Saturday, August 9, 2008

The stolen Holocaust comics

Since the end of World War II, there has been a debate about what to do with art stolen from Holocaust victims and sold to unwitting third parties. Should the paintings and photographs be returned to the victims' families and into private collections, perhaps never to be seen again? Should title be given back to the families, but the pictures kept at the museums on permanent loan? Or do they belong to the galleries, period?

I have to admit I'm rather ambivalent about the issue. Normally, if the artwork is of significant value -- such as a Rembrandt or a Da Vinci, for instance -- I'd lean towards the second option. If it's of rather lesser value on the auction market, give it back to the families; unless there are no records of who owned what or there is no proof of a provenance. However, this is a case where there is no doubt in my mind. The paintings belong to the artist who made them, and she deserves to have them back, period.

The artist in question is 85-year old Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, who was a talented artist and who helped ensure her and her mother's survival at Auschwitz-Birkenau by becoming the painter for Josef Mengele, the "Angel of Death" at the notorious camp where 1.5 million Jews and at least 19,000 Roma (Gypsies) were murdered. Mengele performed live autopsies on his victims and wanted his handlers who did pictures of his victims to reflect the skin tones to determine their blood quantum. The Nazi graphic artists didn't do such a good job in this department regarding the Roma, so Gottliebova was hired to do the job.

Turns out she was a big fan of Disney films and when she went back home to Czechoslovakia at the end of the war she had a chance encounter with one of the artists of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. She became an artist for several Hollywood studios and became one of the artists for such characters as Speedy Gonzales and Daffy Duck.

Here's where it gets interesting. Auschwitz was turned into a museum and in the 1960s it got hold of several of the Nazi-era paintings, and put it on permanently display. On several occasions, the artist has asked for nothing more than her paintings back. The museum has persistently refused, even though it has tacitly admitted it regularly rotates the real pictures with reproductions -- and the artist has stated she'd be more than happy to let them have the reproductions if she got the originals.

In 2006 a group of 450 cartoonists signed a petition demanding Dina get her paintings back. No luck. Now, they've turned up the heat. Three legends in the comic book community, Neal Adams (Batman), Joe Kubert (Hawkman) and Stan Lee (Spiderman and the Incredible Hulk), have banded together to create a special comic book making the case for Dina (click here for this graphical version of the story and the pertinence of this issue).

This is a really shocking story ... and it is absolutely asinine that the Auschwitz museum continues to take the line that it has. It wasn't other people's work, it was her own. She rightly has title to it as she made them under duress and the penalty of death and she should get them back. End stop. To make her one day longer is as tortuous as what she had to endure during the War.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I don't think the law intends for people to be able to transfer good title when an object was clearly stolen.
I don't think museums wish to hang paintings however grand- that they are now aware were taken from living rooms across Europe.
AND I don't think any of the Holocaust Era cases are ever this straightforward or simple. And that's where ethics, morality must be addressed. The story of cultural theft of the Jews in Europe during WWII will only continue to haunt the art world. The paintings are the witnessess, they hold memory- too bad they can't talk. The true - RESTORED- provenances will carry the lessons of art theft during the Holocaust.
As for Dina- She wouldn't expect Disney to return her artwork after commissioning it. Unfortunately,her wartime art work was commissioned by the Reich via Mengele and as such probably will be found in law to belong to the Auschwitz Museum - although ethics and morality should be given weight here. IMHO She should certainly have the originals- at least for her lifetime.