Alfred Kantor (1923–2003) arrived at the Terezin Ghetto in December 1941 following his deportation from Prague, Czechoslovakia, where he lived with his parents and two siblings. Although the German occupation of Bohemia and Moravia ended his education at the Rotter School of Advertising Art, he continued to draw while in the Ghetto.
The Nazis deported Kantor from Terezin to Auschwitz in 1943, and while there he memorized scenes during the day and drew them in his barrack at night. A Jewish physician assigned to the camp infirmary allowed Kantor to draw there as well, putting them both at great risk of severe punishment. Kantor wrote the following about his time at Auschwitz in The Book of Alfred Kantor (1971):
“I felt obsessed, driven in fact by the overwhelming desire to put down every detail of this unfathomable place. I began to observe everything with an eye towards capturing it on paper: the shapes of the buildings, the insulators on the barbed-wire poles, the battalions of workers at labor sites, the searching for lice, the women carrying soup in heavy barrels, the incredibly eerie feeling of Auschwitz at night with its strange lights and with the glow of flames from the crematorium.”
Later deported to a labor camp at Schwarzheide, Kantor continued to draw at night after his work shifts.
As part of a death march, the Nazis sent him back to Terezin. Although some of the art he made during the war survived, Kantor destroyed most of his drawings immediately after their creation for fear of punishment.
Upon liberation, Kantor briefly returned to Prague and then went to Deggendorf Displaced Persons Camp in Germany in July 1945. There he had an enormous artistic output that visually detailed his entire wartime experience, recreating from memory many of the drawings and paintings he had created and destroyed at Terezin, Auschwitz, and Schwarzheide.
In Kantor’s drawing “Arrival at Auschwitz,” members of the SS and prisoners in striped uniforms with X’s on their backs are shown orchestrating a chaotic scene of an arrival to Auschwitz. Transport after transport, prisoners arrived with their belongings because they had been given instruction to pack essential items before deportation. Upon arrival, their belongings were confiscated. Prisoners were then selected for hard labor or death by gassing.
In The Book of Alfred Kantor, Kantor wrote the following about drawings like “Arrival at Auschwitz”:
“On looking back, I realize that taking it upon myself to single-handedly ‘expose’ Auschwitz with my drawings could only have come while still very young and while still capable of being so brazen despite the bleakest of circumstances. I realize now, too, that this mission served a much greater purpose: and that was that my commitment to drawing came out of a deep instinct of self-preservation and undoubtedly helped me to deny the unimaginable horrors of life at that time. By taking on the role of ‘observer’ I could at least for a few moments detach myself from what was going on in Auschwitz and was therefore better able to hold together the threads of sanity.”
Kantor immigrated to the United States in 1947 and was later drafted into the United States Army through the Selective Service System. After his military service, Kantor finished his studies and worked as a commercial artist in New York. He retired in Maine and passed away in January 2003, leaving behind as his legacy an extraordinary artistic testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The Museum’s exhibition Rendering Witness: Holocaust-Era Art as Testimony, which was on view January 16, 2020 – June 20, 2021, displayed art produced by Jews and other victims of the Nazis during the Holocaust. Each artwork in this exhibition reasserted the artist’s humanity and individuality, qualities too often obscured by iconic Holocaust photographs that were taken by the Nazis or their collaborators.