Exhibit of Jewish artists’ Holocaust works opens in Berlin
Nelly Toll was 8 years old when she and her mother went into hiding in 1943 in Poland to escape the Nazi death camps. The Jewish girl spent long hours in her tiny hideaway at a Christian family’s home writing stories, keeping a diary and creating wonderful, bright paintings of a lost world.
Today, her art is on display in the center of Berlin at a special exhibition of art from the Holocaust that opened at the German Historical Museum on Monday.
“I hope that generations to come will look at this and know what atrocities made me do this,” Toll told The Associated Press at the opening.
Toll’s paintings are among 100 artworks created by Jewish artists during the Holocaust on display, the first time the collection from the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem has been shown outside Israel.
The exhibition includes work by Jewish artists in hiding, in concentration and labor camps, and in ghettos. Of the 50 artists featured, 24 were killed by the Nazis. Alongside the mostly unknown names are acclaimed artists such as Felix Nussbaum and Ludwig Meidner.
Toll is the only artist represented in the show who is still alive. One of her paintings, “Girls in the Field,” shows two girls, dressed in bright blue, red and yellow-dotted dresses walking across a sunny lawn confined by lush green trees.
“I made 60 paintings while in hiding, and all of them express happiness,” said Toll, who lost her father and brother in the Holocaust. She emigrated to the United States with her mother after the war.
Like many Jews who created art while being surrounded by death, fear and suffering, painting was a way for Toll to break free and escape from the Holocaust’s harsh reality to imaginary places of beauty and happiness.
“I would have conversations with the characters in my paintings for hours,” Toll remembered.
Not all the works show an escape into a happy imagination. Some artworks are shocking in their depictions of life in the ghetto, daily discrimination and fear of being killed by the Nazis.
Halina Olomucki’s 1939 pencil work, “After the Shearing of the Beards,” shows two Orthodox men with bandages around their heads after their beards had been torn or burned off by Germans in the Warsaw ghetto.
Leo Haas’ “Transport from Vienna” shows the arrival of a train full of elderly Jews at the Theresienstadt ghetto in 1942. Painted in dark, monochrome India ink, people with faces like hollow skulls can be seen tumbling out of cattle cars, many lying lifeless on the ground as a soldier keeps pulling more people off the train.
The show’s curator, Yad Vashem’s Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, called the creation of art during the Holocaust an “uncompromising act of resistance” by artists in mortal danger.
It was very difficult for the artists to get painting supplies, but despite that and their appalling living conditions they managed to portray life during the Holocaust, fighting their dehumanization by the Nazis and leaving behind painted witness accounts, Moreh-Rosenberg said.
Among the most touching works is a postcard painted in 1941 by Karl Robert Bodek and Kurt Conrad Loew while at the Gurs camp in southwestern France, which was then under the Vichy regime that collaborated with the Nazis.
Titled “One Spring,” the watercolor shows a bright yellow butterfly sitting on top of black barbed wire, free to fly wherever it desires, while the two artists were confined to the dark barracks of the camp depicted at the bottom of the painting.
Bodek was killed a year later in Auschwitz-Birkenau, while Loew survived and died in his birth city of Vienna in 1980.
Marian Tusk, who spent time in the Auschwitz and Buchenwald camps and survived two death marches, told Reuters he appreciated Germany’s efforts to deal with its past.
“What most interests me is to what extent pieces of art could be also historic eye witnesses,” said 87-year-old Tusk, who was one of just four members of his extended family of 40 to survive the Holocaust.
Chancellor Angela Merkel, who officially inaugurated the show on Monday night, said on her weekly podcast released over the weekend that such exhibitions are still critical for educating younger Germans about the Holocaust.
“It reminds us that we have an enduring responsibility for what has been done in the past…” she said. “I think it is very, very important that every generation reacquaints itself with Germany’s history.”
Merkel specifically cited fears raised by German Jewish leaders about a possible rise in anti-Semitism with the arrival of nearly 1.1 million migrants last year.
“We have to deal with it, especially among young people whose family background is from countries where hatred of Israel and the hatred of Jews is widespread,” she said.
Christoph Heubner, executive president of the international Auschwitz committee, called Yad Vashem’s decision to host the exhibition in Germany of all places a “very symbolic move.”
“After all, it was in Berlin where all these crimes were planned and prepared and displaying the artwork in Germany’s historic museum shows that they are an immediate part of German history,” Heubner told Reuters by telephone.
The exhibition runs through April 3.