The Holocaust – Jewish Women Artists

Gertrude Simon 1/10

Gertrude Simon was a German-Jewish successful photographer who exhibited her work in Berlin between the late 1920s and early 1930s, and her career has been forgotten. She belonged to the artistic and intellectual scene of the time and photographed actors, singers, politicians, scientist like Albert Einstein, as well as artists, writers and critics.

‘In 1929, Gerty Simon was one of the exhibitors at a major touring exhibition, Fotografie der Gegenwart, which showcased the work of the leading German photographers of the day.’ Her career was destroyed by the political and economic crisis of Germany in the early 1930s. She wrote: “Under the Nazi regime I found myself as a Jew in particular danger, because I had taken numerous photographs of Social Democrats and anti-fascist personalities and exhibited them in public.”

In 1933 she left her home, studio and husband and fled Nazism with her son Bernard. She settled in England making photos of people in the most influential circles of London. The Sunday Times described her at this time as “The most brilliant and original of Berlin photographers”.

She died in 1970. In 2019 The Wiener Holocaust Library had an exhibition of her work and in 2021, for the first time in eight decades, the work of this great forgotten photographer will be shown to the public in Berlin.

Very few details of her childhood are known, so with this drawing I want to connect with her inner child, the free spirit that followed her the rest of her life.

8 Otti BergerOtti Berger 2/10

Otti Berger was a Croatian textile artist and designer who studied and worked in the Bauhaus in Dessau, Germany. She sat at Klee and Kandinsky lectures and became the Deputy Head of Weaving while experimenting with methodologies and materials for mass production with in-depth knowledge of the needs of industry. She rejected the understanding of textiles as a feminine craft and used the rhetoric of photography and painting to describe her work.

In 1932 she opened her own company ‘Atelier for Textile’ in Berlin and collaborated with various textiles companies that produced materials based on her innovative solutions. In 1936 she was forced to close her company down due to her Jewish origins.

She fled to London and unsuccessfully tried to obtain a teaching visa to travel to the States where other Bauhaus lecturers (including her partner Ludwig Hilberseimer) were already teaching at the New Bauhaus in Chicago.

She also could not find a job in London because she did not speak the language and had no friends. ‘For the English she was German.’ In 1938 she travelled home to take care of her ill mother and in 1944 she and her family were deported to Auschwitz and killed.

3 Debora VogelDebora Vogel (In Yiddish Dvoyre Fogel) 3/10

Debora Vogel is an overlooked Polish Yiddish philosopher and writer of poetry, prose, literary and art criticism from the 1930s avant-garde. She was killed in the Lwów ghetto. With such an experimental and creative practice, my drawing is an attempt to connect with her as a child, a very powerful free spirit that followed her the rest of her live. She studied philosophy in Vienna and Polish literature in Cracow. She completed a PhD on the influence of Hegel’s aesthetics upon Józef Kremer. She wrote in German and Yiddish and published essays, art reviews, and her own experimental poems, fusing poetry and art. She was part of Yiddish literary circles and contributed articles for several Yiddish journals of literature and art. Vogel’s works explored aesthetical concepts in a highly experimental way. She was an artistically emancipated soul.

5 Gertrud Kolmar

Gertrud Kolmar

(Pseudonym of Gertrud Chodziesner) 4/10

Gertrude Kolmar was a lyric poet considered one of the most important women poets in German literature, and ‘the greatest lyrical poetess of Jewish descent who has ever lived’. She was the cousin of Walter Benjamin. She died in Auschwitz in the Nazi Final Solution.

She was an interpreter and censor of soldiers’ correspondence in a prisoner-of-war camp near Berlin. From July 1941 she was ordered to work in forced and unpaid labour in the German armaments industry.  In the late 1920s her poems appeared in literary journals and she published her poetry books. The third volume, Die Frau und die Tiere came out in 1938 but was destroyed after the Kristallnacht pogrom, that year.

She had a disappointing love affair which ended with an abortion which her parents insisted on her having. With the intensification of Jewish persecution under National Socialism her sister emigrated to Switzerland and Gertrud stayed with her father and they were obliged to sell their house and move to ‘Jewish housing’ in Berlin. In Kolmar’s imagination that was ‘her lost paradise’.

Her surviving work consists of 450 poems, three plays and two short stories. “In a letter of July 1941, Gertrud Kolmar writes to her sister Hilde: ‘I am a poet, yes, that much I know; but I never want to be a writer.’” She thought poetry had the power to reveal the person’s spiritual dimension. As a child Gertrud Kolmar wrote fictional works and with this drawing I made, I want to connect with that child, with the powerful free spirit that followed her the rest of her life.

4 Charlotte Salomon

Charlotte Salomon 5/10

Charlotte Salomon is an overlooked artist from Berlin. She was gassed to death in Auschwitz at 26 and her work ‘chronicles the genesis of an artist from a family of dark secrets—mental illness, molestation, suicides, drug overdoses, and Freudian love triangles’. She studied art but stopped when Hitler came to power. When her father was captured after Kristallnacht, she was sent to the South of France with her grandparents. Decades later a 35 pages confession was brought to light where she explains how she killed her grandfather and made a portrait of him as he was dying. ‘Salomon illustrates her grandfather’s requests to share “a bed with me,” and his predatorial reasoning: “I’m in favour of what’s natural.” “Everything I did for my grandfather drove blood to my face,” she wrote in the confession. “I was sick. I was constantly beet-red from mute rage and grief.’ After her grandmother killed herself the family doctor suggested her to paint and she started ‘Life? Or Theatre? 769 autobiographical paintings made in her last two years.

Her mother committed suicide when Charlotte was eight years old. This drawing I made is an attempt to connect with that little girl. That free spirit that followed her, I believe, the rest of her life.

2 Hannah Szenes colour

Hannah Szenes 6/10

Hannah Szenes was a Hungarian poet, diarist, playwriter and spy. After studying agriculture she began writing in Hungarian and Hebrew. In WWII she became a member of the clandestine organisation Special Operations Executive conducting espionage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe. In 1943 she enlisted as an aircraftwoman in the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. In March 1944 she was parachuted into Yugoslavia and upon landing she joined the partisan group.

They learned that the Germans had already occupied Hungary. Szenes crossed the Hungarian border and she was arrested by the gendarmery who found her British military transmitter. In the prison in Budapest she used a mirror to flash signals out of the window to prisoners in other cells. In 1944 she was tried for treason and executed by a firing squad in a snow-covered Budapest courtyard, age 23. After the Cold War a Hungarian military court officially exonerated her.

Her father died when she was six years old. This drawing is an attempt to reach with my imagination the dreams of that little girl, the seeds of the poet, the woman, the inner child that followed her, free spirited, the rest of her life.

Charlotte Delbo

Charlotte Delbo 7/10

In March 1942 French police arrested the writer Charlotte Delbo as she was preparing to distribute anti-German leaflets in Paris. The French turned her over to the Gestapo who imprisoned her as a member of the French Resistance. She was put in a train to Auschwitz. After a year in the concetration camp she was selected to farm the perennial flower Russian Dandelion (emergency source of rubber in WWII) and survived. With my imagination I tried to reach with colour and fiction her also free inner child.

7

Rokhl Auerbakh 8/10

“No words can express what has happened. Is not my pen that can describe the horrors of genocide.” Rokhl Auerbakh was a Yiddish writer, journalist, historian, Holocaust scholar, and survivor. She wrote extensively in Polish and Yiddish about the east European Jewish Polish literature, education, psychology, linguistics and art.

In 1933 she moved to Poland and during the German occupation was detained and taken to the Warsaw ghetto. Amongst the bombs and fires, she set up and directed a public kitchen in a building in ruins, feeding thousands a day. She wrote during the night. The place became the hub for cultural and political activities. An entry in 1941 says: “’Please give us, throw us something, merciful Jews.’ These words ring in our ear incessantly. The public song and pain of hunger, from those that will soon be found dead in the edges of sidewalks. So many of those that came to our kitchen disappeared. Entire families, entire communities… in front of our very eyes. No soup could save them.” She secretly documented the events and personal encounters, as part of the clandestine group with the code name Oyneg Shabbes. She escaped the ghetto and was instrumental in the retrieval of the archive’s collection in 1946. After the war she continued to collect survivor testimonies as part of the Historical committee in Poland. She established the Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony at Yad Vashem Israel. And she testified at the Eichmann trial in 1961. She died in 1971. Her parents died when she was a child. With this drawing I want to connect with that small girl, with the free spirit that followed her the rest of her life.

6 Elena Shirman

Elena Shirman 9/10

Elena Shirman is an overlooked Russian poet. She studied at the Gorky Literary Institute and while working as a kitchen assistant she taught literature and culture to the children of factory workers.

Her poems defied Soviet conventions by being the center of the unsatisfied love with Valery Marchikhin, a young man, former student.

In July 1942, Shirman was traveling to the frontline area as part of the editorial group of the Soviet newspaper Molot. She was arrested by the Nazis at the railway station in Rostov Oblast, and never heard from again. The details of her death came to light twenty years later by a woman who lived next to the station. Shirman was forced to watch the Nazis killed her parents, then she was undressed to dig her own grave and was beaten to death. The witness rescue some of Shirman’s notebooks from the Nazis trash.  In 1969 a collection of her poems was published in Moscow. Her work is included in several Russian anthologies.

Her father was a navigator and her mother a teacher, so with this drawing I want to connect with her as a child, with the free spirit that followed her the rest of her life.

Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger 10/10

Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger was a Romanian-born poet who died in 1942 at 18 years old of typhus in Michailowka labour camp. ‘Where the Germans and Ukrainians starved and terrorized the prisoners mercilessly.’ Critics include her among the world-class poets. She was a cousin of Paul Celan.

She studied in Yiddish but wrote by hand in German. With her friends they did readings by Rilke, Heine, Tagore (whose novel The Home and the World she took to the labour camp), and discussed Goethe, Freud, Kafka. ‘They were literary cosmopolitans.’ She wrote by hand a collection of fifty-two poems called ‘Blütenlese’ (The Reaping of Blossoms) about love, loss and life. She gave the collection to her love Leiser Fichman (whom she met in Ha Shomer Hatza’ir). He kept the notebook of poems in the camp until 1944, when he sent it to Else, Selma’s friend, in Czernowitz. He boarded the Mefküre, a clandestine immigrant vessel going to Palestine. The vessel was attacked and sank in the Black Sea. Leiser Fichman passed away without knowing that Selma had died.

Years before, Selma’s grandfather immigrated to Palestine and suggested Selma to follow him, but her mother couldn’t bear to be separated from her daughter.

A camp inmate wrote in his diary days after Selma died: ‘Selma’s mother has told me that her daughter was on the verge of making a getaway with a guard’s help before she was taken ill. She has it from a farewell letter addressed to her, found in Selma’s coat… To my surprise I also learned that Selma used to write beautiful poetry.’

Her father died when Selma was two years old and with this drawing I aim to connect with her inner child. With the free spirit that followed her the rest of her life.