"Art is a noble mission. Those who have been chosen by destiny [Vorsehung] to reveal the soul of a people, to let it speak in stone or ring in sounds, live under a powerful, almighty, and all-pervading force. They will speak a language, regardless of whether others understand them. They will suffer hardship rather than become unfaithful to the star which guides them from within."
--Hitler. Nuremberg speech, Sept. 11, 1935
Adolf Hitler's words are strangely prophetic. Professional and amateur artists of all genres recorded what they saw and experienced during the reign of the Third Reich. They went beyond simple protest against the hardships, misery and inhumanity to leave an eloquent account of their sufferings. The record left by ghetto dwellers, camp internees, and displaced persons create snapshots of life and death under Hitler. Inmate drawings and paintings speak eloquently of man's inhumanity and cruelty. The Nazis labeled this art "horror propaganda"; Holocaust writer Lawrence Langer calls it the "horror truth."
Moshe Rynecki was a painter whose work often directed attention to the persecution of the Jews. He lived in the Warsaw ghetto and died at Majdanek.
Some inmate art was actually sanctioned by the camp or ghetto authorities. Preserved remnants of barracks decoration can still be viewed in Auschwitz and Birkenau. Nazi officials also used talented inmates to produce personal items. The sketch at right shows inmate David Olère adding flowered decorations to a letter for an SS officer.
View Inmate art from Auschwitz and Birkenau including wall and ceiling paintings of a penal company, camels, horseback riders, and cherubs. (11 paintings)
Inmates who produced clandestine art did so at risk to their lives. Such artists used their talents to create works as an expression of their own humanity. When the liberation forces were examining the ghettos and camps, thousands of pictures drawn by children and adults were discovered. They bear silent testimony to man's eternal need to create, and portray for future generations a way of living and dying that the Reich tried to hide.
Conditions in some German internment camps actually allowed artists freedom to continue working. Joseph Nassy, a Black artist of Jewish descent, was able to produce more than 200 drawings and paintings during his three-year internment at Laufen and Tittmoning camps in Bavaria. The International YMCA supplied Nassy with drawing and painting materials. His artworks include portraits and everyday life in the Laufen and Tittmoning camps.
Visit the Joseph Nassy Images of Internment exhibit at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The large number of Jewish artists posed a problem for the Nazi regime. If summarily deported to extermination camps, these internationally-recognized artists would have been missed, so they were sent instead to Theresienstadt. The Theresienstadt (Terezín in Czech) ghetto was publicized as a "gift" that the Führer gave to the Jews. Nazi propaganda made much of this special ghetto. The world was shown an artistic colony of happy, healthy residents. The reality was far different. For most, Theresienstadt was simply a crowded waystation between home and an extermination camp. Many internees had children who were transported with them. The children's poetry, diaries, and art are the only record of their short lives. Of the 15,000 children transported to Theresienstadt, only 100 survived.
Short clip from Nazi propaganda film about Theresienstadt.
A short biography and two drawings by Leo Haas, an inmate of the Theresienstadt ghetto.
View work by four ghetto artists.
View seven contemporary color photographs of the Terezín cemetery and ghetto walls.
View drawings of Esterwegen and Flossenbürg by camp survivor Fernand Van Horen and read his story, "How a drawing saved my life."
Introduction to the history of Jewish art up through the time of the Holocaust.
This page presents many examples of artwork from the camps and ghettos. Click the thumbnail photos for a slightly larger view with description.
Mendel Grossman was a photographer in the Lódz ghetto, who risked his life to record the horrors of the ghetto in more than 10,000 photographs.
View Felix Nussbaum's In the Camp, an oil painting from 1940.
View Felix Nussbaum's Threesome from 1944, the year he died at Auschwitz.
Paintings of a Gusen concentration camp inmate found recently in Bavaria, Germany.
A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida © 1997-2013.