The NY Times reports the interesting case of Dina Babbitt, an 83-year-old survivor of Auschwitz. She and her mother were 27 of 5000 Czechoslovakian Jews who survived Auschwitz. Dina and her mother survived because Dina was an artist. Mengele had seen a mural she’d done of a Swiss mountainside and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” to cheer children. He ordered her to paint pictures of Gypsies who were to be killed. His interest was in recording what he thought of as degenerate features. So Dina said yes, she would paint the pictures, if her mother was saved as well. Over a period of two months she painted eleven portraits, seven of which survive, and at the end of that time all the gypsies in the camp were killed.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland has the portraits now. Dina wants them back. She has been battling to have them returned since 1973, arguing that they were done by her and belong to her.
The museum argues they are the cultural heritage of the world and that they don’t “regard these as personal artistic creations but as documentary work done under direct orders from Dr. Mengele and carried out by the artist to ensure her survival.” The museum says the Roma people have a stake in it as well because the images are of them.
The Polish Ambassador to the US in 2001, Przemyslaw Grudzinski, stated, “Nearly every item left or contributed to the museum in Auschwitz-Birkenau could be claimed by a rightful owner as personal property…Should they be returned?”
The museum doesn’t want to give up the portraits for fear other survivors would claim artifacts on display.
Mrs. Babbitt says, “Every single thing, including our underwear, was taken away from us…Everything we owned, ever. My dog, our furniture, our clothes. And now, finally, something is found that I created, that belongs to me. And they refuse to give it to me. This is why I feel the same helplessness as I did then.”
So, to whom do the paintings belong? Are they the cultural heritage of the world held in trust by the museum, or do they belong to Dina Gottliebova Babbitt?