldiers. As a testimony to the barbarous happenings of the Holocaust, he used his photographic memory to produce pictorial representations of life in the camps. This accurate remembrance aspect of his paintings gives his work a documentary value beyond its artistic merit. No actual photographs were taken of what went on in the crematoriums. Because Olere spent time hauling cadavers from one place to another, burying dead people, and being punished in the bunkers, among other Holocaust tortures, his paintings are part of the only documentation available about that part of the holocaust. Olere's paintings show everything from being denied life because of an inability to work to emptying the gas chambers. The images, though not nearly as graphic as they could be, show the world that never experienced a concentration camp aspects that could not otherwise be seen.

Bruno Schulz was a renowned painter and author who worked during and because of the Holocaust, until his death in 1942. He wrote two books of stories, Skelpy cyanomonowe (Cinnamon Streets), and Sanatorium pod klepsydra (Sanatorium under the sign of the hourglass), both of which he illustrated. Schulz's drawings are characterized by his sexual idolatry bordering on sado-masochism. Before the war, he made his living teaching art at a local school, but with Hitler's takeover, the Nazis forced Schulz to work for them in Poland, sorting banned books for destruction. His work embodies a type of search for what is, of itself, noble. The Nazi SS killed him after he took a walk one night and wandered into the "Aryan" section of town, Drohobycz. The Lincoln Center Festival of 1998 presented a drama entitled "The Street of Crocodiles/ A Dance of the Mind," which is based on the writings and artwork of Bruno Schulz.

Edith Altman, who was just a child when the Holocaust began, and who managed to escape to the United States before the worst of it, had a unique way of expressing her views on the Holocaust. Altman seemed to see her role as a shaman, acting with artistic powers to reclaim inverted symbols and words. Throwing the spectator into the shaman's chamber, Altman tried to reach her viewers indirectly. "On one wall, a dominant giant gold swastika, with its mirror image, now in the familiar black Nazi color, rested on the floor. …detached elements of the Star of David, a shape made of triangles, used in different colors by the Nazis to identify other groups of prisoners: Communists, Gypsies, and homosexual…" ("Edith Altman" 1).

Because of the documentary value inherent to every artwork associated with the Holocaust, the use of the artwork as a teaching tool for both adults and children has become common. For children, there is presented therein an opportunity to experience the horror that is implicit and necessary in the strength of the images and the (mostly monochromatic) drawing style ("Understanding the Holocaust…" 24). Also, using and creating art about the Holocaust and, more generally, genocide, has made the subject more approachable for discussion of its immorality in homes and schools. Some students wrote poetry in response to the artwork of the Holocaust.

When the Holocaust's horrors subsided, the art inspired by the experience was far from its denoument. For example, sculptor Yigal Tumarkin, who was born in Germany in 1933, but emigrated before the war, uses and has been using his art in an effort to find some sort of reconciliation between the Germans and the Palestinians. Many of his monuments dedicated to the Holocaust have been erected in Israel, the United States, and Europe.

Akiva Kenneth Segan, a graduate of an American university, class of 1979, is also still working diligently to show how real people were affected by the Holocaust. Segan's art shows strength in people instead of their suffering, giving his works more of a feeling of hope than others. Segan's art consists mostly of drawings of people from the Warsaw ghetto and from Polish uprising. Segan and his artwork exemplify his agent's claim, "The Holocaust left impressions on everyone," (Lyon 1).

There is currently a controversy surrounding artworks created before the holocaust that were housed in the homes of Jews who were made part of the final solution. Many Nazis stole, looted, or destroyed paintings and drawings from the homes from which Jews had been ousted. Museums, art collectors, and Jewish rights advocates are working diligently and successfully to trace the owners of artworks or their heirs, and return the property to its owner. In 1997, the World Jewish Congress formed a Commission for Art Recovery, whose mission is to collect information on stolen art and to broker agreements between competing claimants. All of these artworks have become a symbol of people's attempts at reconciliation with the Jewish peoples for the wrongs that were done to them.

Overall, many people would not expect to have the hand made images of the Holocaust play such a momentous role in the Holocaust in so many ways. As a historically remarkable event, art about the Holocaust is used to teach those who were not present, to make the horrors real, and to complete the closure process. The art of the Holocaust is a thing that is incomparable to anything else in the history or art world because of its combination of the two fields.