Painting the nightmare of Auschwitz : the February 2020 Slavonic item of the month

This year will see many 75th anniversaries relating to the Second World War, and one of the most poignant – the liberation of Auschwitz by the Soviets – has already occurred, in late January.  We recently received an important addition to Cambridge’s significant holdings about the Holocaust and Auschwitz in particular, in the form of a catalogue of works by David Olere, Ten, który ocalał z Krematorium III (The one who survived Crematorium III), based on an exhibition held at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in 2018-2019.

Olere, a French Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1943, was one of the very few Sonderkommandos to survive the war.  His artistic abilities, employed by Nazi personnel to illustrate letters home and produce other artwork, saved him from the regular killing of Sonderkommando generations.  Olere was in the death march from Auschwitz in January 1945 and was liberated only in May, in Ebensee.  He had spent nearly two years in Auschwitz, the witness of endless and appalling atrocities.  By the time he reached France and home, his “health was ruined and when he tried to recount to his wife the things he had seen, she was convinced that he had lost his mind” (from the catalogue; my emphasis).

David Olere brought these horrors to life through art, first in pencil drawings and then in paintings.  I include only the cover here; many other works in the catalogue include extremely distressing images, many in the almost cartoon-like style and nightmare-ish palette of the cover.  In an introduction to the catalogue, the artist’s son writes “[this] type of art obviously could not be popular.  People did not want to look at it, worse, they did not want to accept the fact it presented real events.  Indeed, this situation contributed to the artist’s death, who was unable to come to terms with a world that denied what had happened at Auschwitz, destroying his works and boycotting his exhibitions”.  It is important that this catalogue of Olere’s work is accessible to Cambridge readers.  Our only other holding focused on Olere’s art before this purchase was the 1989 David Olère, 1902-1985 : un peintre au Sonderkommando à Auschwitz : l’oeil du témoin (S538.c.810.49).

1942 in Dawid’s diary. Note the Ghetto in the top right-hand corner.

A blog post last year about our Polish history holdings and acquisitions referred to the major emphasis we place on Jewish history in our Polish selection work.  Here are a few examples which have arrived only in the last month or so.

The covers of the first six are shown below.  A page from the seventh, from Dawid Szpiro’s diary, is shown separately above.

A fascinating event held earlier this week in Cambridge which saw the Russian poet Mariia Stepanova and scholar Irina Sandomirskaja discuss memory and post-memorial culture emphasised how greatly vulnerable the past is to manipulation.  2020, with its World War 2 anniversaries, will doubtless see much of this.  For stark, simple remembrance of the Holocaust, I would recommend the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum’s Twitter account, which managed to attract 1 million followers in time for the liberation’s anniversary.  Each day, in Polish and English, it commemorates just one or two Auschwitz-Birkenau victims – Jewish and others – born on that day.  Most posts are accompanied by photos, often the photographs taken during processing into the camps of those who were not murdered on arrival but also pre-war photographs of those who were killed immediately, particularly children.  The contrast between the latter, beautiful black and white photographs of innocent lives, and the horror and colour of David Olere’s work is devastating.

Mel Bach

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