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Artists Confront their Past (Essay)
Olère, Lieberman-Shiber and Bueno de Mesquita

David Olère
Ella Lieberman-Shiber
Max Bueno de Mesquita

Dr Pnina Rosenberg

To record for posterity was at times the main source of motivation for survivors. The vow to tell everything, to leave nothing untold, to report every aspect of the horrors…The searing testimonies that the survivor swore to write about [1].

The paths of David Olère, Ella Liebermann-Shiber and Max Bueno de Mesquita were not meant to cross. Liebermann-Shiber was born in Berlin, Olère was an immigrant from Warsaw who lived in Paris and Bueno de Mesquita, born in Amsterdam, lived and painted in his natural Dutch surroundings. However, the events of history determined for all three a destiny very different from the life they thought they would lead. They never knew each other, but they shared a common tragic fate - they were all sent to Auschwitz, survived and after the war, each in his/her own environment, was forced to face the traumatic experiences of life and death in the camp in his/her own individual way. Each one came to this confrontation with the past at a different point in time.

David Olère

David Olère: the Testimony of a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz

David Olère was born in 1902 in Warsaw, where he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. At the age of sixteen he moved to Danzig (Gdansk) and to Berlin. In both these cities he held exhibitions of his woodcut prints. In Germany he pursued his artistic career, painting, sculpting and designing scenery and posters for the local film industry. In 1932 he immigrated to Paris, a Mecca for young artists during the first decades of the twentieth century. Like many artists at that time, he lived in Montparnasse, designing film sets, costumes and posters to earn a living. After his marriage he moved to one of the suburbs of Paris, where his only son, Alexander, was born in 1930. With the outbreak of World War II he enlisted in the French infantry. Following the occupation of France he was demobilized and returned to Paris.

During the war Jews living in France were constantly being hunted and rounded up. David Olère was caught in the net in February 1943 and sent to Drancy, a camp in the suburbs of Paris which was known as the "waiting room for Auschwitz" - the ultimate destination of most of the inmates. And indeed, after two weeks in Drancy, David Olère was deported to Auschwitz.

In Auschwitz his many talents were soon recognized - his ability to speak several languages and his artistic talent. He was asked by the Germans to write letters home to their families for them, letters which were written in elegant calligraphy, accompanied by attractive illustrations. He was also given the horrific task of a Sonderkommando, which sent him into the gas chambers where he witnessed the cruelty of the Germans as they gassed people, pulled their gold teeth and committed acts of sexual abuse under the guise of medical examinations.

David Olère emerged from the camps fiercely determined to bear witness, visually and accurately, to everything he had seen and experienced. Straight after his return to his home in France he began to recreate the hell of the camps in works of art that are, without exception, painful to look at.

The works of David Olère seemed to repel, rather than attract, his audience. It is not hard to understand why spectators would prefer to turn away and refuse to look at what David Olère saw with his own eyes in Auschwitz, images that never ceased to haunt him […] He drew only from memory and looked only for truth […] For him [it] was a moral obligation.[2]

These words were written by Serge Klarsfeld [3] , lawyer and historian, who devoted his life to keeping alive the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and documenting the crimes of the Nazis. Not surprisingly, it was he who first came across the works of David Olère and exhibited them to the public.

From 1945 onwards, David Olère was obsessed with the need to create visual testimony of the horrors and cruelty he had experienced. In the Hebrew language the word for "testimony" and the word for "documentation" share a common root, which indicates the symbiotic relationship between the two concepts. The close connection is clearly illustrated in the works of David Olère, who never ceased to document his experiences and thereby to express his personal testimony, throwing additional light on the historical and collective record of the Holocaust.

Camp Inmates vs. SS Officers

In many of his works David Olère depicts the SS officers as the dominant figures. They are presented sharply, with individual characteristics, while their victims are an undifferentiated mass, with no clear facial features (see Inmates Marching, Museum No. 2681, SS Officer Giving Orders, Museum No. 2682, Selection, Museum No. 2673, They Tried to Escape, Museum No. 2655).

By contrasting the anonymity of the inmates with the individualized depiction of the murderers, David Olère not only creates a clear distinction between murderer and victim, but also identifies the Nazis as individuals, as if they were lined up in an identity parade. He is identifying them in the court of history.

When viewing Olère's works the spectator is drawn right into the scene of the murder and horror, as Olère makes no attempt to soften the harshness of the events portrayed. We become witnesses to the acts of brutality in which the victims are shown to be helpless and totally defenseless. It is completely clear who has the upper hand. The inmates, on the other hand, who were individuals in their own right, with desires, fears and ambitions, are now bereft of all indication of their previous existence. Their names have been replaced with serial numbers. Their identity has been deliberately blurred and they have become just one more "undesirable" who should die. The process of dehumanization was designed to give legitimacy to the brutality of the Nazis, allowing them to commit whatever evil acts came into their heads on these subhuman creatures.


During the war people learned to live like animals, to eat and crawl like them, snatching food wherever they could. Hunger and thirst weaken you, each in their own way. Fear oppresses you until even the noblest spirit crawls on all four to steal a piece of bread from a fellow inmate who has just fallen asleep.[4]

Gnawing hunger was a constant companion, weakening both body and soul. From many witnesses, such as Aharon Appelfeld (see above), we learn that this appalling hardship not only caused terrible physical suffering, but in many cases also changed a person's moral code. There are a number of works that depict the distribution of food, mainly bread, in which the inmates eye the prisoner in charge of slicing the bread with overt suspicion and hostility, in case any inmate should receive more than his share. Thus food, or the lack of it, frequently caused tension among the prisoners, destroying friendships and solidarity, which were so important in the unspeakable conditions in which they lived.

Olère depicts the issue of food in a number of his works. One of the drawings, titled New Prisoners (Museum No. 2688), shows women drinking soup straight from the bowl, as there were no other utensils. Ewa Gabanyi, an artist imprisoned in Auschwitz on 3 April 1943[5] , created an album in the camp called A Calendar of Memories (Kalendarz wspomnien). The album comprises 22 small drawings (10X18 cm.), highly dramatic and fantastical in style - surrealistic masked balls, strange animals and exotic landscapes. Among them is an unexpectedly naturalistic drawing of a woman in prison garb, eating, with the text The First Soup in the Camp (Zjada pierwsz zupk lagrowa), dated 27 April 1942. This indicates that Gabanyi received her first hot food in the camp three weeks after she arrived in Auschwitz. In the world of the camps, a seemingly realistic picture touches on the surrealistic.

Olère portrays another aspect of the scarcity of food and its tragic results in the picture Food for the Women (Museum No. 2663), in which he shows himself throwing a food parcel over the barbed wire fence to the female inmates, while another prisoner acts as lookout, making sure no one catches him in the act. On the fence there is a sign "Achtung" with a skull on it - warning against the dangers of the electric fence. Not only was it a major risk to approach the fence, but the act of smuggling food was an offense punishable by death. Nevertheless, Olère's sense of humanity had not completely disappeared in the camp, despite the danger that hovered over him. He explains his act in the text that is part of this picture: "I stole from the SS… food for the women so as not to see them in the crematoria." Olère knew that prisoners who looked strong enough to work in many cases were reprieved from the death sentence of the crematoria. Olère, the artist whose job it was to empty the ashes from the ovens, risked his own life by stealing food and smuggling it to the female prisoners, in a desperate attempt not to meet them in the crematorium.

If in the picture of the starving women eating soup straight from the bowl the lack of spoons is another instance of deliberate dehumanization, in the second drawing, showing the smuggling of food, the emphasis is on solidarity and humanity, the very qualities that the process of bestiality sought to destroy.

Religious Tolerance

Olère's works depict the rich human mosaic that was to be found in the camp - men, women, children, babies, Jews and Christians. Over all of them hovered the threat of the crematorium, whose furnaces cast a deep shadow over life in the camp. A considerable number of pictures emphasize the common destiny of both religions, particularly Priest and Rabbi (Museum No. 2660), Catholics Too, (Museum No. 2661), The Train to Hell (Museum No. 2691), Praying Together (Museum No. 2687) and The Extermination of the Jews (Museum No. 2675).

Two of these works, Praying Together and The Train to Hell, are a visual illustration of the brotherhood of fate. One shows a prayer area common to both religions, with a Star of David alongside an icon of Jesus on the cross. Ironically, religious tolerance is flourishing against the background of the crematoria. In the second picture a rabbi and a priest march together at the head of a deportation procession, guarded by armed and violent SS men. In the background is the image of the train, whose final destination is clear to all. This religious brotherhood is largely the brotherhood of a shared tragic fate.

As well as the art works depicting daily life in the camps, Olère also created a number of symbolic works, such as The Extermination of the Jews; in the center are the Torah scrolls, a prayer shawl and phylacteries, while next to them is a Christian prayer book, a cross and an icon of the Madonna, the mother of Christ. In the background flames leap out of the crematoria chimneys, a representation of the imminent destruction of the religious symbols. The fire is about to consume everything, the fire of madness and hate, which threatens to destroy the culture and values of the Western Judeo-Christian tradition in their entirety.

The paintings represent not only a lament for the brutal annihilation of human beings but also for the attempted destruction of the human spirit. A rich and ancient cultural heritage goes up in flames because of a ruthless hatred, which will leave behind a barren wasteland of devastation.

The Anonymity of the Victims

Olère is not a one-dimensional artist. He uses various techniques and artistic devices in order to describe that which is, paradoxically, indescribable. He in fact makes use of paradox. In several works, as has been mentioned earlier, the prisoners are anonymous, with no identifying features. They are presented simply as an undifferentiated mass. Olère, however, reverses the roles. In anti-Nazi propaganda we are used to seeing the Nazis, the soldiers, the boys in their brown shirts, and the enormous crowds at the various rallies as one great faceless mass, recruited for the "Holy War" of the ranks of the Third Reich against the "Sons of Darkness." Olère deliberately does the opposite. It is the prisoners who are shown as the uniform, one-dimensional mass of the propaganda posters. Thus Olère adds an additional ironic level of meaning to the macabre events he portrays. The huge masses of the Nazis became the cruel and efficient death machine which made millions of people appear like them - a mass of faceless victims with no individual identity whose deaths were also anonymous and collective, with no grave or gravestone, and none of the final acts of respect paid to the deceased. Those who lost their own humanity in turn robbed their victims of their name and identity.

Presentation of the Victims

Olère uses an extensive artistic vocabulary, part of which was taken from the stereotypical figures of the racial propaganda of the National Socialist regime. The men representing the "master race" were beautiful and muscular, while the women were shapely and attractive, like Greek goddesses. In works such as The Last Nursing (Museum No. 2693), and Mother and Daughter through a Machine Gun Barrel (Museum No. 2690), Olère uses visual images that are reminiscent of these kinds of figures. According to the world view of the Nazis, the female prisoners were considered "degenerates" and belonging to an inferior race, and were supposed to look entirely different from the Aryan figures. Yet when Olère, contrary to expectations, depicts them as beautiful women, he creates an ironic reversal. These works are not propaganda art as such, but the opposite. They stand as an accusation by one of the victims of this murderous, seditious propaganda. In these drawings Olère commemorates the women as they were before they became victims of hatred and racialism.

Not by chance do these figures remind one of movie posters. Before the war David Olère had earned his living creating advertisements and posters for the film industry. He simply transferred the artistic style he had used in his former life to the life behind "bars" which the Nazis had imposed on him. By including these figures in his documentation of the Nazi horrors he is creating a cross reference with his previous life, a kind of reminder that, together with millions of other internees in Europe, he had led a normal existence which had been violently cut short.

The Message of the Medium

The medium that Olère chooses to use is determined by his particular mode of documentation. His drawings are modest, using only basic tools and minimal materials, thereby resembling works produced in the ghettoes and camps. They appear to be a kind of prisoner's diary recording daily life in the camp. In fact, the pictures were produced after Olère returned from Auschwitz. His conscious choice of this medium creates the feeling that all his life Olère felt he was "there." But this choice also makes an additional statement by the artist as he again creates a kind of paradox. In a considerable number of works he employs the artistic codes of the Nazi totalitarian regime's propaganda. However, while this art mostly appears in enormous oil paintings or monumental statues, Olère uses a similar artistic "language" but "writes" with it on a much smaller, more intimate scale - the modest medium that served the victims imprisoned in the camps.

Olère, as has been mentioned, survived the war, although even after his liberation it was impossible to turn back the clock. The scenes and horrors, which he records for posterity in his art as witness and documenter, can never be wiped out.

The works of David Olère seemed to repel, rather than attract, his audience. It is not hard to understand why spectators would prefer to turn away and refuse to look at what David Olère saw with his own eyes in Auschwitz, images that never ceased to haunt him […] He drew only from memory and looked only for truth […] For him [it] was a moral obligation.[6]


Ella Liebermann-Shiber

On the artist during the Holocaust

I have tried to express through my drawings all I felt and saw in my youth, everything that made my world dark, so that my work will bear witness to those terrible things. It is a meager attempt, for I do not believe it is possible to convey the horrors we suffered either through drawings, or any other form of expression.[7]

Despite her reservations about the possibility of expressing in art the trauma and horrors that she and her family experienced, Ella Liebermann-Shiber succeeds in creating a sensitive artistic documentation of the events she witnessed. She combines her own life story with the history of an entire community, in which the individual comes to represent generations of a culture that has largely been wiped out forever.

Ella Shiber, (née Liebermann), was born in Berlin in 1927 to a well-to-do merchant family. In 1938, because of her mother's Polish background, they were forced to leave Germany and moved to Bendin, her mother's hometown. During the Second World War all her extended family were sent to the local ghetto. In August 1943, at the time of the final roundup and deportation of Jews, the family - Ella, her parents and her brother Leon - went into hiding in a bunker they had dug out under the garbage bin near their house. Thirteen year old Leon provided food for them, stealing into the house at night along with a Polish man, the janitor of the building, who risked his own life to bring food and other necessities to their hiding place. On one occasion the janitor was questioned by an SS officer as to what he was doing around the garbage bin, and when he refused to give them up, he was beaten, apparently to death. Ella's father understood from this incident that their hiding place was no longer secure, and the family decided to give themselves up to the Germans. They remained in the ghetto until December 1943, when they were deported to Auschwitz. There the women were separated from the men, who were immediately sent to the crematorium. Ella, aged sixteen, and her mother were sent to work in an arms factory. The Germans eventually found out that Ella could draw and, using materials they supplied, she was asked to paint portraits from photographs of their relatives, many of whom had died at the front. Ella and her mother consequently received better food than the other prisoners.

In 1945 Ella and her mother took part in the "Death March." They were transferred to the camp at Neustadt, a satellite of the Ravensbrück camp. In May 1945 they were liberated and decided to return to Poland to look for relatives. They arrived in Bydgoszcz, Bromberg, where Ella met Emmanuel Shiber, a Jewish officer in the Polish army, whom she later married. With the help of the Bricha (Flight) organization, they left Poland and reached a displaced persons camp near Munich, from where they hoped to continue to Israel. The ship they sailed on, the Ben Hecht, was captured by the British off the coast of Israel and the passengers were sent to an internment camp in Cyprus. In April 1948, after being held for around one year in the camp, they finally reached Haifa, where they made their home.

On the Edge of the Abyss

I reconstructed each picture shortly after I was liberated. With trembling hands I began to reconstruct the hell from which, by a miracle, my mother and I had emerged. I felt that every drawing that disclosed the horrors I had endured in some way eased my mind. My faith in mankind and the world of today gradually returned, despite the cruelties my people and I had so recently suffered.[8]

The ninety-three paintings in the series On the Edge of the Abyss depict the life of Ella Liebermann-Shiber's family during the war. She started the series in Poland in 1945, with her husband's encouragement, as he hoped the act of expressing herself in her art would relieve her depression. She completed the series in 1948 in Haifa. These works are the result of the still fresh memories of a young girl who had undergone forced exile, rootlessness, living in hiding and loss of her family and her culture. The series presents her personal family tragedy as part of the general tragedy of the Holocaust.

Life in Hiding

One of the traumatic periods she experienced was living in hiding, like an animal, fearful of being hunted to death. As she herself wrote:

Every day you are hunted, every day you change your hiding place. Death is always imminent. On the night of July 31, 1943, we awoke to the sounds of shooting, crying, shouting: "Jews out." We ran across the yard to our hiding place. It was like a tomb under a garbage bin. My mother and father, my little brother and I, and my old aunt. We sat pressed together, knees bent, so there would be room for all of us. We heard them herding the Jews together and sending them off.[9]

Ella Liebermann-Shiber portrays these feelings in a number of her works, depicting an entire range of emotions - fear, tension and uncertainty, and, maybe worst of all, the feeling of alienation and being cut off from the world, a world which, until that moment, they had been part of and which they were now denied. (See Hiding Place, Museum No. 2538, Hiding Place, Museum No. 2537, Hiding Place, Museum No. 2539 and Search for Hidden Children, Museum No. 2532). Their greatest dread, she recalls, was:

The terrible fear that the crack through which we saw the blue sky would be a thing of the past.[10]

In these works she depicts the contrast between two worlds: the violent external world, with its soldiers armed with rifles, wearing jackboots and helmets to protect their heads; and the hiding places, where men, women and defenseless children huddle in cramped corners, in fear of the constant searches and the punishment that will follow discovery. The visual images accentuate the difference between these two worlds and these two groups of people, as the feeling of helplessness of those seeking refuge is emphasized by the presence of the SS men.

With great clarity Ella Liebermann-Shiber depicts the disparity between underground existence and freedom and sovereignty, between people crouched like animals in a lair and troops with rifles and bayonets, between power that results from the use of force and the struggle to hold onto the little that one has, with the dregs of one's strength.

These two worlds are completely separate. She often expresses this new order of things in her drawings by placing the SS men in the upper half of the picture and the Jews in hiding in the lower half. In fact, the Nazis have here succeeded in realizing their ideology - they are the "Supermen," while the "others," who do not belong to this master race, are an inferior species, below the Nazis. Thus there is no reason not to rid the world of these inferior beings.

Thus Ella Liebermann-Shiber expresses the suffering that she and her family endured, living for several weeks in the hole they had dug out under the garbage bin. Although they were only a few paces from their home, they could not possibly go there, as the house was no longer a place of refuge, but a trap. In addition to these personal feelings Ella Liebermann-Shiber portrays the new world as it exists under Nazi rule, a world in which there is the master race and what they call the "degenerates." As such, it is fitting that their fragile place of refuge was under the ground.

Hunger and Food

Like David Olère, Ella Liebermann-Shiber portrays many scenes concerned with life in the shadow of death. A large number of these works relate to the topic of food. She depicts the various rituals that accompanied the act of eating and the human misery and deterioration caused by extreme hunger. (See Carrying Coffee, Museum No. 2569, Soup Distribution, Museum No. 2570, Eating, Museum No. 2571, Hunger - Looking for Food, Museum No. 2573, Hunger - Stealing Bread, Museum No. 2575).

As in the works portraying the hiding places, these drawings also graphically emphasize the idea of "hierarchy." At the top is the wife of the SS man, beautifully dressed and coiffed (Soup Distribution, Museum No. 2570), then the Kapo, a female prisoner responsible for following orders from those above her, who frequently demonstrated considerable loyalty to her job and behaved brutally towards the inmates (Carrying Coffee, Museum No. 2569). The lowest of the low on this scale of importance, lower than the dogs, were, of course, the women prisoners. They stand in interminable lines and, as in the works of David Olère, they are portrayed without any individual features. They are an anonymous mass, with no personal identity, waiting for their meager helping of soup, their miserable faded clothing in stark contrast to the finery of the SS wife.

Ella Liebermann-Shiber wrote about the ritual of soup distribution:

The Jews receive it last. The dog gets it before them. But it does not like the taste. We do, because we are so hungry.[11]

The fierce hunger makes the battle for survival even more ruthless. If David Olère at times depicted aspects of solidarity, Ella Liebermann-Shiber shows the other side of the coin, those who stole food in order to survive. Ironically, by doing so, they put their lives at risk.

Bread is often stolen at night. A piece of bread and some soup have to last us for 24 hours. A bite every few hours has to carry us over to morning. But sometimes thieves in the night try to steal the hidden bread, even though they know that if they are caught they will pay with their lives.[12]

Such absurd phenomena were all part of daily experience in a world where the laws of logic no longer apply.

Life in the Shadow of Death

While her memories were still fresh, Ella Liebermann-Shiber depicted life in the shadow of the smoking crematoria chimneys. All aspects of daily life are of necessity influenced by this closeness to death. When a group of women arrivals are brought to their barracks in Birkenau, (In the Barracks, Museum No. 2554), they are told:

"Here is where you live, eat and sleep. Here you will die." With these words we are shown to our bunk. There is a dirty blanket for six of us sharing a space. The Block is engulfed in near darkness. Narrow aisles separate the bunks. We are in the women's camp at Birkenau, part of the Auschwitz complex.[13]

The depiction of the bunks, crowded with women prisoners, with no privacy whatsoever, arouses painful feelings in the spectator. The picture seems to be infinite. You cannot see the end of the barracks; the lines of bunks defining the living space of the inmates seem to go on for ever, while the women are crowded together like sardines in a can. Everyone is looking downwards at the floor, their faces having lost all grace and expressing only hopelessness. The densely packed bunks give the impression of a grisly preparation for death, which will be the fate of many of the women portrayed in this picture.

One of the more macabre paintings, showing the dualism of life in close proximity to death, is The Way to Liberation? (Museum No. 2560). The appalling conditions of their imprisonment, death stalking them at every corner and loss of their humanity brought several inmates to despair. In order to escape from all this, from the fear that they were turning into animals, prisoners sought the only means of escape - to run and fling themselves onto the electrified fence promised certain, and immediate, death. The only "liberation," or freedom, granted by this act is the fact that the prisoner, finally and irrevocably, determines his or her own fate. No more wavering between despair and hope, which some inmates describe as one of the hardest things to cope with:

Many prisoners run to the electrified fence. In death they are free. I had a 16 year old friend, full of life, always ready to laugh. Hanka […] pretty, vibrant, broke out of line and ran to the fence. I shouted, I cried - too late.[14]

The Masses

The mass scenes in Deportation(Museum No. 2542), In the Freight Wagon, (Museum No. 2545) and Death March, (Museum No. 2585) reflect various aspects of rootlessness, despair and hopelessness. Ella Liebermann-Shiber portrays in these works the mass transfer of people from one place to another and the dehumanization they undergo. In Deportation the figures are shown from the back, creating a sense of alienation in the spectator. The transportation of these masses is carried out in inhumanly crowded conditions, as she depicts in In the Freight Wagon. Old people, women and babies are crammed together in the freight wagon, each struggling, desperately and unsuccessfully, to find an inch of "living space." With her pencil Ella Liebermann-Shiber manages to portray the cries of weeping and dread, the look of fear and despair, thereby making the terrible scene even more powerful and horrific.

The drawing titled Death March in a way reflects the opposite of the scene presented in Deportation. If in the latter the people are being taken from their homes, or from the camps and ghettoes, to the death camp - with the question "Where to?" ever hovering in the background - in the death march they are making the reverse journey. Now it is 1945, the war is about to end, the army of the "Thousand Year Reich" is on the verge of defeat and its soldiers are making their way back to Germany, taking with them the remnant of humanity which managed to survive the horrors of the camps. The endless procession leaves the gateway of the camp, accompanied by armed guards. Again the prisoners are seen from the back, but, unlike the figures in Deportation, this time they are wearing their camp number on their uniform. The individuals who arrived at the camp are leaving it as a series of numbers, having miraculously survived the mass extermination machine. Some prisoners collapse at the very beginning of the march and their fellow prisoners carry them on their backs, in a sense of solidarity which the brutality of the camp did not succeed in extinguishing. The power of these two drawings, Deportation and Death March, lies in the threatening hush that envelops them. We do not "hear" the cries of fear from the crowded freight wagon but, rather, a deep and terrifying silence.

The Personal and the Collective Experience

Many of Ella Liebermann-Shiber's works depict the personal tragedy she suffered as a young girl - the unsuccessful attempt to hide, the deportation to Auschwitz and life in the camp. Yet at the same time she records the collective experience - the demonisation of the Jews and the physical and spiritual extermination of the Jewish people.

In False Propaganda (Museum No. 2514), and Mocking a Jew at Prayer, (Museum No. 2515), she shows the process by which the negative image of the Jews was created in the minds of the general public. In the former she portrays a group of Jews wearing prayer shawls, holding guns. In front of them there is a photographer. In the latter, a bunch of SS men are mocking a Jew praying in his prayer shawl. Both of these scenes were staged, as Ella Liebermann-Shiber explains:

Orthodox Jews are made to stand in a group. Guns, hand grenades and knives are thrust into their hands. Thus, they are photographed. The photos are sent to Berlin, bearing the attached comment, "The Jews are subversive and must be eliminated."[15]

The explanation for the second picture, Mocking a Jew at Prayer, is given thus:

Jews are forced to pray and are made fun of.[16]

This same intensive propaganda, which ostracized the Jews, also prepared the ground for their extermination. Ella Liebermann-Shiber presents the simultaneous process of the destruction of Jewish cultural and spiritual assets in Burning Books (Museum No. 2502), together with her silent documentation of their physical destruction. In Evidence(Museum No. 2568), literary treasures and Torah commentaries, as well as works of science and philosophy, are thrown onto the flames in order to annihilate not only the authors but also their contribution to society and humanity. Along with the Bible and the Torah scrolls the Nazis burnt the works of Heinrich Heine, Stephan Zweig and the research of Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein in an attempt to wipe out their contribution to Western culture. In addition to these famous names, Ella Liebermann-Shiber also depicts the destruction of anonymous, everyday people, ordinary citizens who have nothing left but a few personal possessions which went with them to their arbitrary death.

Prayer books, a briefcase, dolls, balls, shoes, passports, pictures. The path is strewn with objects that once brought happiness to human beings. Which child hugged this doll to its small bosom - No more. She lies in a lime-covered pit.[17]

For Ella Liebermann-Shiber the starting point is her own tragic, personal biography, from which she moves on to the symbols of collective memory. The gradual transition from normative existence to utter annihilation is presented in her works on two levels, each reinforcing the other - the story of the individual which inexorably comes to symbolize the entire Jewish history during the Holocaust.


Max (Meir) Bueno de Mesquita

Exhausted, we prisoners dragged ourselves to the camp gates. Timidly we looked around and glanced at each other questioningly. Then we ventured a few steps out of camp. […] We wanted to see the camp's surroundings for the first time with the eyes of free men. "Freedom"- we repeated to ourselves, and yet we could not grasp it. We had said this word so often during all the years we dreamed about it, that it had lost it meaning. Its reality did not penetrate into our consciousness.[18]

When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, Max Bueno de Mesquita was a young artist at the beginning of his career. He and all his family were sent to the concentration camps, where most of them perished. He survived and returned to Amsterdam to continue his work as an artist. One of his difficulties was facing the question of how to cope with life after the experiences of the camps, how to face "freedom." Can one ever really be "liberated" from the camps- Bueno de Mesquita sought to confront the intense memories of life in the shadow of death through his art.

Max Bueno de Mesquita was born to a Jewish family in Amsterdam in 1913, growing up in the lively and colorful Jewish quarter. His father worked for the Jewish community, but his hobby was binding antique books. His mother, the dominant figure in the family, encouraged her children to take an interest in art. After going to the Dutch National Museum, the Rijksmuseum, at the age of sixteen, he nurtured the idea of following in the footsteps of one of his uncles and becoming an artist. He studied art at the Academy of the Arts, where, as an outstanding student, he was awarded the prestigious scholarship "Prix de Rome." He did not feel comfortable in Fascist Rome, under the rule of Mussolini, and after a few weeks he returned home and began to study graphic art.

The increasing anti-Semitism led Bueno de Mesquita to become an active Zionist. He planned to immigrate to Israel and even went to train for agricultural work at the Einzel Dewenter Hacshara training farm. While there he met Elizabeth de Jong (Beppie) and in 1938 they were married. On May 10, 1940 the German army invaded and five days later the Netherlands surrendered. Under German rule the anti-Jewish policies worsened. Bueno de Mesquita, his wife and her parents went into hiding. They were discovered thirteen months later, following the arrest of a Dutch underground member who had written down the location of their hiding place in his notebook. They were arrested, and on August 23 1943 they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. His wife's parents were sent straight to the gas chamber. He worked in forced labor in Auschwitz and other camps. When he was liberated his state of health was precarious and he was hospitalized for several months in Linz. In November 1945 he returned to Amsterdam, where he found his wife, whose body bore the marks of medical experiments that had been carried out on her. He also found one of his brothers, but the rest of the family, his parents, two brothers and two sisters, including Kitty, who was pregnant, had all died in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

After the war the relationship between Bueno de Mesquita and his wife deteriorated and for several months he lived in France and Italy. He came to Israel and fought in the War of Independence. Subsequently he returned to the Netherlands, where he remarried, and in 1966 his daughter Kitty was born, named after his beloved sister.

Confronting the Past

After the war Bueno de Mesquita tried to face his past and portray what he and his family had experienced. In his works he intertwines the experiences of the camps with a wide range of artistic subjects - portraits, still life and life studies of the human body - in a kind of attempt to combine the nightmares of the past with the experience of regular life. Emotional and tormented, Bueno de Mesquita painted his Self Portrait on Return from Auschwitz (Museum No. 1644), in which the eyes stare out at the world, revealing guilt and doubt and asking - how can I start to live again?

In works that are abstract and figurative he depicts the reality of the world of the camps. It is as if his rehabilitation has to arise from the ruins of that world. In a stylized, geometrical drawing he portrays the physical structure of the camps (see Barracks in the Camp, Museum No. 1645), summing up the tragic reality in a pair of paintings titled In the Line to the Gas Chamber (Museum Nos. 1622 and 1631). In these two works he shows a group of women on their way to their deaths. In one picture they have a child with them and in the other the first woman in the line is pregnant and holding an infant in her arms. They are standing on uneven ground, their heads surrounded in a kind of halo of smoke, giving them a saintly appearance.

In these paintings, based on his personal and family biography - the murder of his mother and sisters in Auschwitz - he depicts a group of naked women, whose nudity bears no hint of sexuality or eroticism, symbolizing rather their absolute helplessness. He portrays vividly the instability of their world, in which basic values have disintegrated - mothers are unable to protect their children - the uneven ground symbolizing the destruction of the basis of their lives. The figures have lost their individualism, with thick lines emphasizing their womanliness, making them into a kind of "everywoman." Beyond their private tragedy, they represent the millions of women who were murdered in the Holocaust. Moreover, the pregnant women and children signify the eradication of the future generations, those already born and those in their mother's womb. The annihilation is total. For Bueno de Mesquita it is difficult to face the idea of such brutal death and in an act of compassion, through the use of the haloes, he gives the figures an aura of saintliness. Thus their memory is inscribed for eternity through his art.

Facing the Past as Therapy

The experience of disillusionment is different. […] But after liberation- There were some men who found that no one awaited them [...] Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for! Perhaps he boarded a trolley, traveled out to the home which he had seen for years in his mind, and only in his mind, and pressed the bell, just as he has longed to do in thousands of his dreams, only to find that the person who should open the door was not there, and would never be there again.

There were two […] fundamental experiences which threatened to damage the character of the liberated prisoner: bitterness and disillusionment when he returned to his former life. Bitterness was caused by a number of things he came up against in his former hometown. When on his return, a man found that in many places he was met only with a shrug of the shoulders and with hackneyed phrases, he tended to become bitter and to ask himself why he had gone through all that he had.[19]

Thus Victor Frankl, psychiatrist, writes about the sense of disillusionment, the return home and the encounter with one's surroundings, which was frequently painful and alienating. Himself a survivor of Auschwitz, he developed a new therapy, known as logotherapy, which focuses on searching for a higher sense of meaning for human life. Bueno de Mesquita suffered similar experiences to those of Frankl. On his return his relationship with his wife declined, most of his family had perished and despite his efforts to rehabilitate his life, he was in a constant depression. His relentless memories and ongoing feelings of grief, which never dispersed, brought him to despair and hopelessness and in 1970 he tried to take his life. As a result he was admitted to the clinic of Dr. Bastiaans, a Dutch psychiatrist who had developed a new type of therapy, based on the use of LSD, for people suffering from "Post Concentration Camp Syndrome." During his treatment Bueno de Mesquita created a number of works reflecting his past experiences, using a richly symbolic artistic style, with the gaudy colors of nightmares to depict the indescribable.

Collective Symbols

Several of the works he created during this time focus on the victims - among them members of his family - who underwent a process of dehumanization, as individuals were transformed into serial numbers, resembling a police identity parade. This is clearly shown in What have they Done to Our Girls? (Museum No. 1642ab) and The Numbers that Survived (Museum No. 1629). The figures have become two dimensional and stylized. They have changed from being flesh and blood individuals to a series of numbers, standing in numerical order: the alienated victims of mass murder carried out with mechanical efficiency by the Nazi death industry.

Bueno de Mesquita again depicts symbols of the collective experience in Figure of a Woman, "The Six Million" (Museum No. 1634), in which, not by chance, the archetypal woman recalls the figures of the women in In the Line to the Gas Chamber. In contrast to the gaudy colors of the previous pair of paintings, this time the colors in the picture have significance. The number 6, painted in purple and turquoise on her stomach, suggests the shape of a fetus; her bosom is painted in childishly bright colors, yellow, pink and green, while the woman's nails are red as they grasp the base of the number 6. Together they create the image of a colorful butterfly, which appears in several of his works from this period.

The Artist, his Sister Kitty and the Butterfly

Arrival of My Sister Kitty to Auschwitz (Museum No. 1623), Dehumanization, Arrival of My Sister Kitty to Auschwitz (Museum No. 1619) and Mother in the Gas Chamber with a Butterfly (Museum No. 1643) show the two extremes of the Auschwitz process. Kitty, who is pregnant, represents not only Bueno de Mesquita's beloved sister, but also the next generation, which she is carrying in her womb. Mass murder means not only the destruction of the Jewish people, its culture and heritage at the present time, but also the annihilation of future generations. In both the pictures showing his sister's arrival at Auschwitz, Bueno de Mesquita portrays the process of dehumanization to which she was subjected. She is transformed from a woman of flesh and blood in Arrival of My Sister Kitty to Auschwitz (Museum No. 1623), painted in warm colors, into a mechanical, robot-like figure, in which the only discernible human element is the fetus being ground up by the death machine. The cold colors of Dehumanization, Arrival of My Sister Kitty to Auschwitz (Museum No. 1619) emphasize the non-human, mechanical feeling. Kitty and her unborn child, which will never be born, have changed from living people to items on the mass production line of the Nazi death industry.

This topic, which constantly haunted Bueno de Mesquita, found sensitive artistic expression in the triptych Metamorphosis in Auschwitz (Museum Nos. 1630a-c). Here he contrasts the victims - his sister and her infant- with the components of the death machine, i.e. the trains and the gas chambers. The human beings are drawn with softness and gentleness while the instruments of death are cold and schematic. The contrast between the victim and the murderer can also be seen in the figure of Kitty, clutching her belly, her womb, the butterfly. This colorful, fragile creature, the symbol of freedom, has a short life span, like the fate of the murdered members of his family. Unlike the butterfly, however, there is no cycle of reproduction and renewal, only a brutal end, as the mother rises in the smoke to the sky, to the angels, in a painting reminiscent of Chagall. The butterfly also appears in Mother in the Gas Chamber with a Butterfly (Museum No. 1643), dedicated to "all murdered mothers." The butterfly, unrestrained by boundaries, flits from mother to daughter, symbolizing the common fate that awaits them.

The butterfly is constantly at the mercy of butterfly hunters, trying to trap it in their nets. Bueno de Mesquita employs this image to convey the essence of his family's experience in the Holocaust, being hunted, captured and destroyed, as the personal experience comes to represent the collective fate of the Jewish people, while the butterfly escapes the camps and the crematoria.

    For seven weeks
    I've lived in here […]
    But I never saw a butterfly […]
    Butterflies don't live here,
    In the Ghetto[20]

Central Motifs

Bueno de Mesquita uses images taken from various worlds, but mainly from the world of childhood. Butterflies, toy trains, outlined figures - these childlike elements enable him to create an ironic contrast with the subject he is depicting. These supposedly innocent drawings are being used to portray a cynical and brutal reality. He chose to present this demonic nightmare in subtle and sophisticated hues, aiming not to horrify the spectator, but to arouse a feeling of identification with the single solitary figure before she becomes part of the indistinguishable mass. Bueno de Mesquita seeks to reverse the dehumanization and return to the victims their individuality and personality.

Max Bueno de Mesquita died on February 5, 2001, shortly after celebrating his eighty-eighth birthday. In his works he repeatedly portrayed the lives of people murdered in the Holocaust, seeking through this commemoration to create a ray of hope in those who survived the madness and the destruction.



Three artists, three different worlds, yet their artistic works have much in common. The paintings and drawings of David Olère and Ella Liebermann-Shiber portray various stages in the life of the prisoners, from the moment of their arrival in the camp up to the "Death March." Pictures such as these are a kind of journal documenting the main events in the life of the inmates, and are familiar from pictures produced in the camps[21] or shortly after liberation. Like Ella Liebermann-Shiber, Alfred Kantor made 127 drawings while he was interned in Degendorf displaced persons' camp in Bavaria. He arrived there in July 1945, and, in a space of two months, produced drawings based on his memories of all the various camps in which he had been imprisoned - Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Schwarzheide[22] . The act of immediate expression of his experiences through art seems to have been a kind of exorcism, as if he sought to purify himself from the physical and mental horrors he had undergone and free himself, as far as possible, from these appalling experiences.

For David Olère and Ella Liebermann-Shiber, their artistic talents were clearly an advantage during the time they were imprisoned. David Olère was asked by the Germans to write illustrated letters to their relatives, while Ella Liebermann-Shiber drew portraits for them from photographs of family members. Their conditions improved slightly due to these services, in that they received better food than the other prisoners. Their art, which had helped them through the dark times, also helped them confront their memories later, when painting became not only a means of documentation but also a kind of therapy. "I felt that every artistic revelation of the horrors of my past brought me some relief and, to some extent, calmed my thoughts," writes Ella Liebermann-Shiber.

The therapeutic effect of art can be seen clearly in the works of Max Bueno de Mesquita, produced "light years" after the event and portraying his own horrific experiences, as well as the suffering and death of his family, which he learned of only subsequently. It is safe to say that the more time has elapsed, the greater the artistic and aesthetic processing of the images and scenes. The works of David Olère and Ella Liebermann-Shiber are direct, depicting reality unflinchingly, while the works of Bueno de Mesquita are much more stylized and, in some cases, abstract. In several paintings, unless you are aware of the context of his work, it is possible see his paintings as belonging to quite different artistic schools; for instance, the picture of the series of numbers could be considered pop art.

Although David Olère's works are directly documentary[23] , they too have undergone an interesting artistic transformation. The women in his pictures are shown as attractive and aesthetically pleasing. This idealization serves to increase the sense of horror, but at the same time reveals the artist's humanism, as he allows the images of the victims to preserve their human spirit.

Ella Liebermann-Shiber, David Olère and Max Bueno de Mesquita are very different from each other, both in their fate before the war and their lives after it, yet for all of them the war years were the defining experience of their personalities. Despite the differences, there are a number of commonalities among them. Alongside the physical deprivation, hunger, abuse and punishment that the prisoners suffered from, they also show the spiritual annihilation of the Western cultural heritage, carried out with crude vandalism and brutality. All three of them portray in their own unique artistic style the image of the individual internee who is turned into one of the anonymous mass of prisoners, losing all personal features. They become one of the Six Million, or one of The Numbers that Survived.

Through art their personal memories have become collective symbols, so that the artists and their families are presented both on the individual level and on the level of society and the Jewish people. It is impossible to revive trees that have been uprooted and the scar will remain for ever. Artists, like other survivors, try to face the bleeding wounds of the past in their own way. But for every one of the liberated prisoners, the day comes when, looking back on his camp experiences, he can no longer understand how he endured it all. As the day of his liberation eventually came, when everything seemed to him like a beautiful dream, so also the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare.

The crowning experience of all, for the person returning home, is the wonderful feeling that, after all he has suffered, there is nothing he need fear any more - except his God.[24]



[1] Aharon Appelfeld, "Survivors, Commemoration and Art," Bishvil Ha'zikaron, Yad Vashem, 24 p.6

[2] Serge Klarsfeld, The Eye of a Witness: David Olere in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, New York, 1989, p. 9.

[3] Alexander Olère, son of the artist, in a letter, 19 February 1998

[4] Appelfeld, ibid. p.4

[5] Ewa Gabanyi, born to a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia (1918), imprisoned in Auschwitz on April 3,1943, prisoner number 4739. Album A Calendar of Memories (Kalendarz wspomnie?), created in Auschwitz in 1944, comprises 22 small drawings (10X18 cm), part of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum Archives. I wish to thank the Director of the Museum, Jerzy Wróblewski and the Director of Publications, Teresa Wróblewski, for the information they provided on this topic.

[6] Serge Klarsfeld, The Eye of a Witness: David Olere in the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, New York, 1989, p. 9.

[7] Ella Liebermann-Shiber. On the Edge of the Abyss. Ghetto Fighters' House, 1997 (third printing).

[8] Liebermann-Shiber, ibid.

[9] Liebermann-Shiber, p. 49.

[10] Op. cit.

[11] Liebermann-Shiber, p.

[12] Liebermann-Shiber, p. 64.

[13] Liebermann-Shiber, p. 70.

[14] Liebermann-Shiber, pp. 23, 24.

[15] Liebermann-Shiber, p. 78

[16] Liebermann-Shiber, p. 78

[17] Liebermann-Shiber, p. 78

[18] Victor E. Frankl. Mans' Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Dvir, Tel Aviv, 1981. Eleventh printing, p 111.

[19] Frankl, ibid. pp 114, 115

[20] Favel Freidmann, "The Butterfly", in: Children's Drawings and Poems: Terezin 1942-1944. Statni Zidovske Museum (State Jewish Museum), Prague, 1959, p. 33.

[21] In the camp at Gurs in France a number of such journals were produced, some of them humorous caricatures. For example, Horst Rosenthal, Mickey au camp de Gurs, 1942; La Journée d'un hébergé, camp de Gurs, 1942. Collection Musée de la Shoah, Paris; Liesel Flesenthal, Gurs 1941. Collection of Leo Baeck Institute, New York.
See: Pnina Rosenberg. L'art des indésirables: l'art dans les camps d'internement français. L'Harmattan, Paris, 2002, pp

[22] Alfred Kantor, Auschwitz prisoner number 168524 The Book of Alfred Kantor. McGraw Hill, New York, 1971

[23] David Olère's works have also served as legal testimony. Robert Jan van Pelt, expert witness in the Irving-Lipstadt trial (London 2004), brought David Olère's works as evidence of the existence of the gas chambers. Robert Jan van Pelt. The Case for Auschwitz: Evidence from the Irving Trial, Indiana University Press, 2002

[24] Frankl, pp 99-100