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Yad Vashem Traveling Exhibitions

Private Tolkatchev at the Gates of Hell

About the Exhibition

Taleskoten, 1944 Taleskoten, 1944
Gouache, charcoal and crayon on paper

Winter, 1944 Winter, 1944
Charcoal and crayon on paper

Selected Panels from the Exhibition

Upon the entrance of the USSR to the war in June 1941, Zinovii Tolkatchev, a Ukrainian artist, volunteered to join the front. However, only towards the end of the war, in Autumn 1944, did army officials respond to Tolkatchev’s request, and he was sent to serve in the Political Department in the First Ukrainian Front, which at the time was stationed in Lublin, adjacent to the Majdanek extermination camp. Horrified by the scenes he witnessed, Tolkatchev, in a spiritual whirlwind, immersed himself for 35 days with hardly any food or sleep, in painting the Majdanek series. Tolkatchev was able to create, as if from nowhere, a set of symbols that express the horrors of the Majdanek extermination camp.

At the end of January 1945, Tolkatchev accompanied the Nazi Crimes Investigation Commission to Auschwitz, literally hours after the entrance of the Red Army into the camp. He was seized by the urge to capture the scenes, the voices. In the absence of drawing paper he entered the camp’s former headquarters and took stationery with bold black letters: “Kommandantur Konzentrationslager Auschwitz”; “I.G. Farbenindustrie”; “Aktiengesellschaft; Der Oberpräsident der Provinz Oberschlesien”.

The typography became an integral part of the composition and the image of the Nazi oppressor. As if possessed by madness, Tolkatchev drew sketches of what he saw. Abutting the sketches, he added densely written lines with the testimony of the few survivors able to speak. Adjacent, he jotted repeatedly “to remember, not to forget.” By using meager materials of pencil and paper, intimate in scale, Tolkatchev succeeded in creating art of monumental scope. The understanding that on those very same pieces of paper just a few days prior were written orders of extermination endow them with a tragic power.

Curator: Yehudit Shendar, Deputy Director and Senior Art Curator, Yad Vashem Museums Division

Designer: Studio Art, Jerusalem