Karl Schwesig was born in Gelsenkirchen (Germany) and he is one of the non-Jewish artists included in this collection. He studied at the art academy in Düsseldorf and was considered one of a group of young artists known as the Junge Rheinland and the Ey group. He was close friends with the Jewish artist Gert Wollheim - a dominant figure in left-wing artistic circles. When the Nazis came to power, Schwesig was imprisoned for seventeen months. After his release in 1935 he fled to Belgium where he received political asylum. He made his living by appearing with other German émigrés in a political cabaret which was highly critical of the Nazi regime in Germany. He sold a few of his art works, but relied largely on help from his friends. During this period he produced several caricatures of the National Socialist Party leaders and posters in support of the fighters in the Spanish Civil War.
When the Germans invaded Belgium in May 1940 he was sent to the camp of Saint Cyprien in the South of France. This was the first of the four camps in which he spent most of the war. In October 1940, after a storm and floods destroyed most of the camp, he was transferred to Gurs. He remained there until February 1941, when he was transferred to Noé until March 1943. From there he was taken to Nexon where he was held in the "political" prisoners section - an area isolated from the rest of the camp and surrounded by two barbed-wire fences. The prisoners who had been brought there from other camps were to be sent back to Germany and on 1 June 1943 he was taken to the Fort Romainville prison in Paris until 15 July 1943. From there he was sent to a prison in Düsseldorf where he remained until the entrance of the Allies in 1945.
After his release, Schwesig lived in Düsseldorf and continued to produce paintings full of criticism of the new German government, which, in his opinion, was no better than the pre-war regime. Other works depict conditions in the internment camps, based on sketches he had made there. One series, from 1948-49, he called Les Inutiles. It depicted disabled prisoners, mostly from the Spanish Civil War, in Noé. In 1946 he married Hannelore Muller and they had two daughters. Schwesig died in Düsseldorf on his 57th birthday on 19 June 1955.
Schwesig suffered from a disease that stunted his growth (his height was about one and a half meters), but he managed to survive the worst conditions in the camps and prisons. One of his ambitions was to document the horrors of the various regimes. So in each of the camps he would sketch, often using highly critical caricature. In addition to these works he produced delicate landscapes in watercolor. His substantial corpus of watercolors and drawings enables us to follow the development of events, such as the storm that destroyed the Saint Cyprien camp in October 1940. His portraits also provide us with faithful representations of their subjects. In some cases he added information to the portraits after their completion. Schwesig also produced pictures showing what everyday life was like in the Vichy camps.
During the 1950s Schwesig visited Beit Lohamei Haghetaot (the Ghetto Fighters' House Musuem) with his family. After his death, Schwesig's widow donated a substantial part of his works from the camps to the museum.
(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)
Karl Schwesig: Leben und Werk. Galerie Remmert und Barth, Düsseldorf, Frölich and Kaufmann, Berlin, 1984.
Miriam Novitch. Spiritual Resistance – 120 Drawings from Concentration Camps and Ghettos 1940-1945. The Commune of Milan, Milan, 1979.