The Nazis wanted to wipe out not only certain groups of people, but also any memory of them. Jürgen Kaumkötter, an expert in persecuted art, explains how artists resisted the Nazis in their work.
DW: Mr. Kaumkötter, you have created a memorial to many persecuted artists who refused to give up their art in spite of the barbarism of others. Why is this so important to you?
Jürgen Kaumkötter: I was born in Osnabrück and saw the Felix Nussbaum House being built. I studied art history and dealt very intensively with this painter's work. [Eds.: Felix Nussbaum was a German-Jewish artist who was killed in Auschwitz in 1944.] In 1999-2000, I went to Auschwitz for the first time to discuss an entirely different project. The director of the memorial center at the time said, "Mr. Kaumkötter, are you familiar with our art collection? You come from an art museum, right?"
What I saw changed my life and became an impactful issue for me. This place changes people who engage with it and causes them to see the present time in a more conscientious way. That's how persecuted artists became the issue I've dedicated my life to. It wasn't a deliberate decision at the beginning, but rather a process.
You've emphasized that it's important to view the works of these artists not only as historical witnesses but also as works of art. Why is that so important to you?
When art bears witness, it becomes a judicial court exhibit and then it can no longer be appreciated independently as an object or work of art. Many of these people were artists - who wanted to create art. And they didn't want to simply be reduced to victims from the perspective of the Nazis, the suppressors and the persecutors; they wanted to be independent people.
What kind of art was created in the midst of Nazi terror?
There is art that serves as a witness - representations of the horror and terror that people caused. But, interestingly, that is only a small part. The much larger part is made up of portraits that capture the individual rather than the crime. Many people at the time were certainly aware of the horrible suppression that was taking place and knew that the end was near and that death could catch up with them at any moment. That's why it was important to many people to leave something behind - something of themselves that would exist after they had died.
The Nazis tried to extinguish not only the people, but also anything that served as a reminder of them. That makes the portrait a very special motif of this resistance.
What is the significance of an artist grabbing a brush or pencil even in the face of imminent death?
It is an act of self-assertion. When you look at the images from the camps and ghettos, you see the de-individualization of the people. All of them were wearing "zebra suits" and their hair was cut off, so that the prisoners could be identified easily if they tried to escape. Basically, they were stripped of their dignity.
Painting as a means of self-assertion - that's what art can do.
In your book, "Death Does Not Have the Last Word," you commemorate numerous painters and show their works. Which artist or which work moved you the most?
The picture on the cover of my book. It shows a portrait of a girl, a beautiful young woman. The artist, Jan Markiel, painted it out of gratitude for her support and help. She was the daughter of the baker in Auschwitz. The family baked medication into the bread so it could be smuggled into the camp.
Jan Markiel was part of a unit that had to pick up the bread. He painted this picture out of gratitude towards this family and gave it to them. It's multifaceted. On one level, there's the beautiful portrait - it almost looks like he painted a saint. Then there's the story behind it. That moved me. I was able to purchase the picture together with some friends and donated it to the memorial center at Auschwitz. I always get very emotional when I see this picture.
The exhibition "Art from the Holocaust" is currently showing at the German Historical Museum in Berlin. What's your take on the exhibition?
It's fabulous. Finally a major national German museum has managed to present an exhibition showing the artistic value of the works of victims and prisoners. In 2005, I organized an exhibition of artworks from Auschwitz, but it was rejected by the German Historical Museum. Fortunately, it was shown in the Centrum Judaicum in Berlin. This location protected the exhibition from misunderstandings.
But a lot has happened over the last 10 years. One thing is that the survivors will not be with us for much longer. What will happen then? Then the artworks, the literary legacy and the places themselves will most likely take on even greater significance. The emphasis will be shifted. That may be one reason why the German Historical Museum chose to do this exhibition now. Chancellor Merkel opened the show with a very moving speech and that demonstrates how highly it is valued.
Auschwitz was liberated 71 years ago. Why is it still so important to view the works that were created amidst an atmosphere of terror?
It is repeated over and over again, but it is always right. It cannot be repeated enough, so that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again. This break in civilization, the uninhibited violence against an entire group of people, a minority that could not defend itself - we have an obligation to explain how this could begin.
Jürgen Kaumkötter is an art historian and author. He is the curator at the Center for Persecuted Art in Solingen and has initiated and planned numerous exhibitions.