“Every day brings with it its quota of new difficulties. If it were not for the ecstasy and spiritual elevation that saturate me when I hold a paintbrush, I would unable to do anything.”
Thus wrote Shaya Blonder in his diary in 1943. Blonder was a Jewish painter from Poland living in an isolated hut in the woods in southern France. Using the false identity of André Blondel, Shaya worked as a lumberjack, performing grueling physical labor in order to survive. A few months ago, the Yad Vashem Art Collection received 22 of his drawings and sketches, donated by his daughter Hélène Blondel, who lives in Paris. The artworks made it possible to research Blondel’s life story and his stylistic development in WWII-era France until liberation. Nine of his works are part of a "New on Display" section in the Museum of Holocaust Art.
The section, which opened in the Art Museum during the lead-up to Holocaust Remembrance Day 2019, presents the public with drawings and sketches acquired by Yad Vashem in recent years. The pieces on display were drawn by artists from different countries – France, Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Poland and even Tunisia – in different circumstances: in ghettos, in camps or in hiding. They represent a wide range of environments and styles.
Fascinating life stories are revealed throughout the diverse works, and can be read in the accompanying texts. For example, visitors can learn about the everyday life of Maximilian Feuerring in a POW camp in Germany, where he concealed his Jewish identity; they can discover the outset of designer Dan Reisinger's artistic path as a child in occupied Yugoslavia; and they can contemplate the artwork that Henri Epstein left behind in a village in France after he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz.
The display includes works by artists who were already accomplished when the war broke out, such as Blondel, Feuerring, Karel Fleischmann and Petr Kien, along with those by younger artists, like Peter Klein, Mordechai Allouche, Henri Kichka or Dan Reisinger, who actually took their first steps in art during this period.
For the experienced artists as well as the beginners, drawing was a means of self-expression and documentation in times of pain and crisis, and it performed diverse functions. With expressive and quickly drawn lines, Karel Fleischmann captured the grim hunger in the Terezin ghetto with sketches filled with compassion. For Henri Kichka, who drew Disney's seven dwarfs from "Snow White" before he was sent to Auschwitz, drawing made it possible to escape to the realm of the imagination in a time of anxiety and persecution. The color sketching reveals Kichka’s attraction to cartoon characters, an admiration he passed on after the war to his son, the cartoonist Michel Kichka, who was born after the war. In other cases, drawing was also a way to make a living: The young Mordechai Allouche drew colorful postcards in Tunisia in order to help support his family.
Many of the pieces acquired by Yad Vashem arrived in poor condition due to the circumstances in which they were created and stored. It took a considerable amount of care to preserve the sketches and the drawings, and then to ready them for display. One piece in particular was obtained almost a decade ago, but required a complex conservation process in order to be exhibited: a two-sided work of art that Petr Kien drew in Prague in 1940 before he was deported to Terezin. One side of the oil painting commemorates the artist’s wife, Ilse Stránsky. Ilse and Petr were deported together with their parents to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. The other side depicts Jan Burka, a student of Kien’s in Prague. Burka, who dreamed of being a painter, considered Kien a spiritual father, and they developed a friendship that continued after they were imprisoned together in the Terezin ghetto. Burka survived and made his dream of becoming an artist come true, and he actively commemorated Petr Kien and his friends from Terezin – including by donating this precious piece to Yad Vashem, which can now be admired in the Museum of Holocaust Art.
“The Nazis invested not only in the systematic murder of the Jewish people, but also in erasing the memory, culture and heritage of the victims," said Museums Division Director Vivian Uria at the opening of the new display. “The 12,000 artworks in Yad Vashem's Art Collection – most of which were created during the Holocaust in ghettos, in hiding, and in concentration, labor and death camps, under life-threatening conditions – relate to the fate of individuals, families and communities in the Holocaust, and express the spirit of humanity.
“We are at a crossroads where the generation of survivors is disappearing and the tools of commemorating memory are changing dramatically. The historical and educational importance of Yad Vashem's Collections is therefore growing. We would like to thank the survivors and their families for depositing their precious works for eternal safekeeping at Yad Vashem. We promise to fulfill our moral obligation to the Jewish people and humanity to preserve them and display them to large audiences in Israel and around the world."
“New on Display” is made possible thanks to the artists and their families who entrusted Yad Vashem with their artworks, and to the Friends of Yad Vashem in Israel and worldwide, whose generosity made it possible to enrich the Art Collection with these meaningful works.
This article originally appeared in the "Yad Vashem Jerusalem Magazine," volume 89.