Are Holocaust artifacts a world heritage or do they belong to the survivors?

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?

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

6 thoughts on “Are Holocaust artifacts a world heritage or do they belong to the survivors?”

  1. I don’t really believe the concept of property is very coherent, and this conundrum may be an illustration of that. Though in any case I couldn’t hope to answer the question with any confidence, it seems to me that the reality is that we are given custody of certain things for a while, for reasons that may be good, bad, arbitrary, or indifferent, and then things often change, for equally uncertain reasons. Mrs Babbit I am sure feels her custody of these paintings was too short. But if they had somehow been with her during the course of her life, she might well feel honored if the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum would want to display them. Who knows? I don’t think they really belong to anyone, in any essential sense. If I were running the museum I would try to find a solution that would make her happy, but that would preserve access for the museum. Maybe they could ship her one of the paintings every year to hang on her wall, to be returned at the end of the year, during her lifetime. If she needs money and wants to sell the paintings they should try to find a way to raise money for her.
    The root of the word “belong” in old English meant something like “to go alongside of,” and did not imply some kind of legal glueiness whereby a thing sticks to an owner. I kind of like thist traveling along together notion of property. Let her enjoy some of the paintings while she is alive, and then let the Gypsies and the world see them on the walls of the museum.
    I am sure other people can think of much better solutions.

  2. But a problem is that the society in which we live does believe in property and takes great care in protecting this notion of property (though very commonly when it benefits individuals who possess the greatest amount of it).

    The problem is not so different from every other case of work produced under compulsion. To whom does it ultimately belong? The museum is arguing not only that it was created under compulsion, they also take care to define it as documentary work created under compulsion as opposed to artistic. Fundamentally, they seem to look upon it as a kind of contract work, that the portraits were what Dina created in exchange for her life and the life of her mother. That, to me, is what they are saying. But the contract was illegal.

    I personally don’t see why the museum must have the originals, why they can’t have copies of the works on display.

  3. I just want to say that I have been up close and personal with Mrs. Babbitt as of late. Hearing her story from her daughters point of view is very touching, moving and devastating to say the least. It should be noted that sMrs. Babbitt is currently “re-painting” one of the Gypsy women as she wanted to restore her dignity. While in the camp, Mrs. Babbitt painted her with her ear sticking out of a bandanna–the gypsy woman did not like this as she felt that her ears were too big. Mengle however, had a sick fascination with the ears and wanted them to be in view. He wanted to demean and humiliate her which he did. Mrs. Babbitts way of dealing and healing is to repaint her. Not only is she giving the Gypsy woman back her dignity; I am sure that this is also healing for her. While in the camp she initially painted as she wanted to make the children happy–she was later forced to paint to spare her own life and the life of her mother. There is not one of us who can say that we know how she feels because we don’t–we were not there and really have no idea of the horror and atrocities that she had to endure. We don’t know how she feels now or how this has affected her life and the life of her family. We can only imagine or can we even do that? I think not. My hope and prayer for Mrs. Babbitt is that her paintings will be returned to her–they are hers and they DO BELONG TO HER. The healing of the human spirit is one of the greatest gifts that life has to offer. There is not doubt in my mind that the return of the paintings will aid her on this journey. If not all of the paintings then why not some? Why must Mrs. Babbit and others like her continue to suffer from atrocities not thier own?! We all need to support the effort to have her paintings returned before she leaves this earth.

  4. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, Irene. I know this struggle has gone on quite a while and hope that it is resolved soon and that the paintings returned to Mrs. Babbit.

  5. I do not personally know Mrs. Babbitt–I just read the “People” article on her. I find it abhorrent that these paintings–ALL of them–have not been returned to her. Why doesn’t the museum make prints of the paintings? Under the prints on display, a note could explain that the museum once held the authentic paintings, but it was delighted to find out that the artist survived and the paintings were returned to their rightful owner, who suffered through a horrific time while creating this artwork. This is truly unfathomable to me.

  6. What the Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp is doing to Dina Babbitt in 2009 is in the interests of World Heritage.

    Sadly, “World Heritage” in this case, is just a euphemism for, “Millions stand behind me!” Haven’t we heard that phrase somewhere before?

    An earlier post at idyllopuspress discusses semantics, but what are semantics except a sloppy quest for acceptable euphemism, and a way to avoid proper and decent behaviour?

    Mrs Babbitt is now (mid-Jan. 2009) fighting cancer and the ill health related to its treatment. She may be losing her battle for life, but will Society allow the modern Auschwitz custodians to cause her to lose the battle for human respect and dignity as well? We need more human decency in this world.

    Please visit and join us in the practice of Active Decency. Return her paintings while she can still appreciate them because no living person on this planet can understand and value those portraits in the way that Dina Babbitt does.

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