On January 15, members of the press were invited to preview a new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York City, entitled “Rendering Witness: Holocaust-Era Art as Testimony.”
Elyse Buxbaum, executive vice president for strategy and development at the museum, welcomed the press and described the exhibition, which “features art made during and immediately after the Holocaust by those who lived it.” Buxbaum explained, “Among the remarkable work in this gallery, you will find children’s drawings, an American liberator’s paintings and sketches drawn in secret by Jewish prisoners of the Nazis.” One of the artists, Helga Weissova, was 12 years old when the Nazis deported her and her parents to Terezin. Two Weissova pieces are in this exhibition: a barracks of children and another of a deportation where Jewish prisoners gathered to say goodbye.
Weissova, currently in her 90s, is a practicing artist living in Prague. “This particular moment is important because it is a testimony to those like Helga who experienced anti-Semitism’s darkest chapter,” stated Buxbaum. “It is especially meaningful to preserve objects like Helga’s drawings so that her grandchildren’s grandchildren may someday see them on display. In a world of rising hatred and anti-Semitism, the museum is called on to be bolder and our mission to educate, preserve and to outreach more than ever before,” Buxbaum concluded.
Michael Morris, curator of the exhibition explained, “Of over 380 drawings made during or immediately after the Holocaust by those who lived through it, 21 were selected for inclusion. The art depicts what the artists saw, as they saw it.” Morris described the flow of the exhibit, starting with the ghetto and ghetto living spaces, then to deportation, shadowed by scenes from Auschwitz, then liberation, followed by portraits and finally remembrance.
Morris also focused on Weissova, “In the limited amount she could pack before being deported, she chose to include art supplies. It was with the encouragement of her father Otto that she continued to echo her father’s words, ‘draw what you see.’” Morris clarified that Weissova produced approximately 100 drawings while in the Terezin ghetto, two of which are on display today.
Peter Loewenstein, another artist highlighted by Morris, studied engineering and was in his early 20s when he was deported to Terezin. Assigned to Terezin’s technical department, he created drawings showing the “progress and effectiveness” of Terezin for the SS. “Like many members of the technical department, he countered the propaganda of overly-sanitized images he was directed to illustrate, by making clandestine drawings, including one of eight men in coats. That is the enlarged image marking the start of the exhibition.” Morris explained that this image was chosen to both open the exhibit and become the iconic image of the exhibition “because I think it showed the weight and gravity of the Holocaust without showing anything graphic.”
In 1944, both Weissova and Loewenstein were deported from Terezin to Auschwitz. Weissova survived, but Loewenstein was killed. “Their fates may differ, but their art survived in similar fashion,” stated Morris. “Loewenstein entrusted a portfolio to his mother, which was then retrieved after the war by his sister Gerta, the only surviving member of the family. Weissova entrusted her drawings to an uncle who hid them. These are just two examples of the remarkable artists in ‘Rendering Witness’ who are natives of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland and the United States, all their lives dramatically impacted by the Holocaust and WWII.”
Morris reflected, “While curating this exhibition, my mind was on the artist and the historical context in which they lived. This exhibition, like all exhibitions, educational initiatives and public programs at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, stands against and educates about the dangers of anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry of any kind and of any source.”
The exhibit runs from January 16 through July 5.
By Judy Berger