"Rendering Witness: Holocaust-Era Art as Testimony" at the Museum of Jewish Heritage opens this week in New York amid a recent spike in U.S. anti-Semitic hate crimes and a widening knowledge gap among American adults of the Holocaust.
The exhibit "uses creativity in the face of depravity to share essential stories about life, after, and during, the Holocaust," said Elyse Buxbaum, the museum's executive vice president for strategy and development.
Curator Michael Morris discovered a treasure trove of real-time witness accounts of the Holocaust, drawn in pencil, ink and crayon. Most of the art have outlived its creators, most of whom were among six million Jews killed by the Nazi German regime, often in concentration camps.
"The museum stands against and educates about the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry of any kind," said Morris.
It all started with a request by The Drawing Center, an unrelated exhibition space in New York, to possibly borrow some drawings. As Morris reviewed 380 pieces in the museum's collection, he was struck by the eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust and he knew immediately that the discovery demanded an exhibition that he whittled down to 21 powerful depictions of the Holocaust by Jewish prisoners.
"Behind the statistics, and behind the numbers and behind the scenes where we see hundreds of thousands of people in concentration camps, these are actual people who had multifaceted lives," said Morris.
Among them was a 12-year-old girl, Helga Weissova, who brought art supplies with her when she was sent to Terezin Ghetto and concentration camp, about 30 miles north of Prague in the Czech Republic, in October 1944. Before Weissova was deported from Terezin to Auschwitz, the infamous slave-labor camp in southern Poland, she gave her drawings to her uncle, a fellow prisoner who hid them behind a wall in Terezin. The show features her 1943 work in colored pencil on paper, "Transport Leaving Terezin," which shows gun-toting guards ushering a huddled group of prisoners carrying suitcases.
"It's important we revisit the testimony of those like Helga, who experienced anti-Semitism's darkest chapter," said Buxbaum.
Weissova is now in her 90s and living in Prague, but many of the artists never made it out of the deadly camps.
Before Peter Loewenstein of Czechoslovakia was deported in 1941 to Terezin and then in 1944 to Auschwitz, he gave 70 drawings to his mother. His mother and sister would soon be deported to Auschwitz as well but not before turning over the art to a family friend. His sister, the only family member who survived the camp, recovered the portfolio after the war, including "Eight Men in Coats with Stars," a 1944 ink on paper depiction of Jews forced to wear identification badges.
Equally powerful is a watercolor immediately created by Marvin Halye, a shocked member of the 104th Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, who liberated Nordhausen concentration camp in Germany in 1945. After seeing the few surviving prisoners tending to thousands of bodies, he rushed to paint "Civilians Covering Corpses," and "Liberation of Nordhausen."
The show, which runs January 16 through July 5, opens amid a spike in anti-Semitic hate crimes across the United States and particularly in New York City, home to the largest Jewish community outside of Israel.
In the most recent attack, a machete-wielding man wounded five people gathered last month for a Hanukkah celebration at a rabbi's home in the New York suburb of Monsey. Just weeks earlier, a shooting at a kosher supermarket in nearby Jersey City, New Jersey left two Hasidic Jews dead.
Hate crimes are escalating amid revelations that many American adults lack basic knowledge of the Holocaust. The greatest gaps in understanding are among U.S. millennials, two-thirds of whom don't know what Auschwitz is, according to a recent survey by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
(Production by Soren Larson, Barbara Goldberg and Roselle Chen)