Art and the Holocaust

The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was a genocide in which approximately 11 million people - including 6 million Jews, 2 million Roma, 250,000 disabled people, and 9,000 homosexual men - were murdered by Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime and its collaborators.

The genocide had a catastrophic effect on the arts: Jewish artists lost their lives in the death camps, or were severely traumatized by social or ethnic persecution; many artists were forced to flee their homeland; and many artworks were destroyed, burned or looted between 1933 and 1945.

Adam and Eve loaded onto a truck (US National Archive)

Here we explore 3 artworks whose stories are emblematic of art in the Holocaust. These works reflect a range of Holocaust experiences and perspectives - from official documentary war painting, to the deeply personal responses of concentration camp survivors.

These artworks act as powerful documentation and reminders of the atrocities inflicted on Jewish people in the early 20th Century.

As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says, 'for the dead and the living, we must bear witness.' These artworks speak to us across the centuries, reminding us of those whose voices can no longer be heard.

Krumau - Crescent of Houses (The Small City V), by Egon Schiele, 1915. Looted art from the Holocaust, now in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.


Most Jewish artists working in Germany in the 1930s experienced persecution. Many, including Kurt Schwitters, David Ludwig Bloch, Nandor Glid and Arno Nadel, were interned in labor or concentration camps. These experiences had a significant, long-lasting impact on their work.


Born in Bruenn, Austria-Hungary (now Brno, Czechoslovakia) in 1900, Norbert Troller served as a soldier in World War I, spending time as a prisoner-of-war in Italy. After the war he studied architecture in Brno and Vienna and worked as an architect in Brno until the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.

He was deported to Theresienstadt in 1942, where he worked as an architect for the Jewish self-adminstration of the camp, and produced works of art as well. During this time Troller created several drawings and sketches that documented the appalling conditions for Jews in the camp, which were then smuggled to the outside world as proof. In 1944 he was imprisoned by the Gestapo, and was sent to Auschwitz later that year.

After liberation, he lived briefly in Kracow, and then reopened his architectural business in Prague and Brno. He emigrated to the United States in 1948 and worked for the National Jewish Welfare Board in New York designing Jewish community centers, before opening his own practice.

Terezin, by Norbert Troller, 1943 (Center for Jewish History, Leo Baeck Institute, New York)

In this drawing from 1943 we see two tightly packed crowds of people of all ages moving in opposite directions between the large stone walls that confine them. Troller's caption reads "50,000 Jews trapped in the ramparts of ghetto-kiz fortress, Terezin".


The atrocities in death camps within Germany and German-occupied territory were (for the most part) largely unknown to the rest of the world until after 1945; it fell to official war painters to visually communicate the gravity of these otherwise unbelievable, inexplicable scenes.


In 1944 Doris Clare Zinkeisen was commissioned by the Red Cross and St John War Organisation to record their work in north-west Europe, and was one of the few women war artists to be sent overseas.

On 15 April 1945 British soldiers entered Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to find a scene of absolute horror. Ten thousand corpses lay unburied, and around 60,000 starving and sick people were packed into the camp’s barracks without food or water. Doris Zinkeisen arrived soon afterwards.

Human Laundry, Belsen: April 1945, by Doris Clare Zinkeisen, 1945 (Imperial War Museum)

Human Laundry is arguably the most powerful work produced by any of the artists who were present. Zinkeisen finds an effective motif in the contrast between the well-fed, rounded bodies of the German medical staff and the emaciated bodies of their patients. The camp inmates needed to be washed and de-loused to prevent the spread of typhus before they could be admitted to the makeshift Red Cross hospital nearby.


The effects of the Holocaust, the trauma it induced, and its cultural symbolism all continue to ripple through Western culture.


Anselm Kiefer (born 8 March 1945) is a German painter and sculptor. Kiefer was born at the end of the Second World War but much of his work confronts his country's dark past, examining how this history continues to influence us today.

Sternenfall, by Anselm Kiefer, 1998 (MAXXI National Museum of XXI Century Arts)

The starry sky motif present in Anselm Kiefer’s work since the 1980s is the protagonist in the Falling Stars cycle to which Sternenfall belongs. The German artist’s sky is an archive in which every star is identified by the alphanumerical code used by NASA to classify celestial bodies.

The work also alludes to German history and in particular the Holocaust. The numbers on the canvas recall those tattooed on the arms of the Jew imprisoned in the Nazi camps. Historical memory, a key concept in Kiefer’s work, is entwined with the cosmic theme in an indissoluble whole.

Words by Léonie Shinn-Morris
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