Women Artists Under the Nazi Regime

This work was published in 2021 by the journal Literature and Belief, in a special edition of 220 pages by Professor Victoria Aarons Department of English, Trinity University, San Antonio Texas.

From 1933 to 1944, the Nazi Regime in Germany censored all forms of art except those that represented their specific racial and heroic ideas. Living under Nazi rule, hundreds of Jewish women artists were forced to sublimate the world that they witnessed and the sentiment the world produced in them. Most of them were annihilated in concentration camps for being Jewish, and most of their work was burnt or lost.

My desire to make digital portraits of the artists described here grew out of the rage I feel as a Jewish artist woman. Part portrait and part a dream, these works are intended to allow me to connect, through my own inner child, with the inner child of each of these Jewish women artists—artists who suffered under the Nazi Regime and whose childhoods are mostly unknown. My goal is to make a humble homage to them, to sublimate the free spirit that followed them the rest of their lives.

Otti Berger (1898-1944)
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 material 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 textile companies that produced materials based on her innovative solutions. In 1936 she was forced to close her company due to her Jewish origins. After that she fled to London and unsuccessfully tried to obtain a teaching visa to travel to the United States where other Bauhaus lecturers 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. In 1938 she travelled home to take care of her ill mother, and years later she and her family were deported to Auschwitz to be assassinated.
Debora Vogel (1902 – 1942)
Debora Vogel is an overlooked 1930s avant-garde Polish Yiddish philosopher and writer of poetry, prose, literary and art criticism. She studied philosophy in Vienna and Polish literature in Cracow. She completed a PhD on the influence of Hegel’s aesthetics upon Józef Kremer. Vogel wrote in German and Yiddish and published essays, art reviews, and her own experimental poems, fusing poetry and art. She was a part of Yiddish literary circles and contributed articles for several Yiddish journals of literature and art. Her works explored aesthetic concepts in a highly experimental way. She was an artistically emancipated soul. Debora Vogel was killed in the Lwów ghetto.
Gerty Simon (1887 – 1970)
Gertrude Simon was a successful German-Jewish photographer who exhibited her work in Berlin between the late 1920s and the early 1930s. Although her career has been forgotten, she belonged to the artistic and intellectual scene of the time, and she photographed actors, singers, politicians, and scientists, as well as artists, writers, and critics. In 1933 she left her home, studio, and husband and fled Nazism with her son. She settled in England, taking photos of people in the most influential circles of London. The Sunday Times described her as “The most brilliant and original of Berlin photographers.” The Wiener Holocaust Library had an exhibition of her work in 2019, and in 2021, for the first time in eight decades, her work was shown to the public in Berlin.
Rokhl Auberbakh (1903 – 1976)
Rokhl Auerbakh was a Yiddish-Israeli writer, journalist, historian, Holocaust scholar, and survivor. She wrote extensively in Polish and Yiddish about East European Jewish Polish literature, education, psychology, linguistics, and art. In 1933 she moved to Poland, and during the German occupation she was detained and taken to the Warsaw Ghetto. Amongst the bombs and fires of the Warsaw Ghetto, she set up and directed a public kitchen in a building in ruins, feeding thousands of people a day and spending the nights writing as the ruined building became a hub for cultural and political activities. She secretly documented the events and personal encounters as part of the clandestine group with the code name Oyneg Shabbes. Auberbakh escaped the ghetto and was instrumental in the retrieval of the archive’s collection in 1946. After the war, she continued to collect survivors’ 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. Auberbakh died of breast cancer.
Elena Shirman (1908 – 1942)
Elena Shirman is an overlooked Russian poet. She studied at the Gorky Literary Institute and, while working as a kitchen assistant, taught literature and culture to the children of factory workers. Her poems defied Soviet conventions by having, at their center, the unsatisfied love she felt for Valery Marchikhin, a young man and former student. In July of 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 were brought to light twenty years later by a woman who lived next to the station. According to that eyewitness, Shirman was forced to watch the Nazis kill her parents; then she was undressed to dig her own grave, then beaten to death. Witnesses to the atrocity rescued 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.
Gertrud Kolmar (1894 – 1943)
Gertrude Kolmar (pseudonym of Gertrude Chodziesner) was a lyric poet considered by post-war critics to be both one of the most important women poets in German literature and one of the greatest lyrical poetess of Jewish descent who has ever lived. In the late 1920s, her poems appeared in literary journals and she published her poetry books, the third of which, Die Frau und die Tiere, came out in 1938, but was destroyed after the Kristallnacht pogrom that year. Kolmar was an interpreter and censor of soldiers’ correspondence in a prison-of-war camp near Berlin, and in July of 1941 she was ordered to work in forced and unpaid labour in the German armaments industry. She had a disappointing love affair, which ended with an abortion that her parents insisted on. With the intensification of Jewish persecution, her sister emigrated to Switzerland, and Gertrude stayed with her father. 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. She was the cousin of Walter Benjamin. She died in Auschwitz.
Charlotte Salomon (1917 – 1943)
Charlotte Salomon is an overlooked artist from Berlin. She studied art but stopped when Hitler came to power. When her father was captured during Kristallnacht, she was sent to the South of France with her grandparents. Decades later a thirty-five page confession was brought to light in which she explains how she killed her grandfather after he abused her sexually, and how she made a portrait of him dying. After her grandmother killed herself, the family doctor suggested that she paint, and she started her work Life? Or Theatre? 769 autobiographical paintings were made in her last two years. She was gassed to death in Auschwitz.
Charlotte Delbo (1913-1985)
Charlotte Delbo was a French writer, known for her memoirs as a prisoner in Auschwitz. In March of 1942 the French police arrested her 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. Delbo remained in prison in Romainville in German-occupied France until January 24, 1943. Then she was deported to Auschwitz. After a year in the concentration camp she was selected to farm the perennial flower Russian Dandelion—an emergency source of rubber in World War II—and survived. She was liberated by the Red Cross and was transported to Sweden for rehabilitation. During the 1960s she worked for the United Nations with philosopher Henri Lefebvre. Two decades later, she died of lung cancer. Delbo’s work has been influential for scholars and became part of most college-level courses on the subject of the Holocaust.
Hannah Szenes (1921-1944)
Hannah Szenes was a Hungarian poet, diarist, playwriter, and spy. After studying agriculture, she began writing in Hungarian and Hebrew. During World War II 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 1944 she was parachuted into Yugoslavia, and upon landing she joined the partisan group when she heard 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 prison in Budapest she used a mirror to flash signals out of the window to prisoners in other cells. She was tried for treason and executed by a firing squad in a snow-covered Budapest courtyard, age twenty-three. After the Cold War a Hungarian military court offi-cially exonerated her.
Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger (1924 – 1942)
Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger was a world-class Romanian poet. She studied in Yiddish but wrote by hand in German. With her friends she gave readings by Rilke, Heine, Tagore—whose novel The Home and the World she took to the labour camp—and discussed Goethe, Freud, and Kafka. She wrote by hand a collection of fifty-two poems called Blütenlese (“The Reaping of Blossom”) about love and life. She gave this collection of poems to her love Leiser Fichman. He kept the notebook of poems in the camp until 1944, when he sent it to Else, Selma’s friend, in Czernowitz. Fichman boarded the Mefküre, a clandestine immigrant vessel going to Palestine. The vessel was attacked and sank in the Black Sea. Selma’s grandfather immigrated to Palestine and suggested to Selma that she follow him, but her mother could not bear to be separated from her daughter. Meerbaum-Eisinger died of typhus at eighteen in the Mikhaylowka labour camp, where the German and Ukrainian interns were terrorized and starved. She was the cousin of Paul Celan.