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Snow White in Auschwitz
October 30, 2013 10:59 AM   Subscribe

"Knowing of Dina's artistic ability, Freddy asked her to paint a mural on the wall of the barracks to cheer up the children. She agreed, although she expected she would be executed if the Germans caught her. This was some time if February 1944. Using paints that were smuggled from various sources, Dina set to work painting a scene of Snow White looking out over the Swiss countryside. Dina knew that some of the children had seen the movie and would recognize the character. She had seen the movie 'seven times in a row' back in Czechoslovakia."

The amazing, sad, triumphant story of Dina Babbitt (née Gottliebová)—artist, animator, concentration camp survivor.

"Babbitt's artistic talent was spotted at Auschwitz by notorious Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who forced her to paint portraits of condemned Gypsies in support of his crackpot theories about physical attributes and racial superiority."

"After the war she pursued work as an animator in Paris and was hired by the American who would become her husband, Art Babbitt. They married, moved to California and had two daughters. The Babbitts divorced in 1962, and Mrs. Babbitt returned to animation, working on characters like Tweety Bird, Wile E. Coyote and Cap’n Crunch."

"The postwar history of Ms. Babbitt’s watercolor portraits is unclear, but in a 2001 statement, the Auschwitz museum said that six were acquired in 1963 from a camp survivor and a seventh was acquired in 1977. Ms. Babbitt learned of the existence of the first six in 1973.

She traveled to Poland to authenticate her works and, she thought, to take them home. But the museum directors would not allow it, saying the paintings’ historical and educational value superseded her right of ownership. It is the position they maintained to the end of her life, at one point, her daughter said, informing her in a letter that if anyone other than the museum had a right to the paintings, it was the heirs of Mengele."

Short video:
They Spoke Out: The Dina Babbitt Story (Adapted from the comic strip created by Neal Adams, Joe Kubert, and Rafael Medoff)
posted by Atom Eyes (36 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
I think that must have been a thing. On the wall of my bedroom, under many layers of paint and wallpaper, is supposedly a Snow White mural painted in 1946. A few years ago there was a knock on the door by a woman who had grown up there, and who had pictures of the house from her parents' photo albums from their years there, that she wanted to share with the current occupants before she moved out of town. She showed me the wall where the mural was. She had no mural pictures, but I did scan and keep copies of the others.
posted by jetsetsc at 11:14 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


On one hand, I respect the museum's desire to preserve a unique record of deep historical interest. On the other, telling someone that work they did as slave labor belongs more to the heirs of their overseer than to them is... well.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:20 AM on October 30, 2013 [19 favorites]


Thank you for this. Like a lot of Jews, I was raised with an education in the Holocaust the alternated between grotesque, unimaginable images and numbers and intimate, human-level stories, and I always found the former to be less effective than the latter. The Nazis sought to remove the humanity of their victims, and, when we see images of bodies stacked like wood, or hear figures about the number who were gassed in a single day, it does nothing to return the humanity to the story.

Instead, it's stories like this that do the work. It's hard to wrap your head around the fact that 25 from a group of 4,400 survived the camps. But when you hear her story, and there is so much to it, and then realize that there are 24 others who have tales of survival that are just as profound as hers, and then you realize that there were 4375 who also had stories, and there's were cut short -- well, then, incrementally, the size of the Holocaust begins to take form, and is made up of people, instead of corpses.

To think about how much this one story hurts to read, and to think there were six million more -- it's a gulf to vast to cross, it is too much pain to bear. But this offers a piece of it, and whatever pieces we can bear are worth bearing, because these were people, and there memories deserve to be sustained as would any loss, because that gives back at least a little of what the Nazis stole from them.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 11:23 AM on October 30, 2013 [34 favorites]


Apropos of the museum officials who appallingly would rather have given the paintings to Mengele's heirs, do they know what other painter really loved Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and drew pictures of those characters? (Seriously.)
posted by Doktor Zed at 11:25 AM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Those museum directors certainly do need to to learn from the historical and educational value of the materials they curate. Unbelievable gall!
posted by chapps at 11:29 AM on October 30, 2013


Wow, I think I saw one of these just last month when I toured Auschwitz-Birkenau...but there's so much there, and...well, you're such a mess after about five minutes of the tour that I can't be sure. No matter how much you've read about it, the physical place just kicks you in the gut over and over again. (Rounding a corner to find a 6' tall, 10' deep, 50' long pile of human hair behind a wall of glass...suddenly finding yourself looking at what looks like a pile of squat, 5 lb. brass coffee cans, all the tops raggedly ripped open, and then seeing 'Zyklon B' on their labels...Jesus, the place was almost too much for me to bear even in museum form, 70 years deactivated...)

It's just inconceivable that the museum would not return the paintings...it's...I'm tempted to say something like a kind of complicity with the monsters who ran that torture and murder factory to act in that way. It's a goddamned crime. I wish I had known this story before I went.
posted by Fists O'Fury at 11:39 AM on October 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


They had a case with some hair and kids' shoes in an Auschwitz exhibit that came to Atlanta in the 80's. It was visceral, one of the worst things I have ever seen.

The other things I remember from that exhibit were: a map of Atlanta on the wall, having a plastic template with a scale outline of the camp complex hanging from a string, so that you could compare it to something that you knew the size of (it was huge), a video interview with a survivor who lived in my neighborhood, a man whose house I must have walked by dozens of times, and, reproductions of documentary evidence of the manufacture of the killing facilities, the ovens and exhaust systems.
posted by thelonius at 11:53 AM on October 30, 2013


The ending is just brutal, tragic. I do not respect the museum's wishes.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:00 PM on October 30, 2013


Seeing the real color portraits on the fourth page of the comic was like a punch in the gut. It was like seeing the photo of the real Vladek at the end of Maus.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 12:28 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The ending is just brutal, tragic. I do not respect the museum's wishes.
Ya, same.

Also, am I going crazy, or did they get the chronology of events wrong on the comic's first page?

1) Second panel (top-right) says that in January 1942, her mother was ordered to Theresienstadt.

2) Third panel (center) says Dina didn't want her mother to go alone, so she joined her.

3) Fourth panel (bottom-left) says, after more than 2 years in Theresienstadt, they were shipped to Auschwitz on September 1943
posted by slater at 12:33 PM on October 30, 2013


While I could understand a museum director's fear of creating a precedent, in this particular case little of its collection could be claimed by the survivors, since the Nazi made their best to ensure there aren't any. And telling her that Mengele's heirs have precedence over her to the ownership is totally fucking wrong on every conceivable level.
Other than that - what a story. Thank you for posting it.
posted by hat_eater at 12:35 PM on October 30, 2013


Museum’s position on issue of portraits made by Dinah Gottliebova-Babbitt.
posted by IndigoJones at 1:09 PM on October 30, 2013


It is the position they maintained to the end of her life, at one point, her daughter said, informing her in a letter that if anyone other than the museum had a right to the paintings, it was the heirs of Mengele.

This makes it sound like we have only the word of Dina's daughter to go on. Is that the case?
posted by Slothrup at 1:18 PM on October 30, 2013


Why do people keep referring to Auchswitz as a "concentration camp"? The Nazis had "Konzentrationslager" all over Europe where all sorts of people were imprisoned for all sorts of reasons. Auschwitz was an EXTERMINATION camp with but one purpose.
posted by three blind mice at 1:20 PM on October 30, 2013


if anyone other than the museum had a right to the paintings, it was the heirs of Mengele.

I don't actually know if I have ever been made so angry by the written word in my life. I'm shaking and having trouble typing.
posted by Sternmeyer at 2:04 PM on October 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I thought Auschwitz was more like a group of concentration, labor, and extermination camps.
posted by Area Man at 2:06 PM on October 30, 2013


I think three blind mice, while his heart is in the right place, is, technically speaking, mistaken.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:13 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Also a hospital, although that's not the right word for how it was used.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 2:15 PM on October 30, 2013


Dina Babbitt's story was interesting, inspiring and heart breaking. But seeing it told in overdrawn comic strip style fashion was just ... awful. Maybe the worst way of relating that story that I can imagine. Nazis as comic strip characters? Worse than awful taste, by my lights.
posted by paulsc at 2:20 PM on October 30, 2013


paulsc: please take this question in the most neutral tone possible: have you read Art Spiegelman's Maus? Did you have the same reaction to it? Was it the style of the Babbitt story? or just the medium all together?

I was not generally impressed by the linked comic, but I didn't find it in bad taste and I'm curious as to why you reacted that way. Maus, however, impressed me greatly, though I found the juxtaposition of style and substance disconcerting at times.
posted by crush-onastick at 2:28 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes, Auschwitz was the general name for a scattered complex of three main and nearly fifty subsidiary camps. It's primarily known for the extermination camp, Auschwitz-II (Birkenau), but Auschwitz-I was a concentration camp at least in theory - in practice the death rate from starvation and overwork was close to 100% in Auschwitz-I, just like the other camps. For that reason I'd say that Three blind mice is substantially correct: there's no real point in calling it anything but a death camp.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:34 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


.
posted by oceanjesse at 2:40 PM on October 30, 2013


Previously, on the Blue. It took me a minute to remember this, from 11 years ago...
posted by jokeefe at 2:56 PM on October 30, 2013


well, then, incrementally, the size of the Holocaust begins to take form, and is made up of people, instead of corpses.

Agreed. And I think the portraits themselves are another example of this. To see the old Romani woman, with her white hair and her black brows furrowed in anger - that was a real person. The portrait they mentioned of Celine, whose newborn had died of starvation - another two real people. This whole story reminds us of the actual suffering of people just like us such a breathtakingly short time ago, the deaths but more importantly the lives. I just can't understand why the museum couldn't have returned the originals and displayed reproductions. It's so sad that she died without ever having owned them again.
posted by billiebee at 3:21 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


> "Museum’s position on issue of portraits made by Dinah Gottliebova-Babbitt."

Ugh.

"A theoretical question might be asked: what will happen if other former prisoners or their heirs start coming here and claiming back ... works of art, pictures, suitcases, plans drawn in the camp or other objects belonging to them or to their relatives?"

Then you should give it back to them.
posted by kyrademon at 3:34 PM on October 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


This is part of a pattern that makes me very uncomfortable. Places that killed or deported their Jewish population now fetishise their memory and their artefacts, while high-handedly dismissing the claims of the original owners or their descendents. There's an open thread about a similar issue: an Iraq library is claiming an archive of Jewish documents confiscated by Saddam's secret police, against the wishes of the surviving Iraqi Jews (who were all expelled from Iraq).

The reason this pattern makes me uncomfortable and not just outraged is that I've admired cultural artefacts in many museums that were undoubtedly produced by people with living biological and/or cultural descendants; and I've walked on without even wondering about these descendents' lives or how they feel about the display. Would I want these displays broken up? I don't know; I suppose it depends on the circumstances; but I do think that this awareness and sensitivity is something that museums need to foster.
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:50 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Auschwitz-I was a concentration camp at least in theory - in practice the death rate from starvation and overwork was close to 100% in Auschwitz-I, just like the other camps.

Actually, Auschwitz I was a murder camp, too. It had gas chambers and crematoria. It was a small operation compared to Auschwitz II/Birkenau, but they had "showers."

(Incidentally, on the recent trip aforementioned, I stood in the gas chamber/"showers" and could reach up to the holes in the ceiling through which the pellets were dropped... Jesus...I just stood there touching the wall and trying to somehow take it in, but no matter how hard you stare at it and think about what happened there...you...or I, anyway, kept thinking something like "this really can't be taken in.")
posted by Fists O'Fury at 3:52 PM on October 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


The reason this pattern makes me uncomfortable and not just outraged is that I've admired cultural artefacts in many museums that were undoubtedly produced by people with living biological and/or cultural descendants; and I've walked on without even wondering about these descendents' lives or how they feel about the display. Would I want these displays broken up? I don't know; I suppose it depends on the circumstances;

I live about a block from the British Columbia provincial museum, and it is filled with First Nations artefacts. While people like Charles Newcombe may have played a critical role in recovering these cultural treasures in the aftermath of almost complete social disintegration, on the other hand there is no easy way for the "owners" to "repossess" their various cultural properties.
posted by KokuRyu at 4:17 PM on October 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


I find it ironic that, in the second link, they don't give credit to the writer and artist of the comic story, in a story that is all about an artist getting credit for and ownership of her work. I almost immediately recognized the work of Neal Adams, and if the last link is accurate, Joe Kubert and Rafael Medoff were involved as well.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:53 PM on October 30, 2013


Briar Rose (novel)

Sleeping Beauty aka Briar Rose + Holocaust story (1992), 224 pages.
posted by saber_taylor at 6:39 PM on October 30, 2013


"... or just the medium all together?"
posted by crush-onastick at 5:28 PM on October 30

I grew up in a time when comic books were unofficially suppressed by a lot of American public schools. One of my best friends in high school was repeatedly suspended for bringing them to school, and ultimately he dropped out of school, joined the Army, went to Vietnam, and was killed, by having a truck he was driving roll over when he hit a water buffalo in the road. Hubert would have thought that was hilarious, but even though he was a genuinely smart guy, he was also a smart ass, and his interest in comics was a direct outgrowth of that, and not one I ever really shared. And he damned near got me busted from the football team, and other things I did care about, by planting the damned things in my books, my locker, and in desks I used, as only a wise ass pal would.

But within a decade or so of that, a cousin of mine was getting her MFA abroad, and starting a career as a painter. When her student visas and funding in Europe dried up, she moved back to NYC, and landed a gig in the late '80s and '90s as Marvel's chief colorist. As gigs went for her, it paid pretty well, but I think it really kept her from her oils, for years, and for me, that's kind of strike 2 against the medium as a whole. She might really have had something to say, on canvas, but she colored comic books, instead.

Beyond all that is that, for various reasons, beginning in the mid '60s, I visited many former Nazi concentration camp sites, and later in my work selling German and Italian machinery, met and worked with many men who were former Nazis and Italian Fascists. Of course I did. Tens of thousands of former Nazis and Fascists were released by Allied military authorities after investigations of their war activities (and some after serving sentences of from months to years in Allied military prisons), and most eventually made their ways back to former homes and businesses/professions in West Germany or Italy, when they could. These were men of a cohort born between about 1920 and 1925, a few years older than my own father, and much younger than my grandfather. If you worked with German or Italian industrial products in the late '70s or early '80s, many of the senior managers of the companies that produced such things were bound to have been marching in goose steps in the late '30s and early '40s. And if you knew them any length of time, they often told their stories, at least in abbreviated fashion, to account for themselves, especially to slightly younger men, like me, who couldn't have served in their war, and whom they felt might otherwise not understand them.

What I learned was that such men were never cartoon characters, and that some were only as ashamed of their war service and their political beliefs as they were publicly required to be to live in post-War circumstances. Others considered the War a terrible waste, and acknowledged that their nation and army was the aggressor in terrible crimes against humanity. Others, particularly those who fought on the Eastern front, and didn't make it out of Russian internment camps until '49 or '50, thought that they'd more than paid their penalties for any wrongs they'd ever committed as Nazis, and then some. Their war service, their politics before and after, and their post war lives, including how they represented themselves to wives and children, were complex issues, and I learned to listen a lot, think carefully, and judge slowly, if I had to judge at all, for business reasons.

My memories of that time begin with visits to Berlin in the mid '60s, as a student, which was still, 20 years after the end of the war, still, in many areas, a rubble pile with streets, and barbed wire sector gates and the Wall, that you came to after a ride down the Corridor, under the watchful eyes of East German soldiers with machine guns, in towers, behind razor wire fences, every 1/2 kilometer or so. Many of the camps I visited then still had some of their temporary buildings that have since been razed, standing. Even until the mid-70s, the experience of visiting the camps was less one of historical education, and more one that contained at least some element of gruesome fascination. As an American business person, or a tourist traveling with others, the subject of the camps sometimes came up, and more than once, outside of any other activities planned by our hosts, I found myself taking a group to Dachau, Nuenegamme or to Bergen-Belsen, because those were short train or car rides from cities where I often went on business. And while they were never "death camps" on the scale of Auschwitz or Treblinka, at least at Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, thousands of people were gassed and cremated in very similar circumstances to those killed on much larger scales at the more notorious camps. And in other camps I visited, where gassing and mass cremations weren't common, machine gunning groups of prisoners into mass graves was still done. One way or another, I think it fair to say most Nazi concentration/detention camps were "death camps."

Nothing about Nazis, or Fascists, or Auschwitz is, to me, fodder for comic strip impressions. That's just not the way you tell such complex and often ghastly stories. Here I disagree completely, even with such a noted comedian as Charlie Chaplin, or either such a successful comedian, producer and ex-soldier as Mel Brooks, who both made Nazis caricatures in many of their movies and stage productions, on grounds that the best way of preventing the rise of such things in the future, is to make such people permanent objects of ridicule. I get their point, and at least Mel Brooks was there, in a uniform, with a gun, and has a much bigger audience and perhaps a better right to his viewpoints than I do.

But I don't think you really can ridicule Auschwitz. It's too grey, it's too awful, and try as you might, you just can't. There's nothing at all funny about the place, any more than there is Andersonville, GA. Drawing exaggerated faces of "inmates" of such places just mocks, to me, the real, ghostly faces in the photos we have left of those who suffered and died there. Even worse, it can easily trivialize their ends to future generations, who won't have visited those places, or heard the stories first hand, or seen the photos.

We're in a time now when all the survivors of WWI are gone, and the survivors of WWII are rapidly dwindling. We have to be careful I think, to pack away that history, and to bring it out, carefully and truthfully, for each subsequent class of children, and to my mind, we're really not doing a great job of it. 70+ years on, that era is rapidly becoming about as well known to the average American high school student as the French-Indian war. Putting it in comic strips, even ones that might feature Kilroy and other period characters, in old Stars and Stripes fashion, isn't the way to do it.
posted by paulsc at 1:53 AM on October 31, 2013 [1 favorite]


I find it ironic that, in the second link, they don't give credit to the writer and artist of the comic story, in a story that is all about an artist getting credit for and ownership of her work. I almost immediately recognized the work of Neal Adams, and if the last link is accurate, Joe Kubert and Rafael Medoff were involved as well.

And that the story starts with her painting characters licensed to a company known even then for heavy-handed crackdowns on use of its copyrighted material (after losing the copyright to their Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character to Universal).

N.B. I do not believe for a minute that even Disney would have objected to Dina painting Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs for the children of Auschwitz under the circumstances. I just think it adds another layer of interest to this story about people owning art.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:37 AM on October 31, 2013


paulsc, I think it's interesting that you mention the complexity of the post-German nazi struggle, but another angle you might not be considering with respect to the comic book angle is how pivotal Jewish Americans were in creating the comic book industry. The unofficial banning of the comic book medium that you yourself experienced reflected a high level of background antisemitism even on the US side of things, and I think it's important to remember that for some, this is also what comic books represent in some way: a symbol of recent Jewish heritage and struggle.
posted by oceanjesse at 10:01 AM on October 31, 2013 [2 favorites]


Nothing about Nazis, or Fascists, or Auschwitz is, to me, fodder for comic strip impressions. That's just not the way you tell such complex and often ghastly stories.

There is no one correct way to tell complex and ghastly stories. I get that you have an habituated contempt for the medium, via the attitudes you were exposed to in your childhood and how you've reinterpreted them as an adult, per your cousin ("She might really have had something to say, on canvas, but she colored comic books, instead").

But the thing is, comics are more than tights-and-flights as a genre. They can be an extremely effective way to tell stories for people who are visually oriented. Or for people who will never have had your privileges of being born at a specific time or working in specific industries.

In the past decade, I've read comics that have tackled Hurricane Katrina, the ravages of the Iraqi war, the strategic import of the battle of Crecy, the terrifying events of 1970s Iran, the 9/11 report, and Auschwitz.

I've read books and news articles on these subjects too, but there is something to be said for the sui generis trait of the comics medium -- the way it fixes a visual tableau for a reader's analysis, at a reader's pace, yet by engaging visual analysis that prose does not demand.

It is possible to tell a great, compelling story in any medium. It's merely a matter of mastering the medium and its narrative conventions, then making them dance for you.
posted by sobell at 11:06 AM on October 31, 2013


"... It's merely a matter of mastering the medium and its narrative conventions, then making them dance for you."
posted by sobell at 2:06 PM on October 31

I've read enough comic books, thanks to my old pal Hubert, to think that subtly and convention are never the medium's strong suit. And I think very few people who have ever visited Auschwitz could think of anything about that place that could "dance" for them, in visual form, and the OP linked material fails utterly in this, for me. In fact, I even went back to the "Encounter with the Angel of Death" panel from the BabbitBlog second link, to check my initial impressions.

The drawing of Mengele waving some kind of baton, like he was conducting an orchestra? Caricature, and trivialization, to boot. The heart cut in half, with blood dripping from the hand proffering it towards Babbitt, under her overdrawn, shocked face? Visual dramatization that's unnecessary to the recitation of the story, included only in some overdrawn attempt at making horror even more dramatic.

To tell about Auschwitz, you don't have to visually dramatize it. For God's sake, it's Auschwitz. Standing and rotting as it was and is, it is its own superlative of horror and inhumanity. You simply can't make the worst, worse, for dramatic effect, in my opinion, without doing a severe disservice to the actuality of what transpired there.
posted by paulsc at 12:39 PM on October 31, 2013


Fascinating story.

I don't see the validity in the argument for not calling Auschwitz a concentration camp, unless we're redefining terms on the fly. The Untied States Holocaust Memorial Museum has a perfectly good write-up on the various parts of Auschwitz.
posted by Sticherbeast at 3:08 PM on October 31, 2013


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