A tragic canvas

Holocaust art works stored at Yad Vashem are unveiled in Germany ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

‘Boulevard Des Misères,’ by Leo Kok, Westerbork Camp, 1944 (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
‘Boulevard Des Misères,’ by Leo Kok, Westerbork Camp, 1944
(photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Yad Vashem recently shipped 100 works, created by Jewish artists during the Holocaust, to Berlin for display at the Deutsche Historisches Museum in Berlin.
The Art from the Holocaust exhibition, which will open on January 25, was initiated by German national daily Bild and is being held in collaboration with the Bonn-based Foundation for Art and Culture. It is the closing slot in the long line of high-profile events that have taken place over the past 12 months to mark the 50th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Israel and Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will officially open the exhibition, with Yad Vashem chairman Avner Shalev in attendance. The show opens to the general public on January 26 and closes on April 3.
The works were made using a variety of materials and disciplines, and are divided into a number of categories – Reality, Portraits, Transcendence. They were all made under extremely trying conditions, generally clandestinely, and miraculously survived, unlike many of their creators.
The vast majority of the paintings and drawings exude a sense of sadness and desperation, although there are some – primarily the ones in the Transcendence category – which either hark back to happier times or served as a means of fleeting escape from the artist’s cruel reality, by portraying a fantasy scene of a happier and more colorful world.
'The Evacuation,' by Ben Zion (Nolik) Schmidt, Kovno Ghetto, 1942 (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
AROUND HALF of the 50 artists perished at the hands of the Nazis, either in concentration camps or in ghettos.
They were of all ages. Many were in their 30s or 40s, but some were much younger, far too young to be producing works of such paralyzing angst, and to have witnessed such horrors.
Ben Zion (Nolik) Schmidt, for example, was only 17 when he painted a watercolor and ink picture depicting the expulsion of Jews from the Kovno Ghetto in 1942, while 21-year-old Leo Kok’s watercolor and pencil scene of the main thoroughfare of Westerbork concentration camp in the Netherlands is a definitive portrayal of grimness.
Petr Ginz was aged somewhere between 14 and 16 when he produced Mountain Scene in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, in which he conjures up childhood memories of the Tatra Mountains, which straddle the border between Slovakia and Poland, while eight-yearold Nelly Toll’s Girls in the Field and By the Piano appear to be the product of, as yet, unsullied childish imagination.
Toll is the only artist featured in the exhibition who is still alive. She and her mother were saved by a non-Jewish couple in Lvov, Poland, spending 13 months in a small bedroom.
'Dwellings in the Youth Barracks,’ by Petr Ginz, Theresienstadt Ghetto, 1943 (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
While all the works that will be on display in Berlin from next week come from Yad Vashem’s vast Holocaust art collection, not all of them will be familiar to visitors to the Jerusalem museum. In quantitative terms, they comprise just a smattering of the close to 10,000 Holocaust works stored at Yad Vashem and, says curator Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, were chosen for a variety of reasons.
“They represent the spectrum of works that were made during the Holocaust, and they are all fine creations. In fact, you could say that the pieces in the exhibition are some of the gems from our collection.”
The idea was also to give the German public some idea of the range of the material in the Yad Vashem vaults.
“We wanted to show the various and the different styles we have in our collection,” continues Moreh-Rosenberg. “There are some important pieces there, regardless of the Holocaust context.”
ONE OF the more prominent artists in the Berlin show is German-Jewish surrealist painter Felix Nussbaum, who was born at Osnabrück on December 11, 1909, and died at Auschwitz on August 9, 1944.
“Nussbaum is an important artist who, in the last 20 years, has won global acclaim outside the context of Holocaust art,” says the curator, adding that the tragic circumstances in which the works of Nussbaum and the others featured in Art from the Holocaust came into being are not a factor in appraising the quality of the end product.
“If we relate to these works solely as Holocaust art, we are, in fact, limiting these artists. None of them ever defined themselves as such, and they did not want to be remembered like that. The circumstances later dictated the context in which we remember them, but they were, first and foremost, artists per se.
“Some of them had to break out of the Holocaust bracket in order to come to the attention of the general public. Felix Nussbaum is one of them.”
'In Memory of our Destroyed Synagogues in Germany,’ by Ludwig Meidner, November 10, 1938, London (photo credit: YAD VASHEM)
Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Nussbaum pertained to the New Objectivity artistic school of thought, which took a non-sentimental and pragmatic approach to art, literature, architecture and music.
Nussbaum and his wife found a hideaway in Belgium prior to being caught by the Nazis, and his works were retrieved by one of the artist’s cousins, who lived in Israel, after a protracted legal battle. Today, there is a museum devoted to Nussbaum’s oeuvre in his birthplace of Osnabrück in northwest Germany.
One of the other more prominent artists on the Berlin exhibition roster is expressionist painter and printmaker Ludwig Meidner, who was born in Poland but worked in Germany, including a stint as an arts teacher at a Jewish school in Cologne.
He managed to escape to Britain in 1939, together with his artist wife, Else, where he was interned as an enemy alien. He remained in Britain until 1953, although his artistic endeavor remained unrecognized, and returned to Germany that year.
He died there in 1966, three years after major shows of his works were mounted in Recklinghausen, in western Germany, and Berlin. They were Meidner’s first exhibitions in Germany since 1918.
Meidner’s contribution to the current Berlin show is called “In Memory of our Destroyed Synagogues in Germany, November 10, 1938.” The titular date refers to Kristallnacht, which the artist witnessed in Cologne.
The chalk-and-charcoal drawing was produced in London in 1939 and includes a reference to Rembrandt’s iconic painting Belshazzar’s Feast, which is now in the National Gallery in the British capital.
Meidner’s quotation from the Dutch master is designed to compare the burning of the synagogues in Nazi Germany and Austria with the destruction of the First Temple. That was the artist’s way of expressing his hope for an end to the Third Reich, in the same way that the Babylonian Empire eventually disintegrated.
The Yad Vashem art collection includes works created before, during and after the Holocaust. Unsurprisingly, Moreh-Rosenberg says she was keen for visitors to the forthcoming Berlin exhibition to get some sense of the output of Jewish artists who found themselves creating art in unimaginably harsh conditions.
“I think that the works made during the actual period [of the Holocaust] have some special power. We have some works that were made literally days after the artists were liberated, or in DP camps. They are riveting, but I feel that works that were created even one day after liberation have something different about them. Something changed.”
The curator says the German public and tourists can expect to undergo a powerful experience at the Deutsche Historisches Museum over the next couple of months.
“The element that comes through most powerfully in these works is the indomitable spirit of man. Regardless of the subject matter, the styles or materials they used, at the end of the day all the artists share the same unflinching spirit.”
For more information: https://www.dhm.de/en/ ausstellungen/preview/art-from-the-holocaust.html