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A new exhibition in Berlin explores the grim realities of life for Jews in

Nazi camps and ghettoes. Thomas Rogers meets one of its curators.

By Thomas Rogers

3 February 2016

A historic new exhibit, Art from the Holocaust, opened in


the rear wing of the German Historical Museum in Berlin
last week. For the first time ever, art from the collection of
Jerusalems Yad Vashem Museum is being shown outside
in Germany. The exhibit features 100 works, mostly
drawings and paintings, by Jewish inmates of labour
camps, ghettoes and concentration camps. Many of the
works portray the dark realities of day-to-day life in Nazi
imprisonment. The fact that the works survived to the
present day is, in most cases, a miracle: many were
hidden or smuggled out at great risk by friends of the
artists.
The show, which is timed to coincide with the 50th
anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations
between Germany and Israel, comes at a moment of
growing concern about the rise in anti-Semitism across
Europe. As Angela Merkel opened the exhibit on Monday,
she told reporters that she hoped the exhibit would send a
message to new arrivals to Germany from countries
where hatred of Israel and Jews is widespread.
But the works are also, regardless of their current political
context, deeply moving testaments to human resilience
and the power of art, and, as Walter Smerling, the shows
co-curator with Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg points out,
aesthetically powerful works on their own terms. The

curators winnowed down the selection from a shortlist of


several hundred. We selected works according to artistic
considerations, and chose works that provoked us and
made us wonder what story was behind the image, says
Smerling, who is also the head of the Foundation of Art
and Culture. We asked him to explain the stories behind
some of their selections.

Pavel Fantl, The Song is Over


(1941-1944)
This coloured drawing by Pavel Fantl is one of the few works in the exhibit that shows the
Nazis themselves. When I saw this work, it was immediately a must-have, says
Smerling. Fantl, a doctor who was born in Prague in 1903, was able to paint secretly in
the Theresienstadt ghetto, in occupied Czechoslovakia, thanks to a Czech policeman
who gave him the materials he needed. He portrays Hitler as a clown, Smerling
explains, and the instrument on which he played the melodies with which he deceived an
entire people, is on the floor, destroyed, with blood on his hands. He adds: You have to
imagine his fearlessness and resistant sense of humour to criticise the person
responsible for his situation shortly before death. Fantl was deported to Auschwitz, along
with his wife and son, and murdered by the Nazis in January 1945. A Czech worker later
smuggled his works out of the ghetto and concealed them in a wall. (Credit: Yad Vashem
Art Museum, Jerusalem)

Felix Nussbaum, The Refugee


(1939)
Nussbaum, the best-known artist in the exhibit, was arrested in Belgium in 1940 after
which he escaped and went into hiding in Brussels with his wife. His painting The
Refugee shows the isolation of the wandering German Jew. In the painting, he asks
himself, Where can I go in this world, where can I live, where can I work and exist? says
Smerling. Nussbaum sent the painting to his father in Amsterdam, and after the murder of
Nussbaums father in Auschwitz in 1944, it was transferred to private hands and sold at
auction. The painting hints at our current time, by pointing to the position of the refugee
asking himself where he can go, says Smerling, today we have many people asking the
same thing. Nussbaum was ultimately murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 39,
together with his wife. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem)

Moritz Mller, Rooftops in the


Winter (1944)
Moritz Mller studied painting in Prague, later founding an auction house. It was forcibly
closed after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. He produced over 500 works during his
time in the Theresienstadt ghetto and in Rooftops in Winter, he depicts Theresienstadts
snow-covered roofs as a peaceful idyll. This is one of the most noteworthy pieces,
because it shows no people the ghettos were totally overpopulated, says Smerling. It
has multiple meanings, on the one side its a beautiful winter landscape, and on the other,
there is the horror that exists behind it. The widow of an Austrian officer later purchased
some of Mllers paintings, hiding them in her house. Mueller was murdered in Auschwitz
in 1944. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem)

Nelly Toll, Girls in the Field (1943)


Nelly Toll is the only surviving artist from the exhibition. Born in Lviv in what is today
Ukraine, she painted this image at the age of eight while being hidden by a Christian
family with her mother. The painting depicts the freedom she yearns for. It was important
for me to get to know the artist and talk to her, says Smerling. Toll came to Berlin from
her home in New Jersey to attend the opening of the exhibit, and received a warm
welcome from Angela Merkel. It was a very nice symbol, says Smerling, about the
encounter. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem)

Bedrich Fritta,
(1941-1944)

Rear

Entrance

Of the more than 140,000 people deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto between
November 1941 and May 1945, approximately 120,000 died. Bedrich Fritta was born in
Bohemia in 1906 and was sent to Theresienstadt before being murdered in Auschwitz in
1944. He and his group of fellow ghetto artists bricked their works into walls before their
arrest. The half-open gate is a metaphor for death, there is no visible alternative, the only
way out is into the darkness, says Smerling. He shows architecture and empty nature as
a stage for an event that is itself invisible. (Credit: Yad Vashem/Gift of the Prague
Committee for Documentation)

Karl Bodek and Kurt Conrad Lw,


One Spring (1941)
Smerling and his co-curator made One Spring the exhibits central image despite its tiny
size. A collaboration between two artists interned in the Gurs Camp in southern France,
the painting shows a butterfly on barbed wire with a distant view of the mountains on the
Spanish border. I found it incredibly impressive that two people made such a small
painting. It represents their self-assertion as people and artists, and articulates their will to
survive and their hope for the future. Kurt Lw, from Vienna, was ultimately able to flee
into Switzerland from France, but Bordek, from Chernivisti, was sent to Auschwitz and
murdered. One of them ended up with the role of the butterfly, the other did not. (Credit:
Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem)

Leo Haas, Transport Arrival, 1942


Haas, who survived the war, was drafted by the Theresienstadt ghettos selfadministration to make architectural drawings for its construction management. But he
also created these ink representations that are very composed and arranged, like this
representation of a transport, says Smerling. Like Nussbaum, Haas used the motif of the
birds of prey to suggest the ominous presence of death. He also painted the letter V in
the bottom left-hand corner of the painting, a symbol of underground resistance. What an
incredible image, you see death and the organisation of death before you, and you still
think about victory. (Credit: Yad Vashem/ Gift of the Prague Committee for
Documentation)

Charlotte Salomon,
(1939-1941)

Self-portrait

Salomon has three works in the exhibit, including this self-portrait. Salomon was born in
Berlin, and after the Kristallnacht joined her grandparents on an estate owned by Ottilie
Moore, a US millionaire, in the town of Villefranche, in southern France. She continued
painting during her exile, during which she produced this self-portrait. In the self-portrait
everything seems to be in movement, the colour in the face, she seems to have
something of the inner turmoil of the artist herself, says Smerling. Salomon was arrested
by the Gestapo with her husband in September 1943, and sent to Auschwitz, where she
was murdered. She was five months pregnant at the time. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art
Museum, Jerusalem)