Holocaust art endures at Israel’s Yad Vashem museum
Most people skip the little art gallery at Israel’s Holocaust museum Yad Vashem because they think it will be too depressing.
After an emotionally draining tour through a maze of testimonies and artifacts, few have the stamina to look at so-called Holocaust Art, which seems to promise only more dark images of death and destruction: skeletal shapes emerging from smokestacks, hollowed eyes looking through barbed wire, piles of emaciated corpses.
So it’s a surprise that Yad Vashem’s little-known art museum is actually a respite, offering an unexpected glimpse into how a group of persecuted artists, facing one of the 20th century’s ugliest chapters, managed to secretly produce a body of work that was often quiet, understated and beautiful.
“The exciting part is this takes us away from all the clichés we know,” said Yehudit Shendar, senior art curator of the world’s largest collection of works produced by Jews and other victims of Nazi occupation between 1933 and 1945. “These artists created beautiful, aesthetically gratifying images that are in total contrast to what is going to happen to them.”
As part of an effort to challenge stereotypes and focus attention on the higher-caliber art created during the Holocaust era, the gallery highlights the work of artists such as Felix Nussbaum, who painted in hiding in Belgium until he was arrested in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed.
Through symbolism and a touch of surrealism, Nussbaum conveys his isolation and loneliness in paintings such as “Camp Synagogue,” depicting five faceless worshippers at a tin-roof shack against a barren landscape. Their prayer shawls are upside-down to reflect the topsy-turvy world; a stripped bone testifies to their hunger. “He wants to make you work a little to understand,” Shendar said. “Artists don’t use clichés. They have more sophisticated form of transmitting reality through a filter.”
Another of her favorites is German painter Charlotte Salomon, who produced hundreds of autobiographical works while living in Nazi-occupied France as a young woman. Her primary work, which she titled “Life? Or Theater?” formed a sort of visual diary that some liken to Anne Frank’s.
Some of her paintings are dark and chaotic, but on display at the gallery are a rare collection of soft watercolors of French villas and beach scenes. She was killed in Auschwitz in 1943 at age 26, cutting short a career that some speculate might have placed her among the leading 20th century artists.
“Often the impetus of these artists was to cling to beauty, even on the precipice of death,” Shendar said. “It allowed them to say the sky was still blue and the flowers were blooming, in spite of what they saw. In some cases, this is what was saving the artist from drowning in reality.”
Even in ghettos and camps, where artists had to scramble for paper and unauthorized art was punishable by death, the majority of the pieces that survived — hidden under floor boards and buried in the dirt — do not convey the full horror of the situation. Though some graphic depictions survived camps such as Auschwitz and Buchenwald, most Holocaust-era paintings and sketches focused on everyday camp life, portraits and landscapes.
After the war ended and camps were liberated, surviving artists were able to more fully confront and express their experiences in their work. This contrast between Holocaust and post-Holocaust art is apparent in Yad Vashem’s recent Virtues of Memory exhibition of survivors’ art. Here, expressive and colorful works portray stark, disturbing scenes of naked bodies, burning ghettos and beatings by soldiers. In one, a fist raised in defiance displays a tattooed forearm.
“Only after liberation could people express themselves more freely,” said Pnina Rosenberg, an art historian and former curator at Israel’s Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, which also contains a large collection of Holocaust-era art. “When you are living it, you don’t see the end. Only later, when you look at it in perspective, can you grasp the whole picture.”
Israel is the center of Holocaust art, led by Yad Vashem’s 10,000-piece collection (the gallery opened in 2005). Shendar continues to add about 300 pieces a year, mostly donated from survivors’ families or uncovered during accidental finds in attics. Holocaust art began to be recognized as a distinct field in the 1980s but has not received widespread acceptance, partly because the subject matter is so difficult.
Some artists viewed their work as a form of escape, enabling them to maintain a sense of human dignity. Prague artist Charlotte Buresova, for example, depicted graceful young women dancing in polka-dot skirts, hardly a common scene at the Terezin work camp where she was deported. Her portraits, including one of a rosy-cheeked baby, sometimes intentionally masked reality.
Such images were a form of self-preservation, according to Hebrew University art professor and author Ziva Amishai-Maisels. “People wanted to be remembered looking good, not with shaved heads,” she said. “To stay alive, you needed a positive attitude.”
Israeli artist Yehuda Bacon, who learned to draw as a 13-year-old boy at the same Terezin camp, said fear of being caught led artists to downplay the harsh reality. After Nazis learned about Terezin’s thriving underground art scene, several artists were tortured and sent to death camps.
“Anyone who could get their hands on a pencil wanted to leave witness to what they saw,” said Bacon, now living in Jerusalem. “But many things were forbidden to draw. You would be killed on the spot.”
Some art was officially sanctioned by the Nazis, who used Jewish artists to illustrate charts or decorate greeting cards. One Nazi commander in modern-day Ukraine ordered Jewish artist Bruno Schulz to paint his children’s playroom with images from fairy tales. In an act of secret subversion, Schulz painted his own family members’ faces as some of Snow White’s dwarfs and himself as one of Cinderella’s horsemen.Though Schulz’s subversion was not detected, he was shot in the head by a Nazi soldier a few months later.
Sanders is The Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief.