Artist seeks to recover works done at Auschwitz

Mengele forced her to do portraits of doomed Gypsies

December 10, 2006|By Los Angeles Times

FELTON, Calif. -- The little wooden house surrounded by redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains is more than 6,000 miles and 60 years away from the horrors of Auschwitz. But on an easel in the sunny living room is a small portrait that Dina Gottliebova Babbitt recently painted of a fellow prisoner in that Nazi death camp.

The picture is a modified copy of one she was forced to paint in 1944 as part of Josef Mengele's murderous theorizing about racial differences.

Mengele had plucked Babbitt, a Czech Jew, from a group headed to the gas chambers and ordered the artist to produce portraits of doomed Gypsies that would capture skin tone better than his photographs did.

"I painted what I saw, very definitely," recalls Babbitt, now 83 and a retired Hollywood animator. "And what I saw was despair and sadness."

Painful questions

In 1973, Babbitt was stunned to learn that seven of those nine watercolors had survived and were in the museum at the former concentration camp in Poland. Since then, she has been trying to retrieve them - a quest that raises painful questions about ownership of the products of slave labor, as well as the artworks' role in documenting Holocaust history.

Babbitt's supporters say she has moral and legal rights to the art. But Auschwitz museum officials disagree, and leaders in the American Jewish community describe the issues as more complex than many instances of art looted by Nazis.

For Babbitt and her mother, the art truly was a lifesaver. The work afforded them extra bread amid starvation and time to keep death at bay. She wants the paintings now, not to sell, she says, but to briefly hold and then lend to a museum of her choice.

`Part of me'

"I wouldn't be alive if it hadn't been for those paintings, and my kids wouldn't be here. And they know that," said Babbitt, who has two daughters and three grandchildren. "This is something that belongs to our family more than anything else I can possibly think of."

The watercolors bear her signature, "Dinah 1944." (She later dropped the "h" to help Americans pronounce it as DEE-na.) They are, she said, "a part of me" and about the only remnants of a youth robbed of all else, including a father and a fiance killed in the Holocaust.

Her cause has won the backing of Congress and was given a boost in October when J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department's special envoy for Holocaust issues, raised the matter as "a humanitarian effort" with Polish officials in Warsaw.

"Safe to say, we are working on it," said Kennedy, who declined to discuss the Polish response.

Other officials suggest that a compromise, first discussed years ago, might award Babbitt at least a couple of the works while the museum keeps the bulk of what it considers irreplaceable evidence of the Nazis' plan to wipe out Gypsies along with Jews.

In September, about 450 cartoonists and artists from around the world petitioned the museum to make reproductions and give the originals to Babbitt. Signers include Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Maus" graphic novels about his family's Holocaust experience.

A petition leader was New Jersey-based cartoonist Joe Kubert, whose own 2003 graphic novel has parallels to Babbitt's life. If Kubert's Polish Jewish family had not emigrated in the 1920s, Kubert thinks, they would have been slaughtered.

His book Yossel, April 19, 1943 imagines an artistic Jewish boy surviving for a while in the Warsaw ghetto by drawing cartoons of superheroes for Nazi soldiers.

"Here was a woman who actually experienced the things I only imagined might have happened to me," Kubert said of Babbitt, whom he learned of after completing his book. Not giving her the art, he said, is "terribly unfair."

Seized property

Restitution cases involving Nazi-confiscated property have been in the news lately.

In one of the most prominent, five Gustav Klimt paintings seized by Nazis in the late 1930s and exhibited for decades in Vienna, Austria, were returned in January to Maria Altmann of Los Angeles and other heirs after a court fight.

And in France last year, a man noticed his father's suitcase in a Holocaust exhibition and now wants Auschwitz, which lent it for display, to give it up.

Yet some observers who celebrate the Klimts' return say the Babbitt situation is more legally murky.

"I can't imagine any other case like this. It's unique," said Stuart E. Eizenstat, a former U.S. deputy Treasury secretary who served as a special envoy on Holocaust reparations during the Clinton administration and was involved in previous Babbitt negotiations.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., and who sits on an advisory panel for the Auschwitz museum, saw the paintings recently and described them as "very powerful."

"It's just so tragic that sides which should understand each other should be facing off against each other," he said.

A different voice

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum insists it is the rightful home of the paintings, which it says it bought from other camp survivors in the 1960s and '70s. At a time when some voices still deny the Holocaust, artifacts proving that history should be shown in their original setting, museum officials say.

"These objects speak here with a totally different voice than in any other place, anywhere in the world," Auschwitz museum Director Piotr Cywinski said in a recent interview.

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