New exhibit in New York allows artists to tell their Holocaust stories

Rendering Witness features a mixture of works by people who survived and people who perished during the Holocaust.

‘Children’s home’ was drawn by Helga Weissova, who was sent to Terezin at age 12 and is now lives in Prague.  (photo credit: MUSEUM OF JEWISH HERITAGE)
‘Children’s home’ was drawn by Helga Weissova, who was sent to Terezin at age 12 and is now lives in Prague.
NEW YORK – When Helga Weissova was 12 years old, the Nazis deported her and her parents to the Terezin Ghetto. Precocious and resourceful, the budding artist brought enough art supplies that lasted nearly to the end of her internment.
During this terrible time, she smuggled her drawing of a snowman to her father Otto, who was housed in a different barrack. He advised her, “Draw what you see.” After that, she produced more than 100 drawings.
Now in her 90s, she lives in Prague and she is the sole survivor of the 11 artists whose bold and beautiful works are currently part of a new exhibit Rendering Witness: Holocaust-Era Art as Testimony at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial in New York’s Battery Park City.
Opened Wednesday and on display through July 5, the innovative exhibit features eye witness drawings made during and immediately after the Holocaust.
They retain an urgency and energy that can only be communicated by artists living through an event. Of the 21 artworks on display, 14 have never been presented before. It is miraculous that so many of these fragile works have endured. Rendering Witness features a mixture of works by people who survived and people who perished during the Holocaust.
Curatorial Associate Michael Morris who curated Rendering Witness, was moved by what he discovered in the Museum’s collection. He recalls initially rifling through 380 works to locate a few pieces to anchor the show that ranged from bright to dark following a loose chronology. He chose 21 pieces of art that could speak for themselves rather than alongside objects from the Holocaust.
Indeed, the third-floor gallery is self-contained and modest, making it an ideal setting in which to share intimate stories. The far wall, painted brown, reveals the climax of the show: three original works by Alfred Kantor.
“It is not the typical Holocaust imagery, and reflects the immediacy of the event, a primary source, so to speak, as these are people who lived it, it is what they saw and not documentation acquired through a Nazi lens,” he  said.
The works were produced in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary and Poland during the Holocaust, primarily in ghettos and a slave labor camp. The artists’ documentation followed the events as they unfolded around them, providing a personal layer to the visual culture of World War II.
“Rendering Witness demonstrates that every victim of the Holocaust has a personal story. We see a legacy from people who, under dire circumstances, were able to artistically document the Holocaust in their respective places, which includes the Lodz Ghetto, the Terezin Ghetto, Sömmerda slave labor camp, or immediately after the war,” he added.
The works are primarily on paper, with two on photographic paper, and made with pencil, colored pencils, ink, watercolor, wash and Conté crayons.
The exhibition includes works by two well-known artists, Helga Weissova and Kantor. Three other artists featured – Jo Spier, Alfred Lakos and Vincent Brauner – all had art careers prior to the Holocaust.
Some of these works were created by professional artists who were assigned to the technical department (which made plans and drawings of Terezin for official use) or the workshop for arts and crafts and utility painting. This gave them access to art supplies. Peter Loewenstein was a trained engineer; Johann Eisler studied art before the war; and Jo Spier, who was a well-known cartoonist and illustrator.
Among the selections are a child’s drawings of a barrack full of children, an American liberator’s paintings, and sketches drawn in secret by Jewish prisoners of the Nazis; and an entire wall is dedicated to Alfred Kantor’s three works as well as a reproduction of one of his pieces that is displayed in Auschwitz today.
In Sömmerda, a sub-camp of Buchenwald, a woman named Manci Anis secretly drew both prisoners and members of the SS with any paper she could find. Additionally, she drew portraits of fellow prisoner Susan Weiss, who kept them concealed beneath her uniform and mattress. Weiss survived. The fate of Anis is still unknown.
Drawings by Marvin Hayle are outliers in Rendering Witness. Hayle was a member of the 104th Infantry Division in the United States Army, which arrived at Nordhausen concentration camp in 1945 to find few prisoners and thousands of corpses. Shocked by what he saw, Hayle immediately began to draw.
Likewise, Martha von Peci, a prisoner in Terezin, worked as a housekeeper in Barracks L 126 and L 128 and collected art, poems and inscriptions in a book from fellow prisoners housed within. This book is on display.
Among the other works on view is a drawing by an unknown artist that shows when the Nazis deported over 15,000 Jews who were children, elderly, or sick from the Lodz Ghetto to Chelmno death camp in September 1942.
At the same time, some of the art depicts iconic scenes of the Holocaust, such as ghetto topographies and deportations, while other works are more introspective and include portraits of fellow prisoners and views from cramped bunks.
The fact that they were produced at all is a testimony to the power of art to assert one’s humanity and individuality thus putting a name to the faces rather than the Nazi strategy of characterizing their victims as faceless creatures.
Before deportations, some of the artists gave their artwork to friends and family for safekeeping. Loewenstein who was murdered in Auschwitz, gave his artwork to his mother. Johann Eisler, who was murdered in Flossenberg concentration camp, gave his artwork to his girlfriend. When Helga Weissova was deported from Terezin to Auschwitz, she gave her drawings to her uncle, who hid them behind a wall in the fortress town of Terezin.
Helga Weissova is still a working artist. In a museum note, she considered the snowman to be the last drawing she would create as a child.