Section: Survival and legacy

Interpretations in art

Philipp Manes' Terezin memoirs, the 'Tatsachenbericht' (factual report).
Terezin Street, drawing by Hedwig Brahn 1944.
Terezin Church and Street, drawing by Karl Fleischmann.
Camp and Tower, drawing by Arthur Goldschmidt.
Terezin Church. Sketch by Arthur Goldschmidt 1944.

Some of those who had experienced Nazi persecution and even survived ghettos and death camps responded to their experiences in works of art. Even in the midst of great suffering and oppression, some managed to maintain a connection with their pre-war lives through artistic and intellectual endeavour.

Philipp Manes, a German Jew deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, recorded the cultural life of Theresienstadt camp and ghetto in his notebooks. His fellow inmates, many artists themselves, contributed drawings to his notebooks, including sketches of the streets and buildings in Theresienstadt. Manes was ultimately murdered in Auschwitz, but his notebooks survived and were deposited in the collections of The Wiener Holocaust Library in 1995.

As well as artistic works made in the camps, many people who were persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust artistically interpreted their lived experiences after the liberation in various ways. In addition, there is a wide range of artistic interpretation of the Holocaust created by second, third or fourth generation descendants of survivors, and by artists who have no direct family connection but have nevertheless felt moved to interpret the events of the Holocaust through art.


"My Grandfather in Auschwitz" by Dora Holzhandler

The artist of this painting, Dora Holzhandler, has depicted her grandfather as an old man with white hair. He sits in the centre of the composition. He wears a kippah and striped pyjamas embroidered with the compulsory Star of David. In his hand he holds a holy book with Hebrew text on it.

The old man stares straight out at the viewer with large, mournful eyes. Two corpses are strewn behind him, and a larger pile of bodies are situated to the left in the background. There are other people in the composition, including a young boy and girl and baby, as well as two marching Nazi officers.

The sombre scene and bleak colours reflect the setting. A jagged barbed wire fence sits against the horizon. The barbed wire is a commonly used symbol of the Holocaust for many artists, and serves as a reminder of the horrors that occurred within these fences. The sky in the distance is scarred red, echoing the blood of the murdered victims of the Holocaust.

The painting was made in 1962, seventeen years after the end of the Second World War. It is therefore a reflective, retrospective and commemorative work.

This painting can be seen as a memorial. Perhaps, for Holzhandler, the painting was a way of mourning the loss of her grandfather. Similarly this allows and encourages the viewer to mourn themselves for the countless lives lost in the Holocaust. It recognises the individual people who were affected, rather than reducing the lives of the millions of victims to a statistic.


Dora Holzhandler

Dora Holzhandler was born in Paris in 1928. She moved around a great deal as a child, settling in London in 1948. She considers herself both Jewish and Buddhist, as is often evident in her work and style. She has exhibited her work in London, Bath, Paris and New York.

This is Holzhandler’s only painting that depicts the Holocaust, but Judaism is a reoccurring theme in her work. Although she herself escaped the atrocities of the Holocaust, many members of her extended family, including her grandfather, did not. In this sense she was indirectly affected by the Holocaust.

This painting conjures up a deeply personal and imaginative recollection of her grandfather in the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz.

Find more information about the art resources of the Ben Uri gallery in collaboration with the London Grid for Learning.

Interpreting the artwork

Two uniforms are visible in this painting, the uniform of the Nazi soldiers and the ‘uniform’ of the Jewish prisoners. On arrival at the camps, the personal clothing of the prisoners was removed and male prisoners were made to wear striped ‘pyjamas’. This made prisoners recognisable if they tried to escape but also dehumanised the prisoners by removing any representation of personal identity. There were also other methods of prisoner identification used by the Nazis in the camps.

Do you know what these were?

How else does Holzhandler identify her grandfather as Jewish in this painting?

The painting also seems to suggest that despite what was happening, the artist’s grandfather maintained his faith in Judaism.

He holds a holy book with Hebrew text. Despite the practice of Judaism being prohibited, the grandfather sits out in the open, reading from the book.

He wears a kippah which denotes his faith in Judaism.

Despite the atrocities that surround him, he has expression of calm and peace.

This depiction of the grandfather suggests that his faith cannot be taken away from him.


"The Last Goodbye" by Edith Birkin

This painting shows a scene in a death camp, with two children and a woman.

There is a large group of people walking into the distance. There is a barbed wire fence running through the centre of the painting and the children are separated from the adults.

The title of the painting implies that the child is saying goodbye to the older woman, who looks like she could be their grandmother or mother.

In this painting, the artist Edith Birkin is depicting the gas chambers of the death camp, with the large chimney and thick black smoke. The sky looks red which can be seen to represent fire and burning.

The ground beyond the fence is covered with what looks like snow and the path seems wet, and yet the main characters of the painting – the two children and woman – are wearing no shoes and no coats, despite the apparent cold weather.

The child in the foreground of the painting has no hair, while the child at the fence has bright orange hair. This draws our attention to the difference between the two children.

The fact that the children have broken away from the crowd to bid their last farewell, highlights the individuality and family connection of each life lost in the Holocaust. The rest of the crowd move in unison along the path, their backs to the viewer with their heads slightly bowed. Their destination is unknown, but the depiction of the gas chamber chimney and the title of the work, The Last Goodbye, suggest that they may never be seen again.


Edith Birkin

Born in Prague, Edith Birkin was sent with her family to the Łódź Ghetto in 1941. She was 14 years old. Her parents died there within a year and when the ghetto was liquidated, Edith was sent to Auschwitz.  Selected for slave labour, she spent the rest of the war working in an underground munitions factory. She took part in one of the notorious death marches and arrived, in 1945, at Belsen, where she was liberated the following month. On her return to Prague she discovered that none of her family had survived. In 1946 she settled in England, where she became a teacher. She went on to adopt three children.This painting is one of many paintings that Birkin has made in response to her experiences during the Holocaust. The Last Goodbye is also the title of a book of poems and paintings that Birkin wrote about her experiences.

Interpreting the image

Why do you think that this painting is called The Last Goodbye?

Who do you think is saying goodbye?

Why do you think that Birkin has chosen to depict the figures in the painting in the way she has?

Birkin said: “I evolved a pictorial language that enabled me to put my visions on canvas. It wasn’t so much the cruelty or physical suffering that I wanted to record. Most of all, I wanted to show what it felt like to be a human being, in the starved, emaciated strange-looking body, forever being separated from loved ones”.

Edith Birkin says that she evolved a ‘pictorial language.’

What might this mean?

Birkin has used a strong contrast between colours in her painting.

What colours has she used and why?

What might the colours in the painting symbolise?

Why is colour used differently in different parts of the painting?

Find more information about the art resources of the Ben Uri gallery in collaboration with the London Grid for Learning.

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