A chain of chance discoveries enabled Irish historian Dr. Edel Sheridan-Quantz to uncover the life and work of artist and graphic designer Hilde Koch, who perished in the Auschwitz death camp during the Holocaust.
"In a pre-digital era, her identity might have never been discovered," she recently wrote in an article for Yad Vashem, Israel's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.
'She may have had an interest in Christian beliefs, or even have considered converting, but that is pure speculation'
Though several of Koch's relatives survived the Holocaust, her work was never made accessible to a wider public. Miriam Nachsatz, Koch's niece, was born in France in 1940, before the Nazi occupation. The daughter of Koch's sister Leonie, she immigrated to Israel in 1960 with a group from the Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movements. Her parents later followed.
"For years, I knew nothing about her," Nachsatz says. "I knew that she drew, and I had a booklet of animal illustrations she had made. But I didn't know that she was a professional artist or that her illustrations appeared in books. I was exposed to some of her drawings when my mother dies in 1984." The booklet and collection of drawings in Nachsatz's possession were donated to Yad Vashem.
Dr. Sheridan-Quantz lives in Germany and works as a historian for the city of Hannover. When she began researching the life of a forgotten Jewish printer and publisher named Adolf Molling, over a decade ago, she came upon three children's books that Koch illustrated. The third book was a large illustrated book based on Grimm's Fairy Tales. The book contained eight "impressive" colorful illustrations, she says, and was part of a series based on these well-known stories, which Molling published until 1926. The series was illustrated by four famous artists. Koch was the only one who wasn't well-known. "She was the only woman as well," adds Sheridan-Quantz.
Hilde Koch was too common of a name, and Sheridan-Quantz lacked additional details such as a date or place of birth. Additional searching led to a booklet on sale at the Frankfurt-Offenbach branch of the German Graphic Artists' Association (BDG), which listed the names of 32 artists, including Koch. Sheridan-Quantz still couldn't be sure. She searched the Frankfurt street guide from 1921, where she found a Julius Koch living at the same address listed in the BDG booklet.
Delving into the Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony database, Sheridan-Quantz managed to construct a Koch family tree. Hilde was born in Frankfurt in 1896 to the banker Julius Koch and his wife Clementine (neé Metz). Her sister Leonie, Miraim Nachsatz's mother, was born in 1899. The database also yielded the name of Koch's husband: Otto Neuberger, who was a decade her senior and had two children from a previous marriage. His son Gabriel filled out the pages of testimony in 1999.
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Sheridan-Quantz became acquainted with Nachsatz in 2018. "I subscribed to the MyHeritage website. I thought it would help me learn about my mother's side," Nachsatz says. "After eight months with no interesting results, I decided to cancel my subscription. When I tried, they gave me a two-week premium subscription as a gift. A few days before it ended, I received a message from Edel, who was looking for relatives of my aunt. I contacted her immediately." The connection between the two filled in the missing details – both personal and artistic.
Koch's portfolio of artworks, which Nachsatz received as part of her inheritance, contains prints in various mediums, including etchings and lithographs, graphite drawings, an acrylic painting and a watercolor painting. There are portraits among the prints, and a drawing of a female nude. There are several street and nature scenes, with many dramatic illustrations of people and animals.
The work is Expressionist in character, Sheridan-Quantz writes. She argues that the people, animals and landscapes are laden with symbolism and emotion, positing that Koch was influenced by World War I era prints by important artists like Otto Dix and Georg Grosz. Many of her drawings depict scenes of suffering. One work depicts a classic pieta of the Virgin Mary with the crucified Jesus. Much of the surviving work contains Christian imagery.
When asked why she thinks Koch included Christian iconography in her work, Sheridan-Quantz says: "She may have had an interest in Christian beliefs, or even have considered converting, but that is pure speculation. Even in the 1920s and 1930s, German culture was secular enough for it not to be necessary for her to include Christian imagery in her children’s illustrations, for example. So it must have been a conscious decision, for instance, to put a picture of the Madonna in the cottage scene of Schneeweißchen und Rosenrot. Likewise, the portrayal of St. Francis of Assisi or the Catholic priest in some of her drawings - the stories or beliefs must have had some interest for her. Perhaps she had Catholic or Christian friends, or she had a spiritual interest.”
Sheridan-Quantz emphasizes that Koch was open to a wide range of contemporary and innovative influences. "It is not the work of an artistically isolated woman," she writes. She was familiar with prominent figures such as Franz Delavilla and Fritz Franke, as well as the rest of the Frankfurt-Offenbach branch of the BDG. Her work suggests that she studied among these circles. She never had a formal art education, but studied with private tutors. As Koch's sister once told her daughter: "She was a real high-society girl."
Koch married at the age of 38, and lived in the city of Mannheim. Perusing claims for reparations filed by her step-son, who died in 2014, reveals that the family home was a well-furnished five-room apartment, with a kitchen, bathroom and servant's quarters in the attic. Oil paintings and Japanese prints graced the walls. The family owned a radio set, a gramophone and a piano. Koch's personal effects included a 500-book library and a collection of original prints by Expressionist artists Erich Heckel, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde.
Much of the house's contents were destroyed on Kristallnacht. Following the pogrom, the family hoped to immigrate to Palestine, but Koch's husband suffered a stroke. Her step-children came to Palestine alone in 1939. Meanwhile, war broke out. In early 1940, Nachsatz was born in France. A few months later, the Nazis conquered Paris and she fled with her mother.
A gift for Miriam
Koch and her father were deported to the Gurs camp in France. Her mother had died before the war, and her father perished shortly after arriving at the camp. The camp's registry lists her as an artist. In Gurs, of all places – deprived of her rights, home and possessions – Koch took ownership of her professional identity, Sheridan-Quantz says.
Gurs was unique. Despite the harsh conditions, many of the prisoners spent their time creatively. There was no hard labor and prisoners could choose their activities. Aid organizations provided prisoners with books, musical instruments, paper, paints and brushes. Artists could supplement their income in the camp’s black market. Portraits and illustrated postcards were in high demand, for example. Prisoners with higher education offered lessons and lectures. Prayers and other religious ceremonies were held in the camp. Jewish comics writer Horst Rosenthal, who was later murdered in Auschwitz, made his iconic booklet "Mickey Mouse in the Gurs Internment Camp" while imprisoned there.
A few months after arriving in the camp, Koch prepared a booklet for her sister. It was made of five plain white pages sewn together with greyish-blue binding paper. There is no text, only ten full-page drawings in watercolor and ink, including a cover page. The Pyrenees Mountains appear in eight of the larger drawings. The dramatic mountain scenery enchanted the prisoners in Gurs, as well as causing them anguish, Sheridan-Quantz says. She cites a quote by one of the survivors: “The Pyrenees! When we saw the steep mountains on our first morning there, steep, lofty, snow-covered, it was heart-wrenching… a view that pained many of the people behind the barbed wire. One can understand the oft-heard refrain in the camp – I can’t bear to see you, Pyrenees.”
Koch eventually left the camp and began moving around. She continued writing to her sister. "We don't know anything here. The people in charge shroud themselves, as usual, in mysterious silence, refusing to answer questions regarding what awaits us; we still know nothing.”
Before she was sent to Drancy, she wrote her sister a few words, indicating that she knew what awaited her: “I still don’t know anything, but I have no illusions. Farewell, all the best, regards to Francis and Tatie (Miriam), who I’ll never see again, a big-big kiss from me.”
In September 1942, the transport from Drancy reached Auschwitz, carrying one thousand Jews. By 1945, only 27 of them remained alive. Koch, who was 46, had scant chances of survival. At some point, she gave her artworks to a French woman, who returned them to Leonie after the war. Koch’s husband was transferred to Theresienstadt, where he died in March 1943.
At the end of her article, Sheridan-Quantz highlights the importance of telling the stories of women like Koch. Until recent decades, female artists were largely ignored, she says. There are very few known female illustrators from the Weimar period, she adds.
Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, a curator and director of the Art Department at Yad Vashem, says that “unexpected discoveries like these illustrate the tragedy of the Holocaust. Amazing female artists were murdered, taking their legacy with them. The go-betweens were also murdered. In recent years, we've learned about the fates of many women artists, but we don't know how many of them were murdered," she says.