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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
Jerusalem’s 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
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 show’s
co-curator with Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg points out,
aesthetically powerful works on their own terms. The

” says Smerling. was able to paint secretly in the Theresienstadt ghetto. is on the floor.” Fantl was deported to Auschwitz. with blood on his hands. We asked him to explain the stories behind some of their selections. destroyed. “He portrays Hitler as a clown. “We selected works according to artistic considerations.” He adds: “You have to imagine his fearlessness and resistant sense of humour – to criticise the person responsible for his situation shortly before death.” says Smerling. Jerusalem) . who is also the head of the Foundation of Art and Culture. Fantl. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum. thanks to a Czech policeman who gave him the materials he needed. and murdered by the Nazis in January 1945.curators winnowed down the selection from a shortlist of several hundred. A Czech worker later smuggled his works out of the ghetto and concealed them in a wall. it was immediately a must-have. 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. in occupied Czechoslovakia.” Smerling explains. “When I saw this work. along with his wife and son. “and the instrument on which he played the melodies with which he deceived an entire people. and chose works that provoked us and made us wonder what story was behind the image. a doctor who was born in Prague in 1903. Pavel Fantl.

where can I work and exist?’” says Smerling. by pointing to the position of the refugee asking himself where he can go. 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.” says Smerling. the best-known artist in the exhibit.Felix Nussbaum. ‘Where can I go in this world. where can I live. The Refugee (1939) Nussbaum. together with his wife. “In the painting. it was transferred to private hands and sold at auction. “today we have many people asking the same thing. Nussbaum sent the painting to his father in Amsterdam. he asks himself. and after the murder of Nussbaum’s father in Auschwitz in 1944. Jerusalem) . “The painting hints at our current time. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum.” Nussbaum was ultimately murdered in Auschwitz in 1944 at the age of 39.

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

about the encounter.” says Smerling. The painting depicts the freedom she yearns for. “It was a very nice symbol. and received a warm welcome from Angela Merkel. Toll came to Berlin from her home in New Jersey to attend the opening of the exhibit. she painted this image at the age of eight while being hidden by a Christian family with her mother. Born in Lviv in what is today Ukraine. Girls in the Field (1943) Nelly Toll is the only surviving artist from the exhibition. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum.” says Smerling. Jerusalem) .Nelly Toll. “It was important for me to get to know the artist and talk to her.

(1941-1944) Rear Entrance Of the more than 140.Bedrich Fritta.” (Credit: Yad Vashem/Gift of the Prague Committee for Documentation) . there is no visible alternative.” says Smerling. “He shows architecture and empty nature as a stage for an event that is itself invisible. the only way out is into the darkness. He and his group of fellow ghetto artists bricked their works into walls before their arrest.000 died. Bedrich Fritta was born in Bohemia in 1906 and was sent to Theresienstadt before being murdered in Auschwitz in 1944. approximately 120.000 people deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto between November 1941 and May 1945. “The half-open gate is a metaphor for death.

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

you see death and the organisation of death before you. “What an incredible image.Leo Haas. who survived the war. and you still think about victory. Transport Arrival. Haas used the motif of the birds of prey to suggest the ominous presence of death.” says Smerling. like this representation of a transport. a symbol of underground resistance. “But he also created these ink representations that are very composed and arranged. 1942 Haas. was drafted by the Theresienstadt ghetto’s selfadministration to make architectural drawings for its construction management. Like Nussbaum. He also painted the letter ‘V’ in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting.” (Credit: Yad Vashem/ Gift of the Prague Committee for Documentation) .

Salomon was born in Berlin. Jerusalem) . she seems to have something of the inner turmoil of the artist herself. the colour in the face. and sent to Auschwitz. a US millionaire. She continued painting during her exile. (Credit: Yad Vashem Art Museum. where she was murdered. in southern France. and after the Kristallnacht joined her grandparents on an estate owned by Ottilie Moore.Charlotte Salomon.” says Smerling. “In the self-portrait everything seems to be in movement. during which she produced this self-portrait. She was five months pregnant at the time. Salomon was arrested by the Gestapo with her husband in September 1943. in the town of Villefranche. (1939-1941) Self-portrait Salomon has three works in the exhibit. including this self-portrait.