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Sketching the Horrors of Auschwitz

Everything I felt and saw in my youth, everything that darkened my world, I tried to express in my drawings, as a witness to all those horrible things. It’s only an inadequate effort. I think it’s impossible to express in painting or in any other way the horrors we went through.

Ella Lieberman-Shieber
Ella Lieberman-Shieber

Ella Liebermann-Shiber was born into a German-Jewish family in Berlin, 1938. In the midst of Hitler’s rise to power, and the subsequent German occupation of Poland, she and her family soon found themselves expelled to the ghetto of Będzin, located 38 miles west of Kraków (deemed ‘Bendsburg’ by the Nazis). Conditions were harsh, and here Ella was subject to humiliation and brutality. In May and June 1942, 2,400 so-called 'non-productive' Jews were deported from Będzin to Auschwitz in 2 Aktions. On August 15, 8,000-10,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz. Deportations continued, and the final liquidation began on August 1st. Despite efforts to hide in a hole so lacking in oxygen that even a candle could not be lit, August 7th saw 30,000 Jews rounded up from Będzin and Sosnowiec and deported to Auschwitz- Birkenau; this included Ella and her family. Upon arrival in the camp, Ella’s father and brother were torn from the family and sent immediately to the gas chambers, having failed to pass the 'selection'. For Ella and her mother, it was a different story. As an exceptionally talented teenager, Ella was selected on a basis of her prominent artistic skills to provide portraits of German officers, which, unbeknown to her, would secure their survival in the camp. Having survived through the hell that was life in Auschwitz, Ella and her mother were eventually send West on a 'death march', as the Russians drew near in 1945. They were liberated in May of that year. Postwar life for Ella included some time spent in a Cyprus Detainee camp, as run by the British, where she would continue to explore her talents with a greater sense of freedom. Fortunately, cultural life within these camps flourished; artistic creativity and practice was highly encouraged by a variety of teachers and students who had been sent to Cyprus on behalf of aid organisations, including the Jewish Distribution Committee. In 1948, Ella and her mother finally reached their destination of Israel, and attempted to settle into their new lives in the quiet city of Haifa, where she married.

Evidentially, the value of Ella’s art work is incomparable, both as a visual testimony and as an expression of trauma. It is known that in the early days of post-war life, some survivors shied away from confronting the horrors they had witnessed in an attempt for forget and move on. Yet, Ella began, almost immediately, to meticulously create in-depth, detailed depictions of her life during the Holocaust. She writes: 'I began to draw, to sketch whatever was released from within me, grey lines on faded paper. I reconstructed each picture shortly after I was liberated. With trembling hands I began to reconstruct the hell from which, by a miracle, my mother and I had emerged'. Her sketches are simplistic but distinct in technique, sensitively documenting the time, space and memory of an event. Not only do they raise our awareness historically, but they pull us in emotionally. Like the written word of a memoir, Ella found her voice via a process of artistic representation. This body of work totalled 93 drawings, without interruption. The sketch below, one example from Ella’s collection, depicts a minimalistic pencil drawing of an arm being tattooed with the number '74349': Ella’s prisoner number from Auschwitz.

Ella Lieberman-Shieber's drawing

Ella recalls: 'I feel my arm ripped aside. The number 74349 is forever embedded in my blood. This blue ink, which has seeped into my blood, accelerates its flow'. The correlation between this permanently inked marking of the Holocaust on her body, and her continuous flow of pencil sketching is significant. It is as though the ink physically fuels her arm, and provides the impetus to represent and reconstruct this violating act. No longer a name, but a number; two anonymous arms hold hers with a tightened grip and whitened knuckles. We are there with her as a witness in the moment, observing the very moment that the needle touches her skin; the moment in which a brutal and faceless attempt is made in order to eradicate her identity.

The sketch, captioned as 'Das Experiment', presents a moment in much more graphic detail. Unlike many of Ella’s works which often feature text in Hebrew, here we find only German; it is as though Ella seeks to separate her Jewishness from this scene. Understandable, given what appears to be taking place. Here, Ella frames the notoriously chilling figure of SS Doctor Mengele (known primarily for his 'scientific' experiments on prisoners, specifically are confronted with symbols associated with death: three skulls, a can of Zyklon poison, and a jar labelled 'typhus'. Ella narrates: 'Human guinea pigs, young Jewesses, were plentiful, free of charge. A doctor, a civilised man with a university degree, watched his clock to see how long before the infant died. All for the sake of science'. Yet, here we do not see shelves filled with medicinal or scientific books: we see a copy of Hitler’s 'Mein Kampf'. In this decision, Ella subtly and skilfully outlines the influence that Nazi ideology, specifically the absurdity of eugenics and racial purity, had upon medical professionals under the Nationalist Socialist regime, and the power that this notion held above reason and knowledge. Mengele, his clean doctor’s gown barely covering his SS uniform: the lethal combination of officer and doctor, bares a look of both disdain and concentration on his face. His expression, cold and cruel, contrasts dramatically to that of the young women on which he operates. Her innocent and sombre appearance, naked except for her camp tattoo, embodies the loss of youth and, in this case, fertility. Lastly, the only other living being in this sketch is the rabbit, caged on a shelf above. The connection between these two helpless victims signifies the value of Jewish life within the camps: as worthy as animals to be experimented on.

Ella Lieberman-Shieber's drawing

Ella details a scene from a ‘death march’: another brutal hardship that she and her mother were forced to endure after their survival in the camps. In the heart of winter, with no leaves on the trees and snow on the ground, the prisoners walk for miles to the West under SS guard, as they flee from the approaching allies. Planes can be seen flying overhead, and vehicles full of people speed past. The mass of survivors, dressed in their camp uniforms and bare legs hunch over with their heads down, compliant and faceless. At this point, they have become a number, stripped of their identities. The only two visible expressions in this sketch appear on the face of the concerned survivor who holds an exhausted collapsing woman, and the stern, frowning face of the SS guard. Despite the nature of these last desperate measures of Jewish persecution, he continues his work with determination, force and authority: gun in hand. In front of him lies a corpse, face down in a pool of blood, which he calmly intends to pass. Ella writes: 'Trucks and cars loaded down with the bundles of fleeing German civilians rush past us. Whoever falls is shot. The snow is splattered with blood, bodies scattered everywhere'. It is evident that this particular image haunts Ella, for the brutality and graphic detail commands the gaze of the viewer. We are meant to be horrified, and to feel the reality within this representation.

Perhaps the most moving of Ella’s sketches is one of her last. It seems fitting that, at the end of this process of documenting her experiences in the camps, she would feature a memorial grave to the victims of the Holocaust. Though the message isn’t personal, it is important to remember that this vast figure included both her father and her brother, at least. It reads: 

Rest in Peace. In memory of the 6,000,000 holy martyrs murdered brutally by the Nazi animals on European Soil in the Holocaust era. 1933-1945

It appears that rather than focusing on her own losses solely, Ella avoided prioritising her own Holocaust experiences in her drawings over that of another. An unfathomable number of people were affected by the devastation of the Holocaust, thus Ella refrains from making this image exclusive; it is meant to be shared, much like the memorial itself. The sharp and significant contrast between the words 'martyr' and 'animals', as is used to compare Jews and Nazis in the inscription, evil that features throughout the body of her artworks. With regards to her own survival, Ella acclaims that this was down to the strength of her mother: 'I owe it to my mother that I, a young girl, emerged together with her from that hell. It was she, so well versed is suffering, who constantly sustained and supported me whenever I was on the verge of collapsing: 'Keep going my child, this can’t last forever’'

Ella Lieberman-Shieber's drawing

It is also worth noting that in both a literal and psychological sense, drawing saved Ella’s life. Her appointed task in Auschwitz of drawing guard and SS portraits meant that she served a purpose, and therefore deserved to live longer than those less fortunate. Ella comments: 'I drew their faces, their cold, murderous eyes. I drew their families, their wives and their children. Despite the fact that they had wives and children at home, they murdered the wives and children of others in other countries'. It is almost impossible to imagine the complex paradox that Ella found herself in. One the one hand, her talent was her saving Grace, but on the other, she had to abuse her love and passion for art to depict the faces of her tormentors, and the murderers of her family and friends. However, I believe that this only adds to the importance of her work. Ella had the rare opportunity to observe and study these men in the most intimate circumstances, to learn about their home lives and families. They directly contribute to the chilling consideration of how these 'normal' working men and women became strategically capable of fulfilling the most violent of tasks.

Ella’s outstanding body of work was, most importantly, a healing process. In each scene, Ella relives a moment of her past, and in documenting this, she manages to put it to rest. The burden of memory is shared, and she succeeded in returning to life. She writes: 'I felt that every drawing that enclosed the horrors I had endured in some way eased my mind. My faith in mankind and the world of today gradually returned, despite the cruelties my people and I had so recently suffered'. For many artists, facing the topic of the Holocaust in their work came much later after they had established a new life for themselves. What is so impressive about Ella’s work is that it was produced directly after her liberation, resulting in stark, direct and realistic depictions that will go on to teach future generations about the horrors of Auschwitz and beyond. In confronting her trauma through her art, Ella managed to release herself from the grip of the Nazis and to move on. Her work is collected in both Yad Vashem and the Ghetto Fighter’s House Museum in Israel. 


Hannah Wilson


Pictures, information and testimony from Ella taken from 'Ella Liebermann-Shiber: On The Edge of the Abyss', Ella Liebermann-Shiber; 3rd edition (1997).