Santa Cruz woman trying to recover Auschwitz art

When Josef Mengele realized his camera could not capture the colors, texture and details of the Gypsies in Auschwitz, he turned to an interned artist.

Dina Gottliebova, who arrived in the camp in 1943, was thus forced to paint watercolor portraits to document the “depraved” race for Mengele, the notorious Nazi doctor known as the “Angel of Death.”

For the past two decades, she has been trying to recover those paintings. Seven of them hang in the Auschwitz State Museum. They are signed “Dina 1944.”

This week, she traveled to Auschwitz to make a special plea directly to museum officials.

The museum, which acknowledges that she created the paintings, has long fought her efforts to recover them.

“We do believe that they are an intrinsic part of the place where they were created…their strength being expressed best right here where they originated,” Krystyna Oleksy, the deputy director of the museum, said recently.

Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, as the 76-year-old Santa Cruz grandmother is now known, disagrees.

She contends that they are her property and that she has the right to determine where they are displayed.

There seem to be only minimal prospects for a settlement in which the artist would recover half of the paintings, although such an arrangement seemed likely only a few months ago.

The claim by Gottliebova Babbitt appears unique amid the current flurry of efforts to recover Nazi-looted art, in part because the ownership issues aren’t clear and because the paintings serve what is widely believed to be an appropriate historical purpose.

Born in 1923 in Brno, Czechoslovakia, Dina Gottliebova and her mother arrived at Auschwitz in February 1943 from Terezin. After the camp was liberated, she went to Paris and married.

In 1947, she and her husband moved to the United States.

Six of her paintings were given to a young Polish boy from the vicinity, Stanislaw Karcz. According to his account given to the Auschwitz museum, his mother was in mourning for the loss of a child, so three days after Auschwitz’s liberation in 1945, the boy went to the camp.

“He knew that the Nazis evacuating the site had left behind some emaciated prisoners. Among them were lonely children,” according to the account at the museum.

The boy took a Hungarian Jewish girl, Ewa, home to his mother. “To express gratitude, one of the adult Auschwitz inmates gave him a roll of paintings,” the museum maintains.

In 1963, Karcz gave the six paintings to Ewa and the museum bought them from her that year, Oleksy said.

The seventh portrait was bought from another Auschwitz prisoner.

The museum preserved the paintings. Until 1969, they were labeled in the museum’s collection simply as works by “Dina.”

The museum later learned her full name because it appeared, alongside some of her work, in a book of illustrations that also gave information about her fate.

Using contacts with former Auschwitz prisoners living in Czechoslovakia, the museum located Gottliebova Babbitt in the United States. She visited the museum and viewed her paintings in 1973.

According to Oleksy, Gottliebova Babbitt told the museum during the visit that she appreciated the museum’s efforts to find her and that she was glad some of her works had survived the war.

“For many years,” Oleksy said, Gottliebova Babbitt never mentioned her desire to recover the portraits.

There has been an extraordinary focus in the last few years on the efforts of survivors and heirs to recover Nazi-looted art. These cases refer to art that was confiscated or sold under duress during World War II, never returned to the original owners and subsequently appeared in the art market and on museum walls.

In virtually all these instances, the artwork was considered stolen.

Museums and the artworks’ current owners are hard pressed to make a compelling moral argument about their right to retain stolen property — although in some instances in Europe, the statute of limitations has expired.

In effect, the art has been “cleansed” by the passage of time, allowing the current holder to make a legal claim to ownership.

The Gottliebova Babbitt case is unusual because it is an effort by the artist to recover her own work. In this instance, the paintings were not plundered, but were the products of what Gottliebova Babbitt characterized as slave labor, compelled by Mengele.

But that raises reservations about the original “legitimate owner.”

In a 1980 letter from the museum, she was told that “the only one who had a legitimate claim to the paintings was Mengele,” said Joel Friedman, an attorney with the firm Dilworth Paxson in Philadelphia, who is handling her case pro bono.

In some instances, museums that display disputed art defend themselves by arguing that art exhibitions serve a public cultural and educational purpose, implying that this is a collective benefit and one that can supersede an individual claim.

In the case of the Gottliebova Babbitt paintings, Oleksy contends that the art serves a significant and serious historical purpose because the artist chronicled her surroundings.

“They are not merely pieces of art, but above all evidence of crime and should remain permanently in the memorial,” she said.

“Like other materials — sketches, plans, letters, secret messages — their value and uniqueness are not only of artistic, but rather documentary, character.”

The museum, which is administered by Poland’s Ministry of Culture, acknowledges that Gottliebova Babbitt is the painter in all its publications, Oleksy said, and it is prepared to pay her royalties.

At one point last fall, museum officials told Andrew Baker, director of European affairs for the American Jewish Committee, that they were prepared to return some of the drawings. But at that time, they also hoped to keep some of the paintings.

Friedman contends that, given the technological ability to make near-perfect copies, the museum could return Gottliebova Babbitt’s work and instead display reproductions. “It doesn’t [make sense] that, for historical purposes, they can’t make reproductions,” he said.

Others, however, counter that only authentic items should be at the museum and that none would suggest replicas of some of Auschwitz’s more powerful — and grisly — exhibitions such as the tons of human hair or thousands of tattered shoes.

“For all those years the portraits have been properly safeguarded and shown to the visitors. The fact is that is why they became so well-known, not only in Poland but also abroad,” Oleksy said.

“Presented as they are, they document the Nazi crimes and are forever remembered by the people learning the truth about the Auschwitz camp and the victims of the Holocaust.” — Jerusalem Post