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John Pilger's Great Eyewitness Photographers

Sarah Medway: In the Realm of the Senses

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The other story of British abstract art

Breaking the silence

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Breaking the silence

Since last year, the Imperial War Museum has devoted a large area to documenting the crimes of the Nazis. Walking through it is an unbearably oppressive experience, since many of the photographs and artefacts are the tainted products of the Nazi's own propaganda machine.

The curator of Legacies of Silence, also on view at the Museum, presents history from another standpoint – a record through the eyes of its victims. Here we see the horror, but at the same time incredible resilience and courage in the determination to remain human and to preserve the memory of the millions who lost their lives.

The drawings of those imprisoned in the ghettos and camps have a quality of resistance by the mere fact that they were made at all, that they are still preserved, and that they do more than present a record.

Halina Olomucki, one of the 46 artists whose drawings and paintings are on view, recalled being told by a fellow concentration camp inmate: "If you live to leave this hell, make your drawings and tell the world about us. We want to be among the living, at least on paper."

Curator and artist Glenn Sujo describes the way that tens of thousands of Jews took part in resistance movements by joining partisan groups and organised themselves in the camps and ghettos. Making clandestine works of art "not only placed the artists’ lives at grave risk, but by resisting the barbarism and brutality of the perpetrator, also constituted acts of spiritual resistance".

Visiting memorial sites, museums and libraries in Europe and Israel, Sujo painstakingly pieced together as much information as possible about the circumstances under which artists functioned. Although cut off from the outside world, their work is intimately connected with the development of art during the 1930s and 1940s.

As Sujo explains, living in France and Belgium was no protection for artists against the concentration camps. Amongst those arrested and interned in France were well-known artists like Max Ernst, Hans Bellmer, Wols, Otto Freundlich and Marc Chagall. The luckier ones were rescued or managed to escape.

Others, like Freundlich, Leon Landau, Adolphe Feder and Felix Nussbaum were sent to concentration camps. Nussbaum's Self Portrait with a key in St Cyprien (1941) (above), for example, shows the hideous conditions through his own accusing and scornful eyes.

Drawings made in Terezín, 50 kilometres from Prague, (opposite page bottom right) depict one of the most bizarre aspects of the Nazi occupation of Bohemia. Re-named Theresienstadt by its new rulers, the town became a major transit point for the planned annihilation of Jews from Western Europe. However, the pretence of a model town was maintained and a measure of self-administration extended to the Jewish Council of Elders, which was drawn into the repression of the inhabitants.

Artists like Bedricht Fritta, Otto Ungar, Moritz Nagl, Charlotte Burešová, Karel Fleischmann, Leo Haas, and Jan Burka produced an astonishing array of images which reveal the horror of life in a surreal world where funeral hearses were used to transport not only the dead, but the living and essential commodities like bread.

Fritta's pen and ink drawings such as Film and Reality and Deluge, Sujo explains, were not as surreal as they may seem. The Nazis employed artists to depict the town as a picture-postcard utopia with modern shops, a children's marionette theatre, and neat gardens.

In 1944, SS Sturmbannführer Hans Günther commissioned a propaganda film about "Theresienstadt" intended to show it was a well-run community "under the protection of the Führer himself". The crew and many in the cast were soon deported to their deaths. Legacies includes drawings made in Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Birkenau and Dachau, and paintings made later by those who survived.n

Legacies of Silence is at the Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1. www.iwm.org.uk

Daily 10-6pm until August 27. Entry £6.50/£5.50; free for children and senior citizens and for all after 4.30pm. Book published by Philip Wilson (£17.95) available at the museum.

This article first appeared in Socialist Future magazine