January 21, 1923, is the birthdate of Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, the Czech-born Jewish woman who, as a young artist in Auschwitz, was called upon by the German doctor Josef Mengele to draw portraits of inmates, thus saving both her own life and that of her mother. Toward the end of her life, Babbitt, who died in 2009, became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the museum at Auschwitz over its refusal to return to her the paintings that had survived the war.
Annemarie Dina Gottliebova was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia (today the Czech Republic). In 1939, when the Germans invaded her homeland, she was living in Prague, where she had gone to study at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1942, she and her mother, Johanna Gottlieb, were arrested and sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, outside Prague. The following year, they were transferred to the Auschwitz death camp.
At Auschwitz, in an effort to brighten up a children’s barracks, Gottliebova painted on its wall images from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the 1937 Walt Disney animated film. Her drafting skills caught the attention of Mengele, the SS officer and physician who is infamous for the experiments he carried out on inmates at the camp.
Mengele was unhappy with the ability of photographs to accurately reproduce the skin shades of prisoners. In particular, he wanted a better means of capturing the dark skin of Romani, or Gypsy, inmates, whom Nazi doctrine perceived as racially inferior to Aryans.
Mengele ordered Gottliebova to use watercolors to paint portraits of a number of Romani prisoners. She told the doctor that she had a condition for her work, that her mother be spared from execution. According to The New York Times, she told him she would walk into the camp’s electric fence if he didn’t agree. Mengele’s response was, “What’s her number?”
Gottliebova was provided with watercolors, a drawing pad, and two chairs, one meant to serve as an easel, the other for her subjects. When Mengele saw her first finished work, a girl in a red scarf, he suggested she sign it. “Do you mean my name or my number?” she asked him.
“‘Your name,’” she later recalled him responding. That’s how the signature “Dina 1944” ended up on her paintings.
Both Dina and Johanna Gottlieb survived the war (Dina’s father and her fiancé were both murdered), and ended up in Paris. There, Dina applied for a job as an animator with Warner Bros. The man who interviewed her for the studio was Art Babbitt, a former long-time top animator for Walt Disney, who created of Goofy the dog and, coincidentally, worked on “Snow White.” He subsequently argued with Disney over its labor practices, and left the studio.
Gottliebova ended up marrying Babbitt and moving with him to Los Angeles, where she worked as an assistant animator for him on a number of projects. (They eventually divorced.) Her favorite jobs, her daughters told the Times, after her death, were commercials for the breakfast cereal Cap’n Crunch. She always assumed that her Auschwitz watercolors had been destroyed.
In fact, though, seven of the artworks survived, and ended up in the hands of another former Auschwitz prisoner, who sold six of them to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and State Museum, in 1963. It purchased the seventh in 1977.
Only in 1969 was the museum’s director able to match the signature on the paintings to that on other unrelated work by Gottliebova Babbitt he had come across in a book. He contacted her, and invited her to visit Auschwitz.
Babbitt traveled to Poland in 1973, at her own expense, and identified her work. But, to her surprise, she was not permitted to take it back with her to the U.S., as she had expected to do. She then spent the last three and a half decades of her life pursuing that goal.
The Auschwitz museum stubbornly insisted that the paintings were of historical significance, like all the other artifacts in its collection, and that a dangerous precedent would be set if they were to relinquish them to Babbitt. She stubbornly insisted that they were hers, and would struggle to the end of her life to reclaim them. A suggestion from the museum that she could take the watercolors on loan for the duration of her life was not acceptable to her, and when it had reproductions of the paintings made and sent to her, she refused to even open the crate they were shipped in.
In 2009, animators Neal Adams, Joe Kubert and Stan Lee, together with historian Rafael Medoff, created a comic book about Babbitt and her cause, and another 450 artists signed a petition urging the Auschitz-Birkenau museum to return the art to Babbitt. It would not.
Dina Gottliebova Babbitt died on July 29, 2009, at her home, in Felton, California, at age 86. As of 2012, according to a website maintained by her daughters, the family was continuing in its effort to reclaim the seven Gypsy paintings.