As I stand on the border between life and death, certain that I will not remain alive, I wish to take leave from my friends and my works….
My works I bequeath to the Jewish museum to be built after the war.
Fare well my friends. Fare well the Jewish people. Never again allow such a catastrophe.
From the Last Will and Testament of the artist Gela Seksztajn, Warsaw Ghetto, August 1 1942
Walking through the campus of Yad Vashem, one comes across an art museum featuring landscapes, portraits, pencil sketches and bold paintings bursting with color. But as one gets closer to each work, one notices a longer than customary descriptive label. That more often than not, the date of the artists’ death is 1943, or 1944, or 1945. But as you read the short biographies of the artists, young people, often, at the height of their artistic development - a few words recur, and one realizes that this is not an ordinary museum: Murdered in Auschwitz. Deported to Terezin. Incarcerated in Drancy. What is even more incredible are the dates the works were created. 1939. 1940. 1941….
The Museum of Holocaust Art was inaugurated in 2005 as an integral part of the new Museum Complex at Yad Vashem. From small pencil sketches, to oil paintings, from still-lifes to portraits, the art displayed in the new Museum offers a unique perspective of the Holocaust. All of the 170-works presented were created in the crucible of the Holocaust – in hiding, in the ghettos, in forced labor camps, under the most trying conditions. The artwork, presented along with a short biography of the artist, is a lasting tribute to the artists who risked everything to continue to express their own unique selves; proving yet again, that even in the midst of the Holocaust, the Jewish spirit refused to die.
Creating art during the Holocaust meant risking one’s life at a time when the materials needed were almost non-existent, and many of the artists were on the verge of collapse—physically and mentally—without access to the most minimal essentials of daily life. In spite of all this, art was created, and sometimes managed to survive even when—as was mostly the case—the artist did not. The works displayed are not just testimonial; they express an incredible creative power.
Among the artists presented in the Museum, is the heartbreaking story of Charlotte Salomon. At the young age of 22, Charlotte, who had been a student at Berlin’s School of Fine Arts and Applied Crafts, leaves behind her parents in Nazi Germany to join her grandparents in what appears to be the safety of the French Riviera. But the Nazis invade France, and Charlotte’s grandmother, in the throes of despair, commits suicide. Charlotte finds herself 23 years old and in the depths of a major depression. As a form of therapy, her doctor recommends that she resume painting. Charlotte then embarks on a creative journey that, over the course of two years, results in an autobiographical series of paintings recounting the fate of her family and German Jewry, which she called “Life? Or Theatre?” During her time in France, Charlotte also painted beautiful landscapes and self-portraits, which were discovered after years of research by Yad Vashem curators. Married in the summer of 1943, Charlotte, pregnant with her first child, and her husband Alexander Nagler were arrested soon after and deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. Charlotte Salomon (Berlin, 1917-Auschwitz, 1943) is now recognized as one of the major budding artists of 20th century art. Her talent and future gifts to the world died with her, but her story, and the artwork, which miraculously survived the war, and are on permanent display at Yad Vashem, remain an everlasting memorial and testimony to her creative talents.
In Antwerp of 1941, during the turmoil of the Second World War, Carol Deutsch (Antwerp, 1894- Buchenwald, 1944) a self-taught artist, lovingly crafted a gift for his daughter’s second birthday: an illustrated Bible containing ninety-nine gouache paintings, thereby perpetuating the Biblical commandment “And thou shalt show thy son”. Discontented with merely words, he presents his daughter with illustrated sheets held inside an ornamented wooden case of his own craftsmanship. Carol Deutsch and his wife Fela were informed upon and murdered in the extermination camps. However, their daughter Ingrid, who was hidden with a Catholic family in the countryside, survived, as did the Bible, which miraculously remained intact. Deutsch, who died in Buchenwald, left behind a vital estate - a stalwart resistance to everything the Nazis had attempted to obliterate. This father’s intimate and intellectual bequest to his daughter, by its display at Yad Vashem, is thus instilled in the collective legacy.
The newest section of the Holocaust Art Museum is particularly unique; as it presents not only art pieces that were created during the Holocaust, but in essence is a result of slave labor. Bruno Schulz’s display, which was inaugurated this past February, tells the story of the famous Galician painter and writer who under Nazi occupation was forced to illustrate with images from fairy tales the walls of a nursery room in an SS Sergeant’s dwelling. Bruno Schulz (Drohobycz, 1892-Drohobycz Ghetto, 1942) was shot to death on the precipice of his escape during a brutal Aktion, in November 1942.
Bruno Schulz had no illusions as to what was happening around him. Imprisoned in the Drohobycz ghetto, he was forced to illustrate the walls of an SS man’s home with images from fairy tales. But Bruno Schulz could neither imprison his sense of style, nor deny his identity as an artist. In the images he painted in the home of the sadistically cruel Felix Landau, he hid a testament to himself and his family, including his own self-portrait. It was the last works of art Schulz would create. On a Thursday, shortly after picking up his daily ration of bread, Schulz was murdered by another SS man, apparently to retaliate against Landau for killing ‘his’ Jew. Schulz’ works, painstakingly conserved, are now on permanent display in the Holocaust Art Museum at Yad Vashem.
The ability to create under duress, while struggling for survival, to express joy and despair, to create beauty – these are an integral part of the legacy left behind by those artists who continued to work under the direst conditions, while the world around them crumbled. The visitor to the Museum of Holocaust Art receives an extraordinary glimpse into the inner world of these artists, providing a deep-rooted connection to an everlasting heritage.
Museum of Holocaust Art
Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
Sun – Wed: 9:00 – 17:00
Thursday: 9:00- 20:00
Friday and Holiday eves: 9:00 -14:00
Saturdays and Jewish holidays: Closed