Piecing together daily life in Terezin
Erich Lichtblau-Leskly is relatively unknown, but the power of his art — created while he was an inmate of the concentration camp known as the Theresienstadt ghetto — is evident in the exhibition “The Art Of Erich Lichtblau-Leskly” at the newly opened Museum of the Holocaust in Pan Pacific Park. The paintings, on display through May 1, are rendered in a cartoon style, and many are sarcastic commentary on the desperate conditions under which the Jewish prisoners existed, contradicting Nazi propaganda that promoted Theresienstadt as a model facility where Jews supposedly were well treated. Lichtblau-Leskly’s work is singular when compared to most Holocaust-related art, according to E. Randol Schoenberg, president of the museum’s board of directors.
“There’s not a great deal of artwork that was created within the camps. And the artwork that was created under those circumstances in the ghettos and camps often looks quite different from what Lichtblau did. … It’s an attempt to record scenes within the ghetto, but privately. It’s clear that he’s only showing them to his wife and not to other people, because he’s making fun of a lot of the other people, including people who could have punished him.”
When other artists were discovered and ultimately sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Lichtblau removed slogans, titles and captions from his paintings and cut most of them into pieces that his wife hid in the boards of her bunk. After liberation, she retrieved them and Lichtblau reassembled them. He also reproduced them, first in Czechoslovakia, where he changed his name from Lichtblau to Leskly, and then in Israel, where the couple eventually settled.
Among the themes running through the work is the artist’s personal experience. “My First Night in the Ghetto: Overcrowded” is a biting comment on conditions in this “model” camp. The work depicts rows of double-decker bunks, all occupied, with clothes hanging on nails. Lichtblau-Leskly is shown sleeping on the floor, with a physician leaning over him. The accompanying text explains that the artist was ill with a fever. The doctor is telling him, “All you need to get a place on a bunk is vitamin P — protection (or patronage).”
The shortage of food — especially for the elderly, who couldn’t perform hard labor and thus were given very sparse rations — is another subject. In “Competition for Potatoes,” an old woman in a long, black coat with a fur collar and a black, fur-lined hat forages with a twig for potatoes in a garbage pile as rats eye the same food.
“The woman foraging,” Schoenberg said, “could have been the wife of a doctor from Vienna, once a very elegant woman, reduced to this level of searching for scraps, like a rat, through the garbage.”
Lichtblau-Leskly also criticized some of his fellow prisoners. “ ‘Organizing’ and Stealing Are Not the Same” shows two men who are identical, or two aspects of one man. On the left, the prisoner “organizes” or takes food from a common supply, which is considered a necessity for survival and thus acceptable; on the right, the man steals food from the bowl of another prisoner, who is old, using a cane, and almost blind. The latter form of stealing, as the text states, was considered morally reprehensible, but, Schoenberg noted, Lichtblau-Leskly also sympathized with the thieves.
“Nearly everybody had to become an opportunist,” Schoenberg said. “To not become an opportunist was suicide. And so, people were put in certain positions, and sometimes the positions provoked envy in other people, or gave opportunities that other people didn’t have. Lichtblau shows the terrible position that people were put in; while they were trying to save their own lives, they were put in positions that hurt other people, too. It’s just terrible, if you think about it,” he added.
Schoenberg commented that the artist chose as subjects specific incidents that were repeated consistently. “They’re somehow archetypes of the life and what people were forced to do in the camps. That’s what makes them so powerful. They aren’t merely individual scenes, but they represent activity that occurred over and over again”
Sickness, especially paratyphoid, which causes intense diarrhea, was suffered by virtually every inmate and is illustrated in “Terezinka — A Ghetto Disease,” a caricature depicting a man in yellow trousers who runs down a long staircase terrified that he won’t make it to the latrine in time. “Death Rate: 150 Daily” refers to the horrific level of mortality in the camp — it shows nurses making up beds that appear to hold dead or dying prisoners who, as the text explains, will be carted off to the crematoria on a hearse. Other inmates will be forced to pull the cart. In the foreground, an old woman with a yellow star on her chest leans on a nurse for support.
“Obligatory Salute and Forbidden Cigarettes” delineates the precarious position of even the most privileged prisoners. “Here’s a person who is relatively high up in the hierarchy and protected,” Schoenberg explained. “He’s one of the ghetto officers. He’s there at a deportation, and someone hands him some cigarettes, which are, of course, illegal, but are very valuable as a result. So he hides them under his cap, but, walking away from the deportation scene he sees an official, a German or Czech official, and has to remove his cap. The cigarettes fall out, and Lichtblau says he was on the next transport to the East. So what he thought was his good fortune ended up being his undoing.”
Schoenberg estimated that of the approximately 150 Lichtblau-Leskly works in the museum’s collection, some 70 or 80 are on exhibit. He pointed out that in documenting these scenes from the ghetto, Lichtblau-Leskly was literally risking his life. But, in an essay in the exhibition catalogue, the artist’s daughter, Mira, said her father had a compulsion to paint these scenarios, and that painting “helped him keep his sanity in that valley of darkness.” She added that the works were also a way for her father to record for the world what had taken place at Theresienstadt.
The Erich Lichtblau-Leskly Collection at the Los Angeles Museum of The Holocaust 100 S. The Grove Dr., Los Angeles, Calif. 90036
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