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Painting by Nelly Toll

Musings by @APosner on the @NYTimes article “Art From the Holocaust: The Beauty and Brutality in Hidden Works”

If you think beauty is a luxury and not a necessity, think again.  

While in hiding or in work camps during the Holocaust, Leo Haas, Bedrich Fritta, and Nelly Toll, just age 8, struggled to survive.  Smuggling food, staying sheltered, and trying their hardest not to get sick — the basics of basics — were a daily challenge.  And yet, they spent their hours imagining and capturing beauty.  And what’s more?  They would risk their lives smuggling art supplies into their rooms to fulfill their need to express their talents.

Interestingly, Haas, Fritta and Toll didn’t depict images of horror or suffering as we would expect given their circumstances.  No, they painted or drew glorious images of landscapes or fantastical paintings of fairies.

How could they let their imaginations go there?  And how could they even think about beauty, let alone, risk their lives to obtain beauty supplies?  What about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?  Logic tells us that we focus on immediate needs in order to survive, like food, water and shelter.  Certainly art should be the last thing from our minds.  

What’s going on here?

As Ms. Toll, now 80 years old, explains in the NY Times article “Art From the Holocaust: The Beauty and Brutality in Hidden Works“: ‘“When you’re fighting for your life and your basic human needs,”… creating art “is not just an escape, it’s an active choice of defiance.”’  Bedrich Fritta depicted Jewish concentration camp workers in his pieces, not as feeble, ugly and downtrodden victims (as the Nazi’s liked to show), but as muscular, proud and handsome men.  He was later executed because of these works.

We often analyze art to better understand the times in which the artists lived.  We learn about what sorts of technology was available or their cultural values.  We effectively see the world at the time through the eyes of the artist.

But what’s so interesting in this case is that the very act of creating art — not necessarily just what it depicts, is a form of defiance and rebellion.  Art was these victims’ lifesaver.  It was as necessary as food and water.

Now, I’m going to tread into familiar ground.  But I still feel like we have to talk about this.  

Our society values the arts.  Our schools have art classes, philanthropists fund museums, and city governments create boardwalks and parks.  But when the budgets are cut, what’s one of the first items to go?  The arts.  After all, we need to learn math more than art, right?  And art won’t prevent us from getting diseases.   Art won’t lower the crime rate.   Net, net, we don’t need art to survive.

Ah, but we do!  The arts not only reminds us of what is good in our world, but it fortifies us, challenges our thinking and sparks our ingenuity.  And without that those things, we, as individuals and as a community, cannot survive.  If some people are willing to die for it, shouldn’t we at least raise the arts to the level of daily necessities?

These paintings are now on display at the Jewish Historical Museum in Berlin and accessible via web.  Take a look and I guarantee you they will fuel your imaginations and emotions.

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