My commitment to drawing came out of a deep instinct of self-preservation and undoubtedly helped me to deny the unimaginable horrors of that time.” Alfred Kantor, 1971
Just as every Holocaust survivor’s testimony is unique, so too is art produced by Jews and other victims of the Nazis during the Holocaust. It is a miracle that this art survived. Each artwork in this exhibition reasserts the artist’s humanity and individuality, qualities too often obscured by iconic Holocaust photographs that were taken by the Nazis or their collaborators.
These artists documented the Holocaust as it unfolded around them, providing a unique personal layer to the visual culture of World War II. Some of the art depicts iconic scenes of the Holocaust, such as ghetto topographies and deportations, while other works are more introspective. The art in this exhibition is not accompanied by historical artifacts produced by the Nazis and their collaborators. While it is important to document perpetrator-made artifacts and images, the art in this exhibition stands alone.
Related: View a virtual tour of this exhibition
Museums and memorials rely on photographic evidence; some survivors produce art reflecting their experiences; and various films and television productions have recreated scenes of World War II.
But what was it like for the deported cartoonist looking out a barrack window at an SS flag?
When a young girl imprisoned in a ghetto was advised by her father, “Draw what you see,” how did she respond?
Rendering Witness: Holocaust-Era Art as Testimony highlights work from the Museum of Jewish Heritage collection made during and immediately after the Holocaust in Czechoslovakia, Germany, Hungary, and Poland. Much of this art was created in secret, with artists facing punishments as harsh as death if they were caught. Some of the artworks are tiny, reflecting their hidden origins. Other drawings were folded and hidden underneath a mattress or beneath one’s prisoner uniform.
To peer into history through the eyes of an artist, documenting what they saw and how they saw it, is the rarest of encounters. Rendering Witness offers a special opportunity to see art made under the most difficult circumstances – and to learn the stories of how it survived.
Related: Behind-the-scenes videos of this exhibition
Some of the art displayed in this exhibition is shown in the slideshow below.