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Forgotten Artists of Auschwitz

The blue eyes of a baker's daughter stare out of a portrait painted by a concentration camp inmate, one of a group of talented prisoners whose lives were saved or at least softened by art in Auschwitz. 

An extraordinary collection of paintings goes on display for the first time in the Centrum Judaicum of Berlin on Monday. Each is the symbol of a story of survival.


There are some graphic scenes of everyday life in Auschwitz, of delousing and beatings, but most striking are the portraits, drawn from memories, which were smuggled out of the death camp.


The previously untold story of the Auschwitz artists began in 1940. Rudolf Hoss, the camp commandant, caught Franciszek Targosz, a Polish prisoner, drawing a horse. Any form of artistic activity was punishable by death, but Hoss loved horses.


He decided that the camp should set up a museum, with gallery space for paintings and drawings by the most-gifted prisoners. Pride of place was to go to images of horses.


In the evenings, a dozen Polish artists carried out official commissions from the camp leadership and private portraits of the wives and girlfriends of the SS guards.


In between these lifesaving commissions about 70 percent of the artists survived Auschwitz they developed their own work; paintings of imaginary landscapes, remembered lovers, men who were not shaven or emaciated, women whose perfume one could almost smell.


The baker's daughter was Anna Madej, painted by a 33-year-old Polish inmate named Jacques Markiel, who was forced to work in a nearby coal mine.


Markiel was responsible for collecting the sparse rations from the baker. Anna stuffed extra bread in the bag when no one was looking. He paid the girl with a portrait painted on linen, smuggled out of the camp strapped to his stomach. Suddenly aware of the power of paintings, he drew Geza Schein, a 10-year-old Hungarian Jewish boy, who also worked in the coal mine. The boy gave the picture in turn to a Polish woman who supplied him with the food he needed to live.


In July 1940, Bronislaw Czech, 32, a Polish Olympic skiing champion, was deported to Auschwitz for being a member of a resistance group.


At 32, he was already a sporting hero 16 times the Polish skiing champion and a participant in three winter Olympic Games.


Astonishing paintings


The Auschwitz artists were determined to keep him alive and told the SS that he was potentially a great painter. Mieczyslaw Koscielniak, a prominent pre-war painter, who had been ordered by Hoss to put a price on stolen Jewish treasures, secretly taught the skier how to draw.


Soon Czech was painting impressive landscapes, above all of the Tatra Mountains. He died, nonetheless, of typhoid contracted after he fell out of favor with the SS and was consigned to the crematory cleaning squad.


"His fellow inmates improvised a funeral, carrying his body last on to the cart of corpses," Jurgen Kaumkotter, the art historian who sifted through 1,562 art works to present this exhibition of 176 paintings and drawings, said. "They covered him in flowers and followed him to the crematorium in a procession."


Most of the 44 painters represented in the exhibition are Poles. Before Auschwitz became a slaughter house for more than a million Jews, it was a camp for Polish political prisoners who were sent to work in quarries, in the cement factory or draining the marshes of Birkenau.


When the artist Jozef Szajna was sent to the camp in the summer of 1941, only 7,000 out of the originally arrested 18,000 were still alive. But, unlike the Jews driven straight to the gas chambers, they could communicate (in short, censored letters) with the outside world and this allowed the artists to feel that they were still in contact with real life.


"These paintings are astonishing because they connect with the aim of two millennia of Western culture the search for beauty," Jurgen Serke, a German writer, said. "Beauty in Auschwitz. Isn't that obscene?"


The artists made immense efforts to preserve their work. Drawings by Stanislaw Gutkiewicz, who was shot against a wall in Auschwitz, survived only because they were smuggled out of the camp by the painter Wincenty Gawron, one of the few inmates to flee successfully from Auschwitz.


Gawron subsequently fought in a Polish partisan group and survived the Nazi crushing of the Warsaw Uprising in 1944. The Gutkiewicz sketches never left his side.


He fled Auschwitz only after completing a portrait of the wife of Targosz, the head of the artist group; the final payment of a debt of honor. That painting survived, too, hidden under floorboards.


Not all the Auschwitz paintings are great art. Some were the result of a straightforward urge to live, rather than any creative passion.


Josef Mengele, the camp doctor, spotted Dina Gottliebova, a Czech Jew, decorating a children's barracks with Walt Disney characters. He ordered her to draw the victims of his terrible medical experiments.


"I just used my drawing abilities to stay alive," Mrs. Gotliebova, 82, who lives in San Diego, California, said.


Other Jews on her transport were sent to the gas chambers; she and her mother were allowed to live, saved by her pencil strokes.


(China Daily May 25, 2005)

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