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'It is a miracle that this art survived': Holocaust-era exhibition to open in NYC

Press preview for the 'Rendering Witness: Holocaust-Era Art as Testimony' exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage - A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, featuring drawings made during and shortly after the Holocaust by eyewitnesses documenting their experiences. (Credit: Charles Eckert)

A new art exhibition in Manhattan depicts the Holocaust's horrors from the perspective of the persecuted, not the persecutors.

There is a child’s illustration of Jews in Czechoslovakia being deported to a concentration camp. A prisoner’s pencil-and-crayon drawings of Auschwitz. A woman's secret portrait of a fellow prisoner, made on any paper she could find. 

The drawings — including by the child, Helga Weissova; the prisoner in Auschwitz, Alfred Kantor; and the portrait artist, Manci Anis — are among 21 works on display at “Rendering Witness: Holocaust-Era Art as Testimony,” which runs from Thursday through July 5 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Place, at the southwest tip of Manhattan.

“It’s through the people who lived it. It’s the way they depicted it, the way they wanted to depict it,” said exhibition curator Michael A. Morris. “It’s not from, quote-unquote, the Nazi lens.”

Many of today's historical photographs and other visual representations of the Holocaust, in which 6 million Jews were slain, have origins in German and Nazi material created for the purpose of anti-Semitic propaganda, Daniel Uziel, the head of Yad Vashem’s photo collection, told the Haaretz newspaper in 2018.

According to the text introducing the New York exhibition, which features 10 artists: “It is a miracle that this art survived. Each artwork in this exhibition reasserts the artist’s humanity and individuality, qualities too often obscured by Holocaust photographs that were taken by the Nazis or their collaborators."

The featured art was produced in Poland, Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia during or immediately after the Holocaust.

The exhibition also features what Marvin Halye, an American soldier, depicted in watercolor and chalk after he liberated a camp in 1945 and found thousands of victims who didn't survive ("Liberation of Nordhausen" and "Civilians Covering Corpses").

 There are many more artists' works in a book kept from 1942 and 1945 by Martha Klein von Peci, a Jewish woman imprisoned in a German ghetto. The book is on display in a vitrine. She had invited fellow prisoners to contribute works about their lives to the book.

The exhibition also features the handwritten will of a Czech artist, Johann Eisler, who left his possessions to his girlfriend — before he died at a concentration camp. 

Reported crimes against Jews and vandalism of Jewish institutions has risen in New York City, according to the NYPD. Most of the incidents have been in neighborhoods where observant Jews tend to live. 

"Anti-Semitism has arrived on our doorstep again, on your doorsteps in Williamsburg, Crown Heights, Borough Park, Monsey, Jersey City, here in Manhattan," Jack Kliger, the museum's president and chief executive, told a group of schoolchildren from Brooklyn visiting. 

Jews have been hit, punched, slapped; a woman has had her wig pulled off her head, according to the NYPD. 

Last month, there was a stabbing of Jews celebrating the penultimate day of Hanukkah at a rabbi's house in upstate Monsey, and a deadly shooting at a kosher supermarket in Jersey City.

 Standing Wednesday with the public schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, Kliger announced that all 8th and 10th grade classes — 14,000 students — in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Crown Heights and Borough Park would be sent on field trips to the museum.

Asked whether perpetrators of the crimes are ignorant of the Holocaust's history, Deborah Lauter, who heads Mayor Bill de Blasio's Office for the Prevention of Hate Crimes said: "When they are interviewed many of them will say, 'I knew I was doing something wrong. I didn't understand the message that it was portraying.' That being said, we have not caught all the perpetrators."

Carranza also announced that all families with students 12 and older in the public schools would be able to visit free.

Also on display is the museum's multi-floor "Auschwitz. Not long ago. Not far away" exhibition, which features hundreds of original objects and photographs, including Heinrich Himmler’s SS helmet and his annotated copy of Hitler’s "Mein Kampf."

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