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Artist in Auschwitz

Sarah Hofmann / eg
January 27, 2015

The artworks created in concentration camps are usually appreciated for their testimonial value. An exhibition in the German Parliament, the Bundestag, aims to change this limited perception.

Art by Sigalit Landau. Copyright: Sarah Hofmann/DW
Image: DW/S. Hofmann

Yehuda Bacon, 85, is often introduced as an "eyewitness" or a "Holocaust survivor." That may be true. Bacon survived three concentration camps: Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Mauthausen. But the Osnabrück art historian Jürgen Kaumkötter portrays the man somewhat differently. "He is first of all an artist," he says, "an artist who was in Auschwitz. The order matters."

This is the message Kaumkötter wants to convey through his book and a current exhibition, both called "Der Tod hat nicht das letzte Wort" ("Death does not have the last word"). While the art which was created in concentration camps, ghettos or hiding places bears witness to the crimes which were committed in Hitler's name from 1933 to 1945, it should also be appreciated for its aesthetic value.

Kaumkötter spent 15 years doing research on the topic. The 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz provides an opportunity to spotlight his findings. The exhibition opens on January 27 in the German Parliament, the Bundestag, in the presence of members of all parliamentary groups and artists such as Yehuda Bacon.

"It's probably the last Holocaust Remembrance Day where survivors can actively participate," says Kaumkötter. "This is why the exhibition looks into how we and the next generations can accept and deal with the legacy of the survivors."

Kunst in der Katastrophe, by Peter Kien Copyright: Sarah Hofmann/DW
The Berlin exhibition pays tribute to the artist Peter KienImage: DW/S. Hofmann

An artistic genealogical tree

The exhibition is built along a genealogy of three major artists. It begins with the artist Peter Kien, who was born in 1919 in Varnsdorf, located between Prague and Berlin. He was deported to Theresienstadt at the age of 22 for being a Jew. He was one of the first to be brought to this concentration camp, conceived by Adolph Eichmann as a "model Jewish settlement" for propaganda purposes.

Other artists and prominent figures followed afterwards. Theresienstadt's cultural life aimed to mislead the International Red Cross about the true conditions which prevailed in the Nazi camps.

Kien had studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. In Theresienstadt, he worked in a drafting room. Under the pressure of constant death threats, he produced an impressive collection of drawings, including many portraits of his fellow inmates as well as self-portraits.

He also taught children in the concentration camp how to draw. One of his students was the young Yehuda Bacon, then 13 years old.

Artist Yehuda Bacon. Copyright: Sarah Hofmann/DW
Yehuda Bacon: the artist who was in AuschwitzImage: DW/S. Hofmann

"I did not know anything about art at the time. I was introduced to the basics in Theresienstadt," says Bacon. "I knew that I enjoyed it. At the time, I thought art meant reproducing exactly the model I was painting." Bacon laughs. "A childish notion of course…"

Peter Kien was the one who introduced Bacon to the idea he could be an artist.

Auschwitz and the ovens of the crematories

Both Kien and Bacon were deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz. Kien was murdered in 1944; Bacon survived.

He worked as a messenger in Auschwitz-Birkenau and had access to all the places practically no one would leave alive. A Kapo, one of the prisoners that worked as camp guards, allowed children to warm up by the ovens of the crematories and even to sit in the gas chambers to rest once in a while.

That's how Bacon came to know the details of the Auschwitz "death factory" and began drawing them while he was still in the concentration camp. "I was able to draw in Auschwitz, but it was dangerous," remembers the 85-year-old artist. "Pencils and paper were forbidden, but if you had connections to the clerk in charge of writing down how many Jews were arriving, it was possible to get these things. In this hell, some people would occasionally think, 'children are here for such a short period,' so they would let us do whatever we wanted."

According to the cruel logic of the Nazis, children were not strong enough to work - they should therefore be gassed as soon as the tight schedule of the death machine would allow so.

Portraits by Artist Yehuda Bacon. Copyright: Sarah Hofmann/DW
Portraits painted by Yehuda Bacon in 1945 after his liberationImage: DW/S. Hofmann

Shortly before the liberation of Auschwitz, Bacon was sent to the concentration camp in Mauthausen. He was liberated on May 5, 1945. All his drawings were lost.

"But when I recovered from typhus, as soon as I was able to hold a pencil, I started drawing from memory, very accurately. The gas chambers, the crematories, all that. My plans correspond exactly to the plans used by the SS to build Auschwitz," he says.

This was also determined by the judges during the famous Eichmann and Frankfurt Auschwitz trials. Bacon testified in both of these important trials against the crimes of Auschwitz.

Evidence or art?

His drawings of the camps serve as proof. But Bacon also painted portraits, as did Peter Kien. "This is not art," says Bacon of the portraits he did in 1945. "My head was still in the concentration camp then."

The art historian Kaumkötter disagrees: "Of course, Yehuda Bacon's earlier works are art, too, because he is an artist. The best definition is: Art is what an artist makes."

Yehuda Bacon prefers to show his later works, where he has found his own symbolic language. He is working on the ideas of "timelessness" and "the moment of truth," expressed so well by Rembrandt and which he hopes people will experience when seeing his art. "Art is being left out," he believes, "and that's difficult to accept."

These are words which he might have used during one of his lectures at the renowned Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem, where he still works as a professor. This brings us back to the genealogical tree of the exhibition. Bacon transmitted what he learned from Peter Kien in Theresienstadt to the young Sigalit Landau.

"The exhibition is also about the transmission of knowledge, of responsibility and talent and humanity," says Jürgen Kaumkötter.

The second generation: sparkling crystals

The works of Sigalit Landau, born in 1969 in Jerusalem, make up the beginning and the end of the exhibition in the German Bundestag. She was not in Auschwitz, she belongs to the second generation - her parents are Holocaust survivors. Auschwitz plays an important role in her work, but it distinguishes itself completely from the eyewitnesses' art.

She wanted to create a new installation conceived specifically for the location where the horrors of National Socialism all began. For this work, she was inspired by the mountain of shoes which can be seen at the permanent exhibition of the Auschwitz Memorial, symbolizing the millions of men, women and children murdered by the Nazis. Sigalit Landau collected a hundred shoes and tied them together as a mountain and sank them in the Dead Sea.

Jürgen Kaumkötter. Copyright: Sarah Hofmann/DW
Art curator and author Jürgen Kaumkötter in front of a painting created in Auschwitz, which he bought as a student and donated to the Auschwitz MuseumImage: DW/S. Hofmann

"The Dead Sea is a meaningful place for her," says art curator Kaumkötter, "it's not only the deepest sea on earth, but people also go there to let the salt water heal them. In the same way, Sigalit Landau heals the shoes, protecting them with salt."

A wonderful mountain of salt crystals results from the process. When the sun shines through the glass building of the Bundestag, they sparkle.

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