Staying alive in Nazi concentration camps during World War II was an accomplishment. But many of the inmates did more than merely survive. They created works of art. Thousands of drawings and paintings survived the war, and a couple hundred of them are on display near Chicago.
In late 1944, Max Garcia was a 20-year-old man imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Thanks to a friendship he struck up with a fellow prisoner who played trumpet, and the influence of a Nazi S.S. official who took a liking to them, Mr. Garcia, the trumpeter, and a few other musician prisoners performed a cabaret for the S.S. and others on Sunday afternoons.
"No political jokes. No political insinuations. Nothing against the S.S. You can crack jokes, as long as they are without any political overtones," he said.
Mr. Garcia was recently at Northwestern University near Chicago for the opening of a new exhibit titled: "The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz." It is a collection of about 200 works of art created by prisoners in Auschwitz and other Nazi camps, or just after the camps were liberated. Mr. Garcia's artwork is not something you can hang on the wall, but he says it was art nonetheless.
"We were doing a form of art, which was outfoxing the S.S. in a major way. We were trying to play their game at their speed in order to stay alive. In a concentration camp, staying alive is an art form," he said.
The co-curator of the exhibit, Corinne Granof, says the artworks currently on display at the university's Block Museum of Art were not only ways of outfoxing the S.S., but often were just a temporary means of escape. "A lot of artists talk about how important it was to be able to make art, because it offered a mental escape from daily existence, and a way just not to think about what they were doing," he said.
The works include portraits, as well as sketches of landscapes and scenes from daily life in the camps. One pencil-on-paper drawing by Yehuda Bacon depicts the Auschwitz crematoria.
"It shows people carrying dead bodies into the crematorium. It is a very unembellished drawing. It is very straightforward," he said.
The drawing was used as evidence in the 1961 war crimes trial of Adolf Eichmann for his role in the extermination of Jews. Mr. Bacon now lives in Jerusalem, and says when he made his drawings, it was with the hope that people who might see them would become better people.
"We were children, and children do not think like grownups. It was just a kind of desire to give expression to what went on. I had a feeling I had to remember everything," he said. Some of the works in the exhibit are elaborate oil paintings of people or landscapes. Camp officials often ordered prisoners with artistic ability to create works for Nazi training manuals or for their personal collections. Ms. Granof says most of the works are much simpler: pencil or charcoal drawings on scraps of paper.
"Artists found materials or were given materials and they would pretty much use anything as a means to document what they had witnessed or experienced in the camps," she said.
The clandestine works were often hidden in the camps until they could be smuggled out. Some artists sent out drawings to help spread the word about what was happening in the camps. Mr. Garcia says it was dangerous work.
"Every one of the artists, or those who wished to be artists or were professional artists, if they wanted to get oils, or charcoals or paper, paint or whatever, somebody had to risk his life to bring it in and take the product out," he said.
Most of the artworks in the exhibit are from museum collections in Poland and Israel. Yehuda Bacon was a teenager when he made his sketches, and says he is proud they are part of an exhibit that can help educate people about the past.
"In a way I felt obliged. It was much later, but I felt a responsibility to tell for those people who did not survive," he said.