by Santiago Raigorodsky
Santiago Raigorodsky was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December 1944, where he lived until 1975, when he moved to Brazil. There, he continued his artistic activity as a painter, working in many cities but especially in Rio de Janeiro and Curitiva. In 1982, he moved to Israel, in Kfar Saba, where he continued his artistic and also teaching activity. He currently lives in Barcelona. He is also the director of “Fine Arts – Jewish Artists” of the cultural association Tarbut Sefarad and author of countless art reviews and presentations of exhibitions of Jewish art.
Some time ago, I had the opportunity to see, in the La Pedrera building in Barcelona, a magnificent exhibition by Zoran Music, entitled “From Dachau to Venice”, that moved me deeply because of various reasons. I should confess my ignorance of Zoran Music’s existence, his works and personal history. I could see the abundance of the same motifs in many of his artworks, regardless of their excellence. As you would expect, many of his artworks were marked by the time he had spent incarcerated in the Dachau concentration camp. Terrible characters and scenes fill up his artworks and must have populated his life and remained engraved in his mind, as we can also learn from his writings. But Zoran Music, after passing through this terrible experience, was fortunate. He managed to stay alive and he lived to tell us of it, carrying on with his paintings. He chose to live in Venice, the place where he died a few years ago.
Nevertheless, the vision of his works brought to my mind several visits that I had made, in the past, to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and also the Lohamei Hagetaot Museum, located in the kibbutz with the same name (Fighters of the Ghetto). This is the reason why I felt the need to write this article, also motivated by some talks with several colleagues on the impossibility to know all the painting, all the painters. What we can see and know is, indisputably, only the tip of a huge iceberg.
How many painters, even important ones, did not have the chance to be engraved in art history, how many painters, like this one, saw their life and work reaped apart by the most terrible plague that happened to humanity, which is the lack of humanity itself. Nazism was an enormous tragedy for the whole world and the terrible and tragic consequences of this black episode in history, meant, undoubtedly, the greatest draw back in the history of civilization. Millions of lives were lost, among which the lives of black people, of gypsies, homosexuals, of the mentally challenged, the physically discapacitated and also millions of Jewish lives, only for being so.
With these few lines, I would like to rescue from oblivion several names of Jewish painters, who, in this case, were murdered in concentration camps.
We should go back to mid-1930’s of the last century, when the influence of Nazism in Europe first began to be noted. Paris, at that time, was the epicenter of the European artistic activity and the place where many painters, some of them Jewish, lived. In 1937, after the Nazis’ ascent to power, they organized, in a gallery of Munich, what they called a show of “degenerate art” that included some 650 works of avant-garde art by artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, Chagall, Kokoschka, Klee, Feininger, Arp and many more. The majority of these paintings were subsequently sold in international auctions so as to finance the Nazi regime.
Even before that, in 1933, being Goebbels minister of illustration and propaganda, he gained control over all the written press, the radical media and especially over all cultural manifestations of any kind. Propaganda, lack of freedom and brutal repression constituted the best tools to affirm the total control of the Nazi regime. The libraries were cleaned of all that was considered “harmful” to the regime, avant-garde art, expressionism was declared “degenerate art” and they imposed a type of art derived from Greek-Roman classicism that exalted myths and Arian heroism above all. Thousands of scientists, intellectuals and artists, Jewish and non-Jewish had to exile themselves, trying to escape from the claws of Nazism. But many of them did not manage to save themselves. During those years, countless artworks were destroyed and many others got stolen by the Nazi high-ranks officials, many of them with a refined education and good aesthetical knowledge.
Nowadays, many European governments and international institutions are engaged in the attempt of restituting a great amount of the artworks stolen by the Nazis to their true owners. In a perfectly documented book, entitled “The Lost Museum” (Destino Publishing House, November 2004), the portoriquan investigator Hector Feliciano told, during a visit to Madrid: ”Hitler and Goering, as soon as they had captured Paris, set up a unity of artistic plunder, a team of 60 people with license to confiscate, catalogue artworks and photograph paintings, transport them in the best conditions, including restoration if necessary, and they did not even despise the degenerate art, prohibited in Germany. The Nazis stole 203 private collections, in which, aside from 100.000 artworks, many of them masterpieces, there were also half a million of furniture pieces and a million books”.
The history of crimes and deprivations of the Nazi regime is appalling and all of them are very well supported by tons of testimonials and documents proving it, despite all the negationists who try to bury or delegitimize the horrifying truth of those facts. The tragedy of so many human beings, among them, of so many artists, is only an episode of this terrible moment in history.
A lesser known case is Theresienstadt. There, in the Checz city now called Terezin, some 60 km North of Prague, stood the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. In November 1941,
the Nazis built a walled ghetto where a great number of Jews were concentrated. Apart from the non-Jewish prisoners, they also imprisoned there Jews from Checoslovaquia, Germany, Austria, Holland, Denmark, Luxemburg, Hungary and many other countries. The twisted and evil mind of the Nazis inaugurated in Theresienstadt what was supposed to hide a huge operation of extermination of the Jews. Theresienstadt was meant to look like a “model Jewish colony” and they even recorded there a movie of propagandistic purposes, in an effort to show the world how well the regime treated the Jews. They explained that the Jews came to Theresienstadt voluntarily. The movie was called. “The Fürer offers a city to the Jews.” In June 1944, in the dying days of the regime, the Nazis allowed the visit of a delegation of the International Red Cross, for which, during a brief period, the life conditions improved. They installed cafés, nurseries, schools, even a bank, and certain cultural activity was allowed: conferences and study groups, a library and even opera and theatre.
In fact, the Nazis had gathered there a great number of writers, intellectuals and artists and forced them to work in the technical and graphical department in order to exploit their knowledge for their own good and hide the reality of the regime. Many of the painters imprisoned and abused there and in other concentration camps, like Auschwitz, were able to face the hard and cruel reality thanks to the possibility of expressing themselves through art.
In some occasions, there were the Nazi officials themselves who, aware of their talent, asked them to make their and their families’ portraits. They worked on the sly, risking their lives.
Many of the works created in the concentration camp reached us in a variety of ways. In reality, the Nazis began to search for these works in order to destroy them and make sure that the truth could never be revealed, because the paintings and drawings testified of the reality of the camps. The artists, knowing of the search, used to hide their works in many parts of the ghetto. Fritta, one of them, hid his artwork in a metallic box underneath the earth, Ungar in a niche he dug in a wall, Haas in an attic.
In Theresienstadt, a forth of the deportees (around 30.000) died (bear in mind that it was not an extermination camp), due to the harsh conditions, hunger and diseases. Towards the end of the war, some 88.000 persons were moved from there to Auschwitz and other extermination camps, where they were murdered.
Even at Auschwitz, between 1940 and 1945 thousands of artworks were created, and some 1500 of them are kept in the camp
museum, in Poland. Numerous testimonials of the appalling reality of the concentration camps were documented in countless sketches and paintings made by Jewish painters. Many of them died in the gas chambers.
In an exhibition organized in Berlin, in 2005, the great amount of artworks of artists who had been prisoners of Auschwitz showed scenes depicting the realities of the life there. The recurring motifs were self-portraits and portraits of prisoners in the striped uniforms or with the distinctive Star of David, and also scenes for practical purposes, like how to avoid the louse propagation in the ghetto, or for instance, lines of people waiting to be deported (unaware that the final destination would be death), aspects of the streets of the ghetto, ill people, dying or dead.
However, they also painted landscapes of the surroundings, idealized by the mind of the artist, and even some paintings with a tone of humor, caricature characters or skies and mountains or funny scenes and writings. Such was the case of the Checz Peter Kien, whose works are exhibited in the Theresienstadt Museum.
In 1978, the Swiss collector Oscar Ghez del Castelnuovo donated 137 artworks to the University of Haifa, which had been created by 18
painters who died in the Holocaust. This collection was a tribute to those artists and is part of the important archives that document the activity of those painters who belonged to what was called the Jewish School of Paris. This collection was exhibited in 2007, in the Hecht Museum of the University of Haifa. Naúm Arenson, from Latvia, Georges Ascher, born in Warsaw, Abraham Berline from Ukraine, Jacques Cytrynovich from Poland, Chaim Epstein from Poland, Shaul Feinsilber from Ukraine, Aizik Feder from Ukraine, Jacques Gotko from Ukraine, Nathan Greunsweig from Poland, Karl Haber, also Polish , Joseph Hecht from Poland, Max Jacob from Great Britain, the Checz George Kars, Moshe Kogan from Bessarabia, Nathalie Kraemer from France, Roman Kramsztyk from Poland, Joachim Weingart and León Weissber from Galitzia, these are the names of the 18 artists who were part of that exhibition. They were all murdered by the Nazis between 1942 – 1944, in various extermination camps. Of course, I cannot note down all the names of the painters who were killed during those terrible years, however I would like to write a few more: Peter Kien, who died in Auschwitz, has hundreds of drawings and watercolors in the Terezin Museum, Félix Nussbaum, Charlotte Salomón, Otto Ungar, Bedrich Fritta, Ferdinand Bloch, Malva Schalek, Jacobo Macznik, Samuel Granovsky, David Brainin, Amalie Seckbach, Julius Cohn, Karel Fleischmann, Savely Schleifer, Szymos Szerman, Jerzy Fuks and so many more who would fill up never-ending lists. Artists from all over Europe, from Germany, Ukraine, France, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and other countries were arrested by the Nazi troops, put away in concentration camps where most of them were exterminated with brutal haste.
A particular case was that of Petr Ginz, a 14-year old boy who was taken away from his parents and imprisoned in the Terezin concentration camp. Petr was a very talented child and he had already written 8 novels, many articles and made lots of drawings. In Terezin, Petr founded the clandestine magazine Vedem that included essays, poems, short stories and science articles. Petr spent, as testimonials show, his days of hunger and suffering painting and writing, creating images of a free world in which men could sail on the seas and fly to the moon. Petr Ginz, at 16 years old, two years after his imprisonment, was deported to Auschwitz where he died in the gas chamber. His dreams were preserved in 120 drawings that remained hidden in Theresienstadt. After the war, a surviving child took them from their hiding place and gave them to Ginz’s parents who were more fortunate than their son. When they arrived in Israel, they donated these drawings to the Yad Vashem where they were exhibited. Ginz’s parents also managed to rescue some of his writings, in the form of a diary, which remained undiscovered until February 1st 2003.
On that day, the Columbia space shuttle exploded, a tragedy which claimed the lives of its crew of 7 people, among them
the Israeli Ilan Ramon. Before the flight, Ramon had contacted the Yad Vashem Museum and asked to take with him an object related to the Holocaust, in order to render tribute to its victims, among whom was his own mother. He was given a drawing, Moonscape, by Petr Ginz, in which the Earth was shown as if seen from the Moon. The televisions broadcasted this drawing in the weeks following the tragedy.
Jiri Ruzicka, a resident of Prague, remembered having seen similar drawings in some old boxes. This is how many of Petr’s drawings and writings were discovered, which were afterwards published under the title “The Diary of Petr Ginz, 1941-1942”. As dramatic as Anna Frank’s diary, Petr’s reflects the harsh conditions imposed by the Nazi regime.
Fortunately, many artists were able to survive the Nazi horror and also give their own testimonials of what they lived through during those terrible years that remained forever engraved in their minds, bodies and souls. I would like to name some of them, as a tribute to their lives and their faith in art, which helped them to some extent to survive: Leo Haas, Otto Ungar, Charlote Buresova, Ester Lurie, Halina Olomucki, Karl Schwesig, Howard Oransky, Diana Kurz and many more who continued, without fatigue, to express their feelings through art.
Even if many of the painters and their drawings and paintings that I have mentioned here have more of a testimonial value, because of the poor conditions in which they worked, there are also many others of excellent artistic value.
Before the tragic accident of the Columbia space shuttle, Ilan Ramon said during a conference: “I feel that my journey fulfills the dream of Petr Ginz 58 years on. A dream that is ultimate proof of the greatness of the soul of a boy imprisoned within the ghetto walls, the walls of which could not conquer his spirit.”
Nowadays, we can admire in numerous places drawings and paintings of many of the painters murdered by the Nazis, whose spirit of freedom and life still prevails among us”.
http://www.dw-world.de/dw/article/0,2144,3324693,00.html (Cornelia Rabitz/eu)
http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/espana/doc/auschwitz.html (Araceli Viceconte, Berlín)
http://www.milimcultural.com.ar/artistas/ (Alicia y Salvador Benmergui)
http://www.betshalom.cat/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=174 (Sonja Friedman – La Palabra Israelita)
http://www.memoriales.net/topographie/israel/lohamei.htm (Dra. Pnina Rosenberg)
Revista Raíces Nº 69 – Alberto Saúl – “Artistas judíos fallecido durante el holocausto”
“El museo desaparecido”- Héctor Feliciano, Ed. Destino
“Diario de Praga (1941-1942) – Petr Ginz – Edit. El Acantilado
Janet Blater y Sibil Milton_Art of the Holocaust, Pan Books, Londres 1982