The Jewish Prisoner Who Was Forced to Draw at Auschwitz, and Rebelled in Her Paintings

Dina Gottliebová was ordered to create a gallery of characteristic 'facial types' from which the Nazis could learn about the degenerate nature those socially inferior to them.

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A book cover with Dina Gottliebová's painting of a Roma woman at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
A book cover with Dina Gottliebová's painting of a Roma woman at the Auschwitz concentration camp.Credit: No credit

A small portrait painted in watercolors provides answers to big questions: What is a painting? What is man? What is the relation between the two?

If this painting looks banal, look at it again, and this time be cognizant of the fact that the woman who painted it was a Jewish inmate in Auschwitz and that her "customer" was the psychopathic sadist Dr. Josef Mengele.

Dina Gottliebová was ordered to paint the portraits of the camp's Roma inmates, also known as Gypsies. The idea was to create a gallery of characteristic "facial types" from which the Nazis could learn about the degenerate nature of the Untermenschen based on their exterior characteristics. Gottliebová's portraits are a total rebellion against the spirit of the order and against the order itself. These portraits are the height of painting: painting as an act of survival, as an act of the essence of humanity, as an act of insurgency and the love of man intertwined with one another in a way that cannot be separated.

She looks at the faces of those sitting before her with compassion. Her gaze reveals their faces and reveals a face to them. Her paintings disprove the Nazi pseudoscience and break apart the pretense of the entire Nazi program. Their power is like that of armored divisions. They determine the answer to question, what was it that the Nazis killed? Not a mouse or a number, but a human being. Man is not exterminated – he is murdered.

These small watercolor portraits assert that to paint a portrait is to see the face before you as complete, as a sign of the fact that every man is an entire world. These portraits make the claim that by nature, painting skips over those who order it, over the gaze of power, and submit to the angel of history. From the restraint of Gottliebová's paintbrush arise noble, proud, deep and wonderful characters which put to shame those who wish to do them harm.

In her book "Art in the Fields of Power," Leah Dubov presents a portrait of Louis XIV painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Despite his great effort to please his patron, "Still, the modern critical and incredulous eye can see that something went terribly wrong in the image's message," she writes. "The splendor doesn't magnify the man as a political-cultural sovereign in this portrait, but rather stresses as an unintended comic contrast its laxity, its pathetic arrogance and when he lays out in a theatrical gesture the magnificent materials to the wear and tear of the artist which wraps the lying body, the drama is substituted with self-degradation."

Rigaud, who wanted to paint a magnificent monarch, wished to please his patron, and didn't have a rebellious bone in his body, painted a chubby uncle in a wig and stockings, a painting that immediately raises the question why is this man is king while millions live in poverty.

This is what we are discussing here – the bypassing of power.

Look at the Gypsy woman. She does not look at the world with terror. Nothing about her is sad, defeated or humiliated. Her gaze is full of internal power, reserved and quiet. Her face is the personification of humility and courage. To those looking at it, she represents the face of the Other, and the art of portrait painting as the most sublime response to this claim.

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