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The Paintings of Dina Gottliebova Babbitt  
03:47pm 17/01/2008

Look at the face of this woman. We don’t know her name, whether she had children, what language she spoke, or her nationality. We know only that she was a Romani,(Gypsy) and she was butchered at Auschwitz.

Joseph Mengele was busily recording the “racial characteristics” of his victims, and was disappointed because photographs didn’t catch skin tones. He found a young Czech woman called Dina Gottliebova drawing a mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the wall of the children’s quarters. She had seen the Disney film when she hid her Star of David and sneaked into the village cinema.

He offered her a deal - draw for him, and she would live. She threatened to throw herself on the electrified fence if he didn’t include her mother, so he did. Over the next three months, she painted portraits of eleven Romani, after which they were murdered. “I painted slow” she claimed. Then she painted medical experiments, and the wives of camp officers on the side. They were moved twice more, before liberation.

She went on to art school, and marriage, her redoubtable mother still in tow. She worked in animation, drawing figures like Tweety Bird and Wile E Coyote. In the meantime, the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum bought seven of the paintings from a survivor, and compared the writing in the signature with work done by Dina for a picture book about the Holocaust just after the war. Then they tracked her down. She came to Auschwitz in 1976 - to authenticate the paintings, and get them back.

“I’m thinking of the subjects like Celine and I know they would probably want me to have them,” she said.

The effort ebbed and flowed, but she campaigned to retrieve the paintings for thirty years, supported by her family, and now by US politicians. The Museum accepts she has copyright, and asks her when the material is reproduced. But they won’t hand them back.

The Polish ambassador says:

“It is the Museum’s opinion, shared by a vast majority of representatives of former inmates, Jews and Poles and international organizations, that the collection cannot and should not be partitioned. All of it belongs to the place and its victims. Mrs. Babbitt’s drawings, in the opinion of many, are not merely ‘pieces of art’ but above all an evidence of crime against humanity and should as such remain permanently in the Memorial.”

The Museum’s deputy director maintains

““we do not regard these as personal artistic creations but as documentary work done under direct orders from Dr. Mengele and carried out by the artist to ensure her survival.”

And Dina?

‘“Every single thing, including our underwear, was taken away from us,” Mrs. Babbitt said. “Everything we owned, ever. My dog, our furniture, our clothes. And now, finally, something is found that I created, that belongs to me. And they refuse to give it to me. This is why I feel the same helplessness as I did then.”

So who does a work of art belong to? The painter, the subject or the culture? Has Dina already been paid in full, with her own life, and her mother’s?

Can something like this ever be private property?


This is the OTHER side of the story published by the Auschwitz Museum.

"DINAH 1944"

In 1943, in a transport of Jews deported by the Germans from the ghetto in Theresienstadt to KL Birkenau, there was the twenty-year-old Dinah Gottliebova, a Czech Jew born in Brno. Together with her mother, she was placed in the so-called Theresienstadt family camp (one of the camp sections at Birkenau). Before the war she had studied graphics and sculpture in Brno and, as it proved later, her drawing skills most probably saved her life. In the camp she initially painted numbers on the barracks and then, upon the order from SS-men, she made their portraits from the photographs which they had delivered. After her painting skills had been discovered (she painted inter alia on the walls of the children's barrack some scenes from Disney tales), Dr. Mengele - then the chief doctor of the so-called "Gypsy family camp" - ordered her to paint water-colours. They showed Gypsies from different countries of Europe called in the Nazi terminology "mischlinge" (half-breeds). Those portraits were to help Mengele in his "research work" which he did in the Auschwitz death camp. Until summer 1944 she made a total of about ten such portraits. Dinah Gottliebova and her mother survived the elimination of the Theresienstadt camp. She was moved to Neustadt Gleve where she painted registration numbers on German planes and where she was liberated.

It was after almost thirty years after the end of the war that she learnt that some of her water-colours had not been destroyed. As in many similar situations, they had survived by chance. In January 1945, three days after the liberation of KL Auschwitz, one of the residents of the town of Oswiecim, a teenager boy, came to the camp to take an orphan girl, a Jew from the Hungarian transports, to be adopted by his parents. One of the saved inmates, moved by the boy's conduct, gave him, as a token of thanks, a roll of paintings comprising seven water-colours and signed "Dinah 1944."
The family loved and cared for the girl. Ewa completed secondary school, then graduated from the Jagiellonian University and started to work as a dentist.
In 1963, Ewa sold six water-colours to the Museum. The seventh painting was acquired in 1977. The report of the Commission for the Purchase of Museum Exhibits made in 1963, states inter alia that: "Members of the Commission found it purposeful to purchase all the paintings for the Museum collections, since portraits of Gypsies link closely with the camp history (the Gypsy camp) /.../ It was decided that the Gypsy paintings had probably been made in the death camp at the time of its existence, most probably by an inmate...." Six years later, going through the book edited by Otto Kraus and Erich Kulka "Tovarna na Smrt", the manager of the then Department of Collections and the Storehouse of Collections of the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, noticed an illustration therein. It was signed in the same way as the water-colours in the possession of the Museum. It was thus possible to establish the full name and surname of the author: Dinah Gottliebova. At that time she already lived in the United States.
As soon as the Museum found out Ms. Gottliebova's place of residence, it contacted and informed her about the existence of her works created in the camp. In January 1973, being in Europe, Ms. Gottliebova came to Poland and gave an account in the Museum of her stay at KL Birkenau and of her making of the portraits of Gypsies. In conclusion she said: "I am happy to have survived the camp, I am happy to be alive. I would be grateful if the photographs of the Gypsy portraits were made available to me, the originals of which are in the possession of the Museum and which I painted in the camp." It was the first and only contact Ms. Gottliebova had with the Museum until the second half of the 1990s. In December 1973, the Museum sent to the author for authorisation, her account retrieved from a recording and - as she had wished - two sets of photographs of Gypsy portraits. Since the letter remained unanswered and the mail was not returned either, the Museum in the following years tried to contact the author by sending successive letters. They too, remained unanswered and were not returned by the post. The most recent of these letters was sent in 1996, with the same result. The Museum concluded therefore that Ms. Gottliebova, due to bitter camp recollections, did not want to be contacted and to recall her tragic youth.
The reality was different though. For some time now Ms. Gottliebova has been claiming the return of the works now in the Museum's possession, which she had made in the camp. Under Polish law the lawful owner of the seven portraits of Gypsies is the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau, while the economic rights remain with Ms. Gottliebova. Being the owner but not holding the economic rights, the Museum only may use the works within the limits of the permitted public use of protected creations.

This matter cannot be regarded obviously only in legal terms. The Museum fully understands the emotional attitude of Ms. Gottliebova to the works she had once created, in conditions which certainly did not remain without an impact on her life, but cherishes a hope that she understands the intentions of the State Museum of Auschwitz-Birkenau. From the moment of its establishment, the Museum has, with a lot of difficulty, been gathering and securing all camp remains, trying to make sure that they survive and testify to the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis in the place with which they are inseparably connected. Both the death certificates, inmates' files, etc., produced in great quantities by the scrupulous Nazi camp bureaucracy, and the works of art created in the camp, made by inmates upon orders from the SS or illegally, are unique documents and evidence which speak most powerfully from the place where they were produced. A similar opinion is also expressed by a considerable number of former inmates and some Jewish circles.

My thoughts:
 I've seen this story before.  I have seen more of her artwork as well.  If it were anywhere but Auschwitz I would have to say that the paintings were paid for.   But this case is different.  In this case, Auschwitz needs to have the survivors in mind, NOT the worth of the collection.  I think the Holocaust survivors should get anything and everything they can.  These people lost all they had at the death camps and now Auschwitz is still taking.  Disgusting, in my opinion. If there is ANYTHING there that can be claimed by a family member, then damn it, it should be given back.  If there is anything that the Holocaust SHOULD have taught us is that no one should have the right to dictate over another.  No matter how sacred the site of Auschwitz or any other camp is, the managers should think about the fact that without those who survive,  they hold on to death and death alone.  They need to teach life, support forgiveness, and let the killing grounds make amends to those they have destroyed.  Soon all the survivors will be gone.  Would it be so terrible to return her paintings to her and negotiate for the right to display them on loan after her passing? 

I understand the Roma wishing to hold on to them at the Museum, as they are a part of a little known history of the Roma Holocaust.  But I believe in this case that copies should have been allowed.  Every document that is precious to a community or a nation often displays a copy to protect the original from damage.  Could not the same be done with these paintings?  The message is the same to anyone who views them.  In fact, the message is strengthened when the observer can be taught that the survivors can work together to create something that is better than the sum of its parts.  The Nazis divided nations, races, families and at last, souls.  They created a conflict that is still with us to this day.  If the Museum, the Roma, and this artist could come together, then they can show that all are above what the Nazis created.


I feel thoughtfulthoughtful
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This journal does not define who I am nor what I want to accomplish. The purpose of this journal is to provide an escape from my studies, a place to have fun. This is where I go to relax.

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