‘The Children Are Gone, but the Auschwitz Toys Remain’

Tuly Ziv’s mother sorted toys looted from Jewish children at Auschwitz. In a new exhibit he shows drawings of doll skeletons and gutted teddy bears, and recalls his father, who created the oven where Eichmann’s body was cremated

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Untitled, by Tuly Ziv.
Untitled, by Tuly Ziv.Credit: Amit Gosher
Naama Riba
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Naama Riba

In the first decade of the 21st century, artist Tuly Ziv came to visit his mother, an Auschwitz survivor. “I came over for lunch. She was already very sick with cancer, and I told her that I’m painting wooden horses for an exhibit, just because I liked it,” he recalls.

“And then it came pouring out of her, that when she worked in the ‘Kanada Kommando’ at Auschwitz, they received wooden horses, dolls and teddy bears from children, along with other toys. They would put them in suitcases and send [them] to Germany.”

'It’s important for me to say that I don’t sell my works and I don’t sign them. I keep them, but they’re not really mine'

The Aufräumungskommando, or “Kanada Kommando,” was the name given to the “cleanup” crew at Auschwitz. Its members were tasked with handling, sorting, storing and shiping to Germany the belongings of Jews deported to the camp and exterminated.

Untitled, by Tuly Ziv.Credit: Amit Gosher

One of the most famous Holocaust survivors to live through the Kanada Kommando was Rudolf Vrba, a Slovakia native. While working there, he heard about the upcoming plans to murder nearly one million Hungarian Jews, and decided to escape.

After finding out about the Kanada Kommando, Ziv began to study the subject and read testimonies. The information he gathered led to him drawing a series of works, in oil pastels and graphite, of toys supposedly collected at Auschwitz. These are at the center of a new exhibit, titled “Bloc Kanada,” currently on display at the Tel Aviv Artists House until February 12. The exhibit is composed of large drawings hanging on the walls, with the center of the space occupied by makeshift swings, bearing more drawings. The exhibit was curated by Aryie Berkowitz, director and chief curator of the Artists House.

“The lost childhood of the murdered children cannot be restored,” Berkowitz writes in the accompanying text. “The movement of the swing is also an allegory for time standing still.” He explains that despite the supposed movement and progress of the swing, it is just staying in place, “like an eternal memory, never to be erased.”

Untitled, by Tuly Ziv.Credit: Amit Gosher

He continues, “Tuli Ziv’s cradles are childless, instead bearing the drawing of a memory of a doll, doll skeletons exposing their innards and asking the spectator to enter, to feel what they went through as silent witnesses. All the works are of equal size, drawn across the length of the paper in a desire to create order in a chaotic reality.”

Ziv was born in 1952 to Sarah Neuman and Pinhas Zaklikowski, both Holocaust survivors. He was initially named Naftali, after a relative who died in the Holocaust, but decided to change his name during his military service. His Polish-born father was held in the Lodz ghetto and later on sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. After World War II, he came to mandatory Palestine on the ship Enzo Sereni, who passengers were detained by the British at the Atlit detainee camp for a few weeks before being released. His Czech-born mother went to Sweden after the war, and also reached pre-state Israel in a ship carrying illegal migrants, although Ziv does not recall which one, before being deported to Cyprus. Later on, the two met in Israel.

Tuly Ziv. 'When you look at my paintings from a distance, they seem nice.'Credit: Ofer Aderet

The art of the second generation

Ziv says his parents didn’t openly discuss the Holocaust. When he was 10, his father, who worked in a factory that built bread ovens, was asked to design the furnace that would cremate Adolph Eichmann’s body. The rest of the story is told by Avner Avraham, a former member of the Mossad. “At first we asked him to design an oven to burn dogs, on the pretext that there was a rabies,” he says. “He caught on pretty quick.”

Ziv stresses that his father knew from the start that the oven was intended for Eichmann’s body. “Then my father was the one who burned Eichmann himself. Literally put his body in the oven,” he says. A few years ago, he had an exhibit at the Artists House titled “The Oven,” https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-searching-for-his-father-in-the-oven-built-for-cremating-eichmann-1.5387047 which included paintings related to the oven in which Eichmann was burned. A film about the oven that Ziv made with his son Noam will soon be screened at the Tel Aviv Cinematheque.

Untitled, by Tuly Ziv.Credit: Amit Gosher

He says that he always suffered from learning disabilities, and found a refuge in painting from a young age. When Ziv was 16, his mother and sister were badly injured in a car accident. His mother was hospitalized for months, and the sister died of her wounds.

In the military, he served in an anti-aircraft unit in the Sinai. He studied art at the Avni Institute and was represented by the Kishon Gallery in Tel Aviv. During the Yom Kippur War, he returned to the Sinai, this time chaperoning Leonard Cohen. “I went with him from unit to unit. It was an extraordinary experience. Sadly I have no pictures with him. I didn’t think of it at the time.”

Ziv is part of a large group of second-generation artists, who create in the shadow of their parents’ traumas. He began making works on the Holocaust work after his father’s passing in 2000. His mother passed about a decade later.

Untitled, by Tuly Ziv.Credit: Amit Gosher

His mother, he says, was always a sad, withdrawn woman. “She had this ritual in the shower: She would talk to herself and say “I have hands, I have feet, I have a head.” After his father’s passing she told him that after her time in Auschwitz, she didn’t want children – “Not even me. Even though it hurts a child to hear such a thing from his mother, I understood her.” After her death he found photos of her from over the years, from which she had cut out her head. “She wanted to disappear,” he says.

For the past two years he has been suffering from Parkinson’s disease (“like a few other artists,” he says smiling,) but he keeps drawing in his studio, in the basement of his home in northern Tel Aviv. Among the works in the current exhibit, the drawing of a teddy bear stands out: It has no stomach; instead Ziv depicted a skeleton. “When you look at my paintings from a distance, they seem nice. A drawing of a toy. Like the teddy bear. Then when you approach, you realize that it’s completely exposed. Everything is hollow. What I wanted to say is that the soul went with the child. That’s also why the drawings are laid on the swings. The toys remain, but the children are gone.”

Another striking drawing is that of a doll’s legs, replicated dozens of times, upon which lies a sort of lace tablecloth. “It can be a shroud,” he says. “The lace is heavy, and it buries the people. It’s important for me to say that I don’t sell my works and I don’t sign them. I keep them, but they’re not really mine. They are representation for people who aren’t here.”

Untitled, by Tuly Ziv.Credit: Amit Gosher

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