It was 1941, and artist Esther Lurie, a recent immigrant to Palestine, was visiting her sister in Kovno when she was caught by the Germans and deported to the ghetto. Ordered by the Nazis to document scenes in the ghetto, she also hid her own works of art in clay jars made in the ghetto pottery workshop.
But it was in the Stutthof Camp in Germany that Lurie, then assigned to write numbers on strips of cloth, began a secret portraiture campaign, using a pencil and wrapping paper from packages of cotton wool to draw portraits of fellow prisoners. She called her sketches “Ghetto Types.”
Lurie survived, eventually returning at the end of the war to Israel, where she married, raised a family and continued to create and exhibit her work. Many of her Holocaust drawings were later recovered and are now part of a new exhibit at Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial site to the Holocaust, as part of the events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Called “Last Portrait: Painting for Posterity,” the collection shows nearly 200 portraits from the museum’s art collection, created by 21 artists throughout the war.
Like Lurie, these other artists used nubs of pencils and scraps of paper to draw self-portraits and portraits of others, sketching mostly small, postage stamp-size drawings but full-size portraits as well, depending on their situation.
“They had a strong desire to leave a trace of themselves, and the people they were with,” said Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, curator of the exhibit. “This is an exhibit to restore their human face.”
Living in ghettos and imprisoned in concentration camps, the artists’ portraits were almost always an echo of their living circumstances and working conditions. Leo Haas, a graduate of a Berlin art academy, was deported to the Theresienstadt Ghetto in 1942 and assigned to the technical department, where he was forced to illustrate propaganda material for the Germans. Throughout, he secretly painted life in the ghetto. After surviving the war, he returned to Terezin and found 400 of the works he had hidden. His artistic life continued, and he moved to Prague, where he worked as a caricaturist for a newspaper, and later to East Berlin, where he designed movie sets and edited a caricature magazine.
The styles of these Holocaust artist-victims were varied according to taste, habit and circumstance. There were those who were able to get their hands on oils, because they were in service to the Nazis, and others who used watercolors or charcoal. Some left a couple of dozen portraits; others more than 500.
There were artists who sought serious poses, while others were more lighthearted, using a caricature approach and posing people as singers, actors, even trapeze artists.
Frantisek Lucas was originally from Prague, and like Haas, forced to work for the Germans in the propaganda department of Theresienstadt. His secret art was always done in a lighthearted vein, immortalizing the other inmates in their most animated and humorous poses, remembering them as they remembered themselves.
“The artists wanted us to remember them as people,” Moreh-Rosenberg added, “not as victims.”
Hung in the simple, open space of the Yad Vashem Exhibitions Pavilion, the portraits are all framed simply in wood, setting off the small, stark images contained within. The Holocaust is present everywhere in the exhibit, commented Moreh-Rosenberg, yet not in the portraits themselves, where it is the subjects’ faces and characters that are vividly portrayed.
The exhibit will be shown through the summer.