Art of the Holocaust until 1989: Beyond an East/West Divide

Art of the Holocaust until 1989: Beyond an East/West Divide

Agata Pietrasik, Berlin; Daniel Véri, Budapest
Vom - Bis
08.06.2022 - 10.06.2022
Ella Falldorf, Institut für Kunst- und Kulturwissenschaften, Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena; Katharina Langolf, Universität Potsdam; Galina Lochekhina, University of Haifa

Historically, academic discussions have paid little attention to artworks about the Holocaust; interest in this topic has only recently emerged, especially among young scholars. This not yet solidified field is characterized by its diversity and interdisciplinarity, which, in turn, was reflected in the program of the conference. Throughout the presentations, speakers concentrated on four main research problems: iconography, periodization and memory waves, biographical examination of artists and the role of their personal experiences, as well as the context of anti-fascism. The conference, organized by AGATA PIETRASIK (Berlin) and DANIEL VÉRI (Budapest), brought together scholars from eleven countries and various academic levels, all working on artworks about the Holocaust, created during and after World War II.

The conference was opened with a keynote from RACHEL PERRY (Haifa), who presented her research of over 100 albums created by Jews in concentration camps, ghettos, in hiding, or in exile, both during and after the Holocaust. As democratic multiples, these objects traveled across borders and language barriers and, until today, unsettle disciplinary, archival, and curatorial categories. While showing the variety of these albums, Perry raised questions of narrative and syntax, time and tense, voice or pronoun, as well as medium and materiality within this genre.

The first panel focused on art created during the Holocaust, in different places and for different reasons. PAWEŁ MICHNA (Krakow) examined official art production in the graphic office of the Łódź ghetto as a branding strategy. He showed how albums, posters, postage stamps, and exhibition designs formulated a specific version of a utopian vision of the ghetto using a modern constructivist style. KATHARINA LANGOLF (Potsdam) presented artworks by Mark Zhitnitski, a Jew imprisoned in the Gulag from 1937, where in 1943 he created drawings of the Shoah in “a remote corner of the country.” In these drawings, Zhitnitski dealt with the unknown fate of his family and integrated his own experiences in the Gulag into the depiction. ELLA FALLDORF (Jena) focused on the various meanings of depictions, created in Buchenwald and other NS camps, of one or two camp prisoners in the act of carrying or supporting another. Falldorf destabilized a reading that reduces these camp sketches to unambiguous expressions of solidarity. Despite the methodologically distinct approaches, all three papers discussed the intersection between experience, ideology, and art.

The reception of art created during and immediately after the Holocaust was the common ground of the second panel. In her talk, ANASTASIA SIMFEROVSKA (Chicago) analyzed the previously unexamined visitors’ books from the earliest artistic responses to the horrors of Majdanek and Oświęcim, created by Zinovii Tolkachev between 1944–45. The majority of the comments were written by survivors and underline a break between the official presentation of the exhibition and the personal perception of the survivors, including claims that the exhibition failed to convey human tragedy. OLGA STEFAN (Iași) presented a case study on artistic representations of the Vapniarka concentration camp. She analyzed a show of inmates’ art exhibited in the Vapniarka camp in spring 1943, comparing it to a 1945 exhibition of artworks made as evidence of the camp at the propaganda ministry in Bucharest, the first and the last show of this kind in the communist era. YELENA LEMBERSKY (Arlington) told the story of the art collection of her grandfather Felix Lembersky, who survived the Holocaust in Ukraine and emigrated to the United States. She shared insights about her grandfather's life and work, including a series of oil paintings he created – without being an eyewitness – depicting the massacre at Babyn Yar.

The last panel covered a large research project on Polish folk art and the Holocaust. A summary of this joint Polish-German inquiry into memory and representation will be published in the forthcoming book Terribly Close: Polish Vernacular Artists Face the Holocaust. Considering the uncanny character of the items discovered by ROMA SENDYKA (Krakow), ERICA LEHRER (Montreal), MAGDALENA ZYCH (Krakow), and MAGDALENA WILGORSKA (Berlin), the discussion could not have been anything but thought-provoking; raising questions about the historical development of vernacular objects and the ethical component of their acquisition.

The second day was dedicated to the Cold War and postwar art. In the first panel case studies on three artists from different countries were presented. MARIANN FARKAS (Ramat Gan) situated Hédi Tarján as a female Jewish artist dealing with trauma and her reception in Israel and Hungary. She claims that the art of Tarján is based on her own experiences and those of her family during the Shoah. PIOTR SŁODKOWSKI (Warsaw) presented abstract figures created by Marek Oberländer as a paradigmatic case study that exemplifies complex transcultural, transnational and translingual aspects of Holocaust memory. Using the concept of a Totem (Emile Durkheim), he analyzed the artworks as referring to the most universal dimension of death while remaining connected to Oberländer’s individual experiences as a Red Army soldier during WW2. ECKHARD GILLEN (Potsdam) argued that Boris Lurie used art as a preverbal tool to work through his trauma and drew a line from Lurie’s war series to his 1964 “Shit Show” at Getrude Stein’s gallery and his final refuge into writing “Anita’s Castle.”

The following panel was dedicated to two case studies about Yugoslavian artists and their reception after WW2. MIRJAM RAJNER (Ramat Gan) presented Croatian Jewish artist Adolf Weiller’s “Martyrdom Cycle” as a form of unofficial Holocaust art that existed in socialist Yugoslavia, although Weiller also identified as a partisan and distanced himself from a particular Jewish experience. NATAŠA IVANOVIĆ (Ljubljana/Bled) analyzed the work of Slovenian artist Zoran Mušič as an attempt to create symbols that don’t lose their meaning with time, resorting to a minimalistic visual language and a focus on the symbolic meaning of corpses.

The presentations of panel six employed national frameworks, to discuss postwar iconography in the realm of political debates. TAMARA KOHN (Buenoes Aires) presented the Jewish experience in Argentinian art in relation to waves of national memory. AMELIA MIHOLCA (Phoenix) returned to the issue of Romanian Holocaust art. She argued that Jewish Romanian artists should have a rightful place in Romanian art history, as they reveal the transition from the diversity of avant-garde style to a more coherent socialist realism in the postwar period. She cautioned not to separate Holocaust art from Romanian art and to use the testimonial character of artworks for Romanian Holocaust history. EVA JANÁČOVÁ (Prague) spoke about artistic reflections on the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia after the end of WW2 and the long neglect of those post-war works. Departing from the postwar works of Fritz Lederer and Leo Haas, she introduced 15 Czech artistic positions, by survivors, descendants, and contemporaries, who work in a variety of media in different spaces and with diverse objectives. Lastly, JÜRGEN KAUMKÖTTER (Solingen) presented and discussed examples of artworks (by Jerzy Adam Brandhuber, Erwin Olszówka, Mieczysław Kościelniak, Jan Baraś Komski, Władysław Siwek, Leo Haas) shown in the first exhibition in Auschwitz in 1947.

On the final day, the discussion returned to art created during the Holocaust: GALINA LOCHEKHINA (Haifa) explored representations of sexualized violence in drawings by former female prisoners. She compared bathing scenes and the relation to guards depicted in the visual memoir Naomi Judkowski created about her experiences in Auschwitz with the notebooks in which Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya depicted her experience in the Gulag. In her conclusion Lochekhina raised questions about symbolizing sexual violence, visually coping with shame, and the specificity of female visual language. KLARA JACKL (Haifa) presented the visual diary of Henryk Beck, a Polish gynecologist of Jewish origin who survived WW2 hiding in one of Warsaw’s bunkers. As an amateur artist Beck documented his personal fight for survival in 1944 in a collection of small scale drawings which Jackl presented as an important source of biographical information as well as portraying the experience of a victim of Nazi persecution. After an extensive review of literature focusing on discussions in France, PAUL BERNARD-NOURAUD (Paris) showed how Post Memory artists’ reinterpreted visual material (photos as well as drawings) created during or immediately after the Holocaust.

The final panel of the conference focused on monuments. EIRENE CAMPAGNA (Milan) compared the Museum Monument to the Deportee in Carpi with the Memorial to the Italians in Auschwitz (Block 21). Both works are based on an amalgam of emotional, sensory and historical approaches created by the architectural groups behind the memorials. Placing visitors in the center of the experience, these sites respond to the criteria of contemporary museology, although they were built already in 1970. Emphasizing that human representations were not present in Jewish religious or memorial sites before the 20th century, SAMUEL D. GRUBER (Syracuse) spoke about the use of human forms in early Holocaust memorials. Mostly neglected nowadays, he was able to explore these sites through a database of Holocaust Memorial Monuments which he is currently developing. One highlight was a relief by survivor Edith Ban Kiss with Gruber’s profound elaboration of memorial art created by women and its unique characteristics. OLGA UNGAR (Givatayim) presented three monuments in Novi Sad, all created at different times and places. She argued that the history of the memory of the Holocaust in Novi Sad can only be understood by comparing these different memorials.

During this conference, the question of how images can be used for memorialization and expression of suffering during the Shoah within cultural memory was posed in a broad sense. Scholars presented examples of artistic expressions of this tragedy beyond the East and West divide as well as from different historical periods and memory-political circumstances. It became clear that there has been a significant increase in interest towards such works in recent years. As a result, new academic inquiries emerged in different corners of the world, Pietrasik and Véri brought these fascinating studies together in Budapest. Yet, these current academic investigations tend to focus on nationalities or case studies and mostly refrain from overarching analytical questions or comparative analysis. The conference was a good start in which these research tendencies became evident. For the future, there is a need for more communication within the growing field in order to find common trajectories and to differentiate methodological approaches. It can only be hoped that future initiatives follow in the footsteps of this thought-provoking conference.[1]

Conference overview:

Welcoming remarks:
András Kovács, Michael L. Miller (CEU)

Agata Pietrasik (Freie Universität, Berlin) / Daniel Véri (CEU/KEMKI)

Keynote lecture:
Rachel Perry (University of Haifa): Telling Pictures, Showing Stories: The Album as Medium of Graphic Witnessing

Panel I: Wartime and Early Postwar Artistic Practices
Chair: Agata Pietrasik (Freie Universität, Berlin)

Paweł Michna (Jagiellonian University, Kraków): "Excellent tables and photomontages clearly illustrate all aspects of ghetto life." Visual Communication Strategies of the Łódź Ghetto

Katharina Langolf (University of Potsdam): Mark Zhitnitski in the Gulag: Drawing the Shoah in “a Remote Corner of the Country”

Ella Falldorf (Friedrich Schiller University, Jena): More than Symbols of Resistance? Images of Solidarity in Concentration Camps and their Transformation in the Aftermath of the Holocaust

Panel II: Wartime and Early Postwar Artistic Practices and Exhibitions
Chair: Lóránt Bódi (HAS, RCH Institute of History, Budapest)

Anastasia Simferovska (Northwestern University, Chicago): “I Inscribe Myself into the Book”: Visitors Respond to Poland’s First Holocaust Art Shows

Olga Stefan (University Alexandru Ioan Cuza, Iași): Art of the Holocaust in Romania: Vapniarka as a Case Study

Yelena Lembersky (The Uniterra Foundation, Arlington): Felix Lembersky's Babyn Yars. The Paintings and How Soviets Suppressed the Art of the Holocaust

Panel III: Representing the Holocaust in Folk and Vernacular Art
Chair: Kristóf Nagy (CEU/KEMKI)

Roma Sendyka (Jagiellonian University, Kraków)/ Erica Lehrer (Concordia University, Montreal): Holocaust-Themed Folk (Naïve) Art in Poland (1945–1989)

Magdalena Waligórska (Humboldt University, Berlin): Transactions over Polish Holocaust-Themed Folk Art in West and East Germany as a Mode of Polish–German Reconciliation

Magdalena Zych (Kraków Ethnographic Museum): Vernacular Memory of the Holocaust. The Art of Włodzimierz Chajec (1904–1985) and Józef Piłat (1900–1971)

Welcoming remarks: Dávid Fehér, Emese Kürti (KEMKI)

Panel IV: Holocaust Representations During the Cold War
Chair: Dávid Fehér (KEMKI)

Mariann Farkas (Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan): Representation of the Holocaust by Hungarian Israeli Artists before 1989: Comparative Case Study of Hédi Tarján’s Works

Piotr Słodkowski (Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw): Informel and the Fight for the Memory of the Holocaust. Figures by Marek Oberländer as Totems

Eckhart J. Gillen (Filmuniversität Potsdam-Babelsberg): Boris Lurie: Searching for Truth in Images on the German Genocide of European Jews

Panel V: Holocaust Representations During the Cold War
Chair: Agata Pietrasik (Freie Universität, Berlin)

Mirjam Rajner (Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan): Adolf Weiller’s “Martyrdom Cycle”: Official and Unofficial Holocaust Art in Socialist Yugoslavia

Nataša Ivanović (Lah Contemporary Research Centre, Ljubljana/Bled): Tomorrow May Be Too Late: Landscape of Holocaust in Zoran Mušič’s Oeuvre

Panel VI: The Iconography of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and Beyond
Chair: Daniel Véri (CEU/KEMKI)

Tamara Kohn (Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano, Buenos Aires): Art and the Holocaust in Argentina before the Institutionalization of Memory

Amelia Miholca (Arizona State University, Phoenix): Romanian Holocaust Art

Eva Janáčová (Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague): Art of the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia: Fritz Lederer and Leo Haas

Jürgen Joseph Kaumkötter (Center for Persecuted Arts, Solingen): Places and Meanings. The Iconography of Holocaust Art in East and West Europe

Daniel Véri (CEU/KEMKI): Recycled Memory: Hungarian Exhibitions in Auschwitz (on-site visit at KEMKI)

Panel VII: Wartime and Early Postwar Artistic Practices and Exhibitions
Chair: Rachel Perry (University of Haifa)

Galina Lochekhina (University of Haifa): Representation of Sexualized Violence in Women’s Graphic Novels: Naomi Judkowski and Eufrosinia Kersnovskaya

Klara Jackl (University of Haifa): The Pictorial Diary of Dr. Henryk Beck

Paul Bernard-Nouraud (Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne University): Post-Holocaust Art and Post-Memory Art: a Reevaluation

Panel VIII: Official Commemorations of the Holocaust
Chair: Zoltán Kékesi (Center for Research on Antisemitism, Berlin)

Samuel D. Gruber (Syracuse University / International Survey of Jewish Monuments, Syracuse): Humanizing the Holocaust: The Search for a Figurative Memorial Language

Eirene Campagna (IULM University, Milan): The Representation of the Shoah before 1989: The Case of the Museum Monument to the Deportee (Carpi) and the Memorial to the Italians in Auschwitz (Block 21)

Olga Ungar (independent researcher, Givatayim): The Remembrance Triangle: The Case Study of Holocaust Memorials in Novi Sad, Serbia

[1] The recordings of the conference are accessible upon a simple email registration: (18.10.2022). Please consider joining the Facebook group created in connection with the conference: "Researching the Art of the Holocaust": (18.10.2022).

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