“Because I Was a Painter” Showcases Art Created in Concentration Camps

Artwork featured in Because I Was a PainterArtwork featured in the film Because I Was a Painter: Art That Survived the Nazi Concentration Camps. (Photo: La Huit Productions and Augenschein Filmproduktion)

Because I Was a Painter: Art That Survived the Nazi Concentration Camps, La Huit Productions and Augenschein Filmproduktion, 2013, Available beginning in April 2015 from The Cinema Guild

The portraits are beautiful. Men and women, all of them young, demonstrate the artist’s remarkable attention to facial detail, a unibrow on one, a mole on another. But it is the eyes – resigned, scared, vacant, worried – that pull the viewer in.

The oil paintings, done in vibrant color, are the work of Dina Gottliebova (1923-2009), a Czechoslovakian Jew imprisoned in Auschwitz. When Nazi physician Josef Mengele got wind of Gottliebova’s talent, he forced her into service and required her to paint the Sinti and Romani prisoners he was using in medical experiments. “He took live people, killed them, did tests and needed illustrations,” director Christophe Cognet’s Because I Was a Painter matter-of-factly explains.

Gottliebova had no choice but to do Mengele’s bidding, and her creations saved both herself and her mother from the ovens. Still, when the artist attempted to reclaim the paintings after the war, the request was refused. “She had the right to take credit for the drawings,” conservators of the Auschwitz Museum told her, “but the works were part of Dr. Josef Mengele’s archive.”

This is just one of the chilling anecdotes included in Cognet’s beautiful and unsettling feature film. As you’d expect, it is by turns horrifying, gut-churning and wonderful, an unexpected celebration of the irrepressible pockets of creativity that unexpectedly flourished under Nazi rule. In fact, despite the abuse, starvation and torture directed at Jews, Romani, Poles, lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people, the disabled and people of color, many internees found ways to resist, whether by storytelling, creating music, imagining gourmet meals or making art.

A still image from the film Because I Was a Painter: Art That Survived the Nazi Concentration Camps.A contemporary view of a concentration camp, from the film Because I Was a Painter: Art That Survived the Nazi Concentration Camps. (Photo: La Huit Productions and Augenschein Filmproduktion)

Because I Was a Painter includes interviews with five still-living-and-working sculptors and painters who survived the camps – Yehuda Bacon and Samuel Willenberg (both based in Israel); Jose Fosty (in Belgium); Walter Spitzer (in France); and Krystyna Zaorska (in Poland) – and showcases the artwork of dozens of their deceased colleagues. The result is a dramatic smorgasbord of images.

Unfortunately, however, the film is weak on context and the viewer has to do some independent research to learn that most of the rescued drawings and paintings were discovered by the Allies after the camps were liberated. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to prod us to investigate the backstory ourselves, but regardless, Because I Was a Painter is an important, moving and fascinating look at genocide, war and the coping mechanisms utilized by at least some of those who made it out.

A reading of diary entries written by Slovenian Zoran Music (1909-2005), imprisoned in Dachau, opens the film. They describe his intense need to draw “the landscape of death” and capture the agony he witnessed on the faces of those around him. “My intention was to pay homage,” he wrote. “I drew all that because I was a painter. What else could an artist do?”

Similarly, Polish resistance fighter Josef Richter – a man who is assumed to have perished in 1943 – grabbed any paper he could find, including old newspapers and crumpled bags, to draw what he saw: the trains that transported human cargo, the guards and the other internees. His work is now housed in the Ghetto Fighters’ House in Israel and provides the only existing record – there are no photos – of daily life in Sobibor, a camp in occupied Poland.

Yehuda Bacon (born in 1929), a survivor of Theresienstadt, also wanted to capture the everyday realities of life under Nazi domination. Most of his drawings – including vivid pictures of dead bodies being moved on lorries, their arms dangling; SS watchtowers; and the crematoria – were completed after the war, once Bacon was once again living far from the watchful eyes of overseers and Kapos. Nonetheless, while in the camps, he told the filmmakers that he was “always drawing in my mind. I knew exactly how everything looked, the chair, the undressing room, the smoke billowing from the chimneys, the faces, with eyes that glared out at you.”

Unlike Bacon, whose work is fairly representative, some artists – likely cartoonists before the war – drew in graphic novel style; others, including resistance fighter Wiktor Siminski, (birth and death dates are unknown) were precise photo realists whose provocative images raise a plethora of questions. As the film’s narrator points out, Siminski was incarcerated in Sachsenhausen for more than five years. During that time, many of his illustrations focused on the crematoria. Nonetheless, he likely never saw the inside of the building. “Executions in gas chambers were never seen by inmates,” the film reports. “Only SS watched.” How, then, did Siminski replicate them so accurately, including one drawing of a woman being gassed? Did he somehow get inside or did he imagine it? We’ll never know.

Krystyna Zaorska, the only still-living woman included in the film, was barely an adolescent when she was imprisoned in Ravensbruck. “I was not an artist. I was a child,” she tells the filmmakers. Still, she kept herself occupied, and entertained her peers, by creating portraits of the girls in her barracks, imagining them in better times. In her renderings, some wear school uniforms or dance costumes, while others cradle a beloved family pet. All are touchingly upbeat.

This ability to imagine a different and better reality gave both artists and subjects a way to survive, a means to counter the deprivation, hardship and misery they were experiencing. And while it is impossible to know how many paintings and drawings were done in the camps, or how many have been lost in the 70 years since the war ended, the fact that some remain is a near miracle.

Because I Was a Painter celebrates the drive to create, but the film is neither ideologically neat nor tidy. In fact, some of the artists see it as their duty to make their images as graphic and realistic as possible – telegraphing the horror of what happened so that it can be known by everyone – while others see it as their mission to bring beauty into places where none would otherwise exist. The film does not resolve this tension, nor could it. At the same time, all agree that composing a record, in images and in words, is essential if we are to remember the magnitude of the Holocaust.