A historic new exhibit, Art from the Holocaust, opened in the rear wing of the German Historical Museum in Berlin last week. For the first time ever, art from the collection of Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Museum is being shown outside in Germany. The exhibit features 100 works, mostly drawings and paintings, by Jewish inmates of labour camps, ghettoes and concentration camps. Many of the works portray the dark realities of day-to-day life in Nazi imprisonment. The fact that the works survived to the present day is, in most cases, a miracle: many were hidden or smuggled out at great risk by friends of the artists.
The show, which is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, comes at a moment of growing concern about the rise in anti-Semitism across Europe. As Angela Merkel opened the exhibit on Monday, she told reporters that she hoped the exhibit would send a message to new arrivals to Germany from countries “where hatred of Israel and Jews is widespread”.
But the works are also, regardless of their current political context, deeply moving testaments to human resilience and the power of art, and, as Walter Smerling, the show’s co-curator with Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg points out, aesthetically powerful works on their own terms. The curators winnowed down the selection from a shortlist of several hundred. “We selected works according to artistic considerations, and chose works that provoked us and made us wonder what story was behind the image,” says Smerling, who is also the head of the Foundation of Art and Culture. We asked him to explain the stories behind some of their selections.