Penny Aldrich and the 2015 Holocaust Essay Contest Winners
Art in the Holocaust
History’s most triumphant and catastrophic moments have all been documented in the form of art, from the marble statues of Caesar’s conquests to oil paintings of great European revolutions. Artwork does not only capture events as they occurred factually, but also has the ability to preserve the artist’s attitude and perspective on their subject matter, allowing historians insight into social trends and attitudes of the times. Art does not simply record history; it humanizes it, and the humanization of individuals in history is essential to understanding how the events of the past occurred– whether they be glorious or destructive. Arguably one of the most disastrous periods of history was the Holocaust. Every year, students in public schools across the country are taught the same facts about the horrors of this time period: that nearly 11 million people, 6 million of them Jewish, were killed through systematic genocide; that these victims were typically forced into ghetto cities before being transported to concentration camps and committed to forced labor; that so many of them perished without the luxury of having their stories shared with the world. This information can be gleaned from textbooks and objective historical accounts, but the gravity of the millions of lives lost during the Holocaust cannot be conveyed merely through facts and numbers. The study and reflection of art made in the ghettos and camps of the Holocaust allows the tragedy and horror of the catastrophe to be kept alive and its victims properly venerated as individuals rather than as statistics.
Works of art created by Holocaust victims during their plight are crucial to the study and investigation of the experience of Jews during this time. During World War II, German artwork was created prolifically in the form of propaganda, the goal of which was to convince the public of the threat of Jewish subversion. Prior to legislative or executive action taken against Jews, the German government utilized propaganda to conjure atmospheres of intolerance and violence against Jewish citizens, which eased the Nazi’s path to antisemitic slaughter and European conquest. Art as propaganda helped to create a society of bystanders to a horrific crime against humanity, and purposefully distorted the truth to deceive the public: many posters and pamphlets circulated that accused Jews of being “parasites” of the world, and urged the acceptance of “the Aryan law.” In contrast, art created by Jews during the holocaust now provides a counter to the fallaciousness distributed by the Nazi regime; this art tells the story from the perspective of the victim, a vantage that is rarely shared in the course of history. The artwork made by Jews not only documented their experience, but also acted as a form of spiritual resistance against their oppressors.
The majority of artwork created by victims of the holocaust was created in the city of Terezin, which was later converted into the Theresienstadt labor camp. The settlement was neither strictly a ghetto nor a concentration camp, and served as an important piece of propaganda in its own right. The Nazis publically stated that the camp was actually a “spa town” in which elderly German Jews would be able to “retire” in peace and safety. In reality, the camp was a holding facility for Czech Jews who were to be transported to killing centers and forced-labor warehouses in German-occupied Poland, Belorussia, and the Baltic States. Theresienstadt also served the purpose as a ghetto-labor camp for certain categories of Jews, based on past military service or high reputation in the arts and other cultural spheres. In spite of inhumane living conditions and the ever-present threat of deportation to death camps, the high population of artists and performers at Theresienstadt allowed a rich cultural life to develop. The camp was the site of concerts, performances, poetry readings, and the composition and creation of musical and visual artworks. At least four concert orchestras were organized within the camp, as well as numerous jazz ensembles and chamber groups. Theresienstadt has gained the attention of modern historians for its extensive collection of children’s drawings and paintings. Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a prominent artist from the prestigious Bauhaus School of Design, was transported to the camp in December of 1942, where she established several art schools for children living in the ghetto. An estimated 600 young students attended her classes over her two-year imprisonment in the camp, during which at least 5000 works of art were created. Of the 60 child artists that have been identified by historians, only four survived the Holocaust; the rest, along with Dicker-Brandeis herself, were deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz on October 6, 1944. The artwork crafted by Dicker-Brandeis’s students is testimony to the bravery of the children and the teachers who, in the face of fear and hopelessness, continued to create beauty and life through their art.
Art was not only used as a coping mechanism for those struggling with the brutality of life in the holocaust; for some, it was their only way to escape their own demise. The Belgian artist Fernand Van Horen, known more commonly by his pseudonym Horn, was arrested by the Gestapo on February 24, 1943. After gaining national success for his illustrations featured in the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, Van Horen had joined the Secret Army and joined the fight against Nazi occupation of Belgium. Alone in his cell, awaiting judgement from the Gestapo, he scavenged a few exercise books, a pencil, and a pencil sharpener, and used his “imagination and drawings” to “escape” from his prison. He was soon transported to Esterwegen, a camp in a swampy region of Germany, where he drew portraits of each of his hundreds of imprisoned comrades in exchange for art supplies. After two years there, he was sent to Floseenbürg, a “hell” of a death camp where he toiled in forced manual labor. Surrounded by near-daily hangings, shootings, and gas executions, Van Horen would likely have perished in the camp, if it were not for “a miracle” that came to him in the form of a proposition from a Nazi guard. Discovering Van Horen’s stash of drawings he had made in his Gestapo prison and in Estwergen, the guard bargained that in exchange for his freedom from the work team, Van Horen would draw his portrait and fill his room with his famous illustrations. However, before he was able to accept, American GI’s broke into the camp and liberated its prisoners on April 23, 1945. In his relief, Van Horen asked one soldier to sit while he drew his portrait in celebration of his newfound freedom. Impressed by his technical mastery, American soldiers were soon “all asking for a portrait,” and Van Horen could not help but to oblige. Fernand Van Horen’s story of survival is a reminder of art’s power to restore and preserve humanity. Even in the turmoil of the death camps, Van Horen’s creativity and artistic spirit kept him living and inspired.
During the Holocaust, art took many different forms: some deceitful and violent, others honest and heartfelt. Reflecting upon these works of art allows the perspectives of the victims to be shared with the world, and gives a voice to those whose stories would otherwise go unheard.
- Van Horen, Fernand. “”How a Drawing Saved My Life”” org. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.
- “Theresienstadt: Cultural Life.” org. United States Holocaust Memorial Council, 20 June 2014. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.
- “Theresienstadt.” org. United States Holocaust Memorial Council, 20 June 2014. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.
- “Art of the Holocaust.” Http://fcit.usf.edu/. A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust, 2013. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.
- “Learning About the Holocaust Through Art.” holocaust-education.net. World ORT, 2013. Web. 21 Jan. 2015.
- Soderburg, Wendy. “Inmates’ Once-hidden Artwork Offers Poignant Look at Concentration Camp Life.” ucla.edu. UCLA Newsroom, 21 June 2013. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.
Raphael Lemkin, Genocide, and the Holocaust
In the publication of his book in 1944, Raphael Lemkin created a term for the atrocities of the Holocaust: “genocide.” He had found it difficult to describe to others the dire situation which was occurring due to a lack of terminology available. How was it possible to describe what was happening to the Jews in Europe? How could one word summarize the countless lives cut short and the amount of grief that the systematic killing of a race causes? It cannot. There is no way to tell all of the 6 million stories with one word. However, Lemkin’s coining of the term “genocide” gave the ability to hold those responsible accountable for a specific crime. By naming this idea, Lemkin made genocide tangible. He made it something that people could try and prevent.
Lemkin spent his life advocating for those who had experienced the horrors of genocide by trying to indict the oppressors. He played a key role in the Nuremburg trials and worked with the United Nations to help prevent genocide. However, with Lemkin’s death in 1959, there was still no end to genocide. This horrible crime did not stop with the bureaucratic killing of Jews in Europe. It did not end when American troops liberated Jakob Blankitny and many other survivors, although much too late to rescue millions of others. Genocide is not ancient history. It is still present today.
In 1994 there was a genocide which resulted in the deaths of 800,000 people: the Rwandan genocide. The ethnic group the Hutus were a majority in Rwanda. With mounting economic and societal pressures on the country, the Hutu elite looked for a scapegoat. They found it in the ethnic minority group the Tutsis. Many Tutsi people were killed in their homes. Women were raped. Often, roadblocks were set up to find Tutsis. The killing stopped only after a Tutsi rebelled group overthrew the regime and President Kagame gained control of the country.
The United States and many other countries were fully aware of the situation in Rwanda, yet took no steps to prevent it. The United States did not hold the Rwandan government responsible for these crimes. They even hesitated to use the word genocide at all, with the fear that it would require their intervention. A few Belgian and UN troops were present in Rwanda but they eventually pulled out. This lack of international pressure and aid is appalling. It is unforgivable that major powers let a major genocide such as this occur without any action against it.
If Raphael Lemkin were still alive, and he was asked why the Holocaust was relevant today, I think he would get a funny look on his face. How isn’t the Holocaust relevant today? In the Rwandan genocide, America took no action against the crimes committed. It is apparent that we still need to remember the Holocaust. We need to remember the stories of the survivors and those who lost their lives. And, we need to use this history to produce action. We need to continue the fight that Lemkin started and work to prevent genocides worldwide.
January, Brendan. Genocide: Modern Crimes against Humanity. Minneapolis, MN: Twenty-First Century, 2007. Print.
“Rwanda: 100 Days of Slaughter.” BBC News. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.
“United Human Rights Council.” United Human Rights Council. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2015.
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. United States Holocaust Memorial Council, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2015.