Exhibition of Jewish artists’ Holocaust works opens in Berlin

First time the collection from the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem has been shown outside Israel

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 8:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 January, 2016, 8:01am

Nelly Toll was eight 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 centre of Berlin at a special exhibition, “Art from the Holocaust”, that opened at the German Historical Museum last week.

“I hope that generations to come will look at this and know what atrocities made me do this,” Toll said at the exhibition 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 memorial in Jerusalem has been shown outside Israel.

The large group show includes work by Jewish artists in hiding, in concentration and labour 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,” says Toll, who lost her father and brother in the Holocaust. She emigrated to the US 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 remembers.

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, calls 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 Shoah, fighting their dehumanisation by the Nazis and leaving behind painted witness accounts, Moreh-Rosenberg says.

Among the most touching works is a postcard painted in 1941 by both 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 watercolour 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.

Located in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem is Israel’s official Holocaust memorial centre, whose museum is dedicated to presenting the history of the Shoah and its academic documentation, according to the German Historical Museum.

The new exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of German-Israeli diplomatic relations. This is “hitherto the largest presentation of artworks from the Yad Vashem collection outside Israel, and should be cherished as an invaluable symbol of friendship,” says the curatorial statement.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was to officially inaugurate the show last 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.

“Art from the Holocaust” runs at Berlin’s German Historical Museum until Apr 3