Private Tolkatchev at the Gates of Hell

“I did what I had to do; I couldn’t refrain from doing it. My heart commanded, my conscience demanded, the hatred for fascism reigned.” In these words, artist Private Zinovii Tolkatchev embodies the creative essence of one who arrived at the gates of hell in Red Army uniform. 

Tolkatchev’s art was charted on the wings of the Bolshevik Revolution, created in conviction of its justness. Simultaneously with enlisting his art for the revolution, Tolkatchev the artist began to search for an additional expressive mode to manifest personal layers in his works.  Tolkatchev was drawn to printing techniques and created several series of illustration to the works of many authors and poets.  These works embody an epic breadth and monumentalism of a different kind.  In 1941, shortly before the outbreak of Operation Barbarossa, Tolkatchev completed a large-scale series titled “The Shtetl” based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem. In this series he depicts – with great power – the suffering of the Jewish people under Czarist rule.  These works reveal another important side of Tolkatchev’s creative impetus – his bond with the Jewish people.

With the USSR entering the war in June 1941, Tolkatchev 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.  “Hatred guided my brush, urged me on, the brutal reality inflamed my imagination.” Horrified by the scenes he witnessed, Tolkatchev, in a spiritual whirlwind, immersed himself for thirty-five days with hardly any food or sleep, in painting the Majdanek series.  Tolkatchev showed his initial works to a member of the Polish-Soviet Nazi Crimes Investigation Commission, who urged him to finish the series before November 27, 1944, the opening day of the Majdanek camp commanders’ trial.  The exhibition opened the day before the trial, at the Lublin Art Museum and was reviewed extensively in the Polish press. In Lublin alone, 128,000 tickets were sold, and from there, it traveled to other cities. In the Majdanek series, Tolkatchev’s was able to create, as if from nowhere, a set of symbols that express the horrors of the Majdanek extermination camp.  The fact of the matter is that Tolkatchev enlisted those same capacities already encountered in his earlier works, that is, his ability to synopsize and focalize.  However, now Tolkatchev was painting neither in the service of the Revolution, nor of the author-poet; rather, he bluntly presented his viewers with the hard and brutal reality that he experienced and which had stricken his people, Soviet and Jewish alike.

“A cold winter wind howls over Auschwitz, surrounded by three rows of barbed-wire fence.  It seems that it is not the barbed-wire that trembles and howls, but the tortured earth itself which moans with the voices of the victims.”  The barbed-wire fences of Majdanek did not prepare Tolkatchev for his next mission.  At the end of January 1945 he accompanies the Nazi Crimes Investigation Commission to Auschwitz, literally hours after the entrance of the Red Army into the camp.  Again Tolkatchev is seized by the urge to capture the scenes, the voices.  In the absence of drawing paper he enters the camp’s former headquarters and takes stationery with bold black letters: Kommandantur Konzentrationslager Auschwitz; I.G. Farbenindustrie Aktiengesellschaft; Der Oberpräsident der Provinz Oberschlesien.  The typography becomes an integral part of the composition and the image of the Nazi oppressor, who Tolkatchev refrains from perpetuating, stands before us. As if possessed by madness, he draws sketches of what he sees. Abutting the sketches he adds densely written lines with the testimony of the few survivors able to utter words.  Adjacent, he jots repeatedly – “to remember, not to forget”.  By using meager materials of pencil and paper, intimate in scale, Tolkatchev succeeds in creating art of monumental scope.  The understanding that on these very same pieces of paper just a few days prior were written orders of extermination endow them with a tragic power that causes one to shudder.

As one who began his artistic oeuvre as an enlisted artist and a monumentalist, much like Käthe Kollwitz in Germany of the 1920s and 1930s, or the Mexicans Diego Rivera and Jose Oroszco of the same period, he depicts ultimate horror in the minor chord of pencil drawings.  The spare materials on the one hand and forcefulness of expression that awakens emotions on the other, is reminiscent of the early 19th century series of prints, “Disasters of War” by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya.

“…I couldn’t tear myself away from that same piece of cursed land that was left behind, and from the terrible human abyss. My whole body was wracked with dumb sobbing. I had left Auschwitz behind.” Auschwitz was not left behind; it emerges with all of its horrors from the scenes rising before us, drawn by a Red Army soldier, an artist and a Jew.

Yehudit Shendar
Senior Curator, Yad Vashem Art Museum

Zinovii Tolkatchev