Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, an artist who had been forced to paint portraits of fellow prisoners at the Auschwitz concentration camp and later sought to recover the artworks from a museum there, died Wednesday in Northern California.
Babbitt, 86, died of cancer at her home in Felton, near Santa Cruz, her daughter Michele Kane said.
Babbitt's long and unsuccessful campaign to retrieve the seven paintings of doomed Gypsy prisoners from a Polish state museum at Auschwitz became a rallying point for many other artists and Holocaust survivors. Although the museum recently sent Babbitt reproductions in what Kane acknowledged as "a kind gesture," that was not enough, Kane said.
Babbitt "was terribly sad and upset and so despondent that she never got her pictures back. 'Heartbroken' is the right word," Kane said.
The family pledged to continue fighting for the paintings, which Babbitt said helped save her life.
From her childhood in a Czech-Jewish family to her later success as a Hollywood animator, Babbitt was a witty, upbeat woman whose personality belied some of the tragedies she endured, said U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley, the Nevada Democrat and Babbitt family friend who worked on her cause.
"For her to continue this quest took not only a certain strength of character, but a very optimistic view of life, rather than a pessimistic view," Berkley said Friday.
Babbitt's wry humor was evident during a 2006 interview, when she showed the forearm scar where her concentration camp number had been tattooed. (She had it removed during an unrelated surgery.) The number, 61016, had a symmetry that she sometimes used to play the California Lottery. "It doesn't work," she quipped.
A young art student when she was deported to Auschwitz, Babbitt drew a "Snow White" scene on a wall of a children's barracks to help soothe the youngsters. Josef Mengele, the infamous Nazi doctor who performed hideous experiments on prisoners, heard of her talents and ordered her to paint portraits as mementos for his racist theories.
Babbitt said she told Mengele she would rather die if her mother was not also let out of a group of Jews scheduled to be gassed. Her mother was allowed to live. Her father and her fiance died elsewhere in the Holocaust.
Babbitt said she wanted to briefly hold the paintings, which bear her signature, and then lend them to a museum of her choice. "I wouldn't be alive if it hadn't been for those paintings, and my kids wouldn't be here," said Babbitt, who is also survived by another daughter, Karin Babbitt, and three grandchildren.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum insists it is the rightful home of the paintings, which it says it bought from camp survivors in the 1960s and '70s. Artifacts proving Holocaust history should be in their original setting, museum officials say.
Babbitt and her mother managed to survive Auschwitz and evacuation marches. After liberation, Babbitt went to Paris and became an assistant to American cartoonist Art Babbitt, one of Disney's "Snow White" animators. They married and moved to Hollywood and later divorced. Dina Babbitt worked in animation at various Hollywood studios.
Then, out of the blue in 1973, the Auschwitz museum notified her that it had the paintings. An official had noticed that the signatures matched those on Babbitt illustrations in an unrelated book. Stunned, she began her campaign, traveling to Poland and winning a supportive U.S. congressional resolution.
Babbitt's efforts represented "an important aspect" of Holocaust survivors' struggles for restitution and to regain property stolen from them, said Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a Washington-based organization active in her cause.
Medoff and celebrated comic book artist Neal Adams helped produce a six-page cartoon version of Babbitt's life that was published this year. Adams said Babbitt symbolized the struggle of an individual against an immoral state. "Now the woman has died and she doesn't have her paintings. That's the very worst part," Adams said.
After cremation, private services for Babbitt were held Friday and plans are pending for a public memorial.
A look at the past
Some of the original portraits and some re-creations can be viewed online.