A survivor’s story

Content warning: this post references the Holocaust.

The Galicia Jewish Museum` is sited in Kazimierz, part of the city of Krakow with a strong, centuries-long association with the Jewish population. The history of the Jews of Krakow, some 56000 at time of the Nazi invasion, is documented in the Holocaust Encyclopedia.

Briefly, most Jews were expelled from Kracow, except, by 1941, around 15000 providing forced labour in a walled off ghetto in the neighbouring district of Podgorze. The ghetto was forcibly emptied, “liquidated” in March 1943, by shooting, transport of survivors to Auschwitz-Birkenau and transfer of workers to the Plaszow forced-labour camp further out from the city. There, further systematic mass-murders took place and survivors were moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The museum currently hosts an exhibition built round extensive photographs and testimony from three generations starting with Richard Ores. I drew him in wash and pen while watching a video of him describing his experience in the ghetto.

Ores had been a teenager when the ghetto was established. He was thrown a white coat by a doctor who then called to him and thus he obtained the Kennkarten, the documentation allowing him to remain in the ghetto working in the clinic. He was separated from his sister and mother who did not survive.

In his testimony, he described twice meeting Amon Göth, the brutal, sadistic and murderous commandant 1943 to 1944. One of these events I jotted down. He was sent to bring Göth medication for a cough. Göth asked how long before this would relieve the cough and told him to wait in the kitchen. If the cough was no better in half an hour, he would shoot Ores. The cook told Ores to make himself scarce and not wait: Göth would shoot him anyway, cough or no cough. He also described how a survivor of a mass-shooting of a wedding party was treated in the clinic for a bullet wound in the leg. The SS came and shot him. Ores remembers him asking “Sirs, how can you shoot me without trial?” In another video, Ores walks the building that housed the clinic, pointing out each room where a doctor was gunned down. I guess this must have been in 1943 when the ghetto was liquidated. Ores himself was moved to Plaszow and thence to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he witnessed the explosive destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria by the retreating SS. Ores trained in medicine in Switzerland and settled in Manhattan where he died in 2011. He and his family frequently returned to Poland.

Ores loved Poland, but would tell his children, do not laugh or smile here, this whole place is a memorial. A separate exhibition in the museum reminds us that 90% of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. A succession of contemporary photographs was displayed: “synagogues open to the sky … with bushes growing out from the floor … propped up with scaffolding or with only the central pillars still standing … vanished completely or deteriorated into nothingness …”. The sketch below is of the town of Biecz 100 miles south of Krakow. This square “would have been full of Yiddish speaking Jewish traders. Today the sound of Yiddish is gone”.

Oświęcim

(content warning – this post is about the Holocaust)

exterior of the Auschwitz I concentration camp from the bank of the Sota river

The remnants of the former Nazi concentration and death camp at Oświęcim, Poland are now preserved as a museum. The history, layout and functioning are described on this link. Last week, I joined a six hour study tour of the Auschwitz I and II (Birkenau) sites. There was no time to draw as we walked (the hurried sketch below was the only one during that tour). I returned without a guide at the end of that day and the next to get a few drawings.

Auschwitz I concentration camp – tourists walking the spaces between the blocks that housed horrors

I had thought it would be hard to walk this site without tears, but the reality was a surreal dissociation. The sheer scale of the camp defies emotional connection. We were not seeing the people here, but the remnants of the infrastructure designed and built on the orders of the Nazis (though on reflection, here are the remnants of the work of the inmates).

Foundations of multiple barracks at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) concentration and death camp

As for the site itself, these were my impressions. The scale is immense, as large as a town, Birkenau itself divided in to long strips of semi-autonomous camps . Its functioning was complex, with different categories of prisoners. None the less, the overall purpose was death. Slow death for slave workers over weeks or months in the concentration camp, deprived of the essentials for survival, above all nutrition and protection from the cold. Immediate death for those selected as unfit for work: the unknowing walk from the train to the purpose built units comprising a room to undress, gas chamber and crematorium. The rate limiting step was the disposal of the bodies. Death as punishment including at the infamous Block 11.

The end of the railway in the Birkenau concentration and death camp. On the left is the memorial built by the Polish government. On the right is the rubble from the gas chamber and crematorium destroyed by the retreating SS at the liquidation of the camp.

The other purpose was the ruthless expropriation of value from prisoners: belongings, gold teeth, hair, labour. A huge warehouse complex at one end of Birkenau, called Kanada, housed plundered goods to be sorted and sent to the Reich. This was already on fire when the camp was liberated. Each year archaeological work turns up more remnants of the items taken from prisoners. The Auschwitz complex supplied slave labour to the I.G. Farbenindustrie chemical industrial plants. Four Jewish women were murdered by hanging for stealing explosive material from the Union-Werke armaments factory where they worked. We were told they carried the material bit by bit under their finger nails. The Sonderkommando, who operated the crematoria, mutinied on October 7 1944, destroying one crematorium, breaking out, killing three SS men. Around 250 Jews were killed in a knowingly futile fight without weapons, their hoped for reward, we were told, “three lines in the history books”.

grey pens

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow

Before setting off for Poland, I asked fellow art blogger, Outside Authority, what they would take as a lightweight art kit. Their advice included “something you can make quick bold lines/shapes with (e.g. sharpie/gel pen/ink pen), something to make smudgy lines/forms/shadows with (e.g. soft pencils/ink with water, conte)”.

Inside the courtyard, Wawel Castle, Krakow

They also reminded me to match my drawing equipment to the size of the paper. I had selected a moleskine watercolour pad 13x21cm that neatly fitted my coat pocket, to minimise what I was carrying. Separately I had a carry case with A3 paper in various tones.

Bastion and cobbled walkway, Wawel Castle

So before leaving I bought a pack of double ended fine marker/brush pens in shades of grey from very light to black. My plan was to use these to make the bold lines, and, as they are very water soluble, also to use these in washes.

Statue of random dignitary, Krakow

I supplemented these with my india ink fountain pen and water brush. I used the first day in Krakow to experiment with these tools, and also get my eye and hand back into drawing.

stone image of the crucifix, St Mary’s Basilica

The interior of St Mary’s Basilica, incorporating a millennium of evolving building styles and with fantastic painted inner surfaces, overwhelmed me. I didn’t know where to even start (I should have remembered, “bold lines, smudgy shapes”). I ended up sketching the crucified Christ, but even this went awry with the arms out of alignment.

I doodled another version later.

Façade of St Mary’s Basilica across rooftops, evening

I developed an approach that built the sketch mainly in grey tones, only at the end putting in selected detail with black fine pen, or the tip of the brush. It worked better for some sketches than others.

I finished this day’s drawing by the Vistula, with the city’s iconic dragon, and went back to collect my rucksack to get the train to Oświęcim.