The fall of the Iron Curtain also opened paths leading back into the darkest chapter of German history. The Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR) was one of the first broadcasters to report on the museum that organizes the Auschwitz Memorial and, in 1992, called for the preservation of the historical site of Auschwitz. The former concentration camp threatened to fall into disrepair. Over the years, television viewers had donated a total of nearly three million marks. In 1996, it was reported what had happened with the money.
“It is now more than fifty years since they were murdered here: Jews, Poles, Gypsies, gassed, cremated, and exterminated. Most of the prisoners’ barracks have long since fallen into disrepair. Only the chimneys are still standing. We meet Jozef Matinya. He survived. He was not able to help any of his fellow prisoners. But for more than fifty years, he has been fighting to ensure that at least the dead of Auschwitz are not forgotten. That, he thinks, is something we all owe them. Jozef Matinya shows us one of the barracks restored with donations. The beams and the bunks have been impregnated. The inscriptions of the murderers have thus also been preserved—cleanliness and health. Thanks to the donations, it was possible to transcribe the descriptions of survivors and record these in a register.”
Particia Schlesinger, commentary, NDR Panorama, 1996
"We are of course very pleased that we were able to realize many conservational and other works. But sometimes, I would say, it is more important for us to know that so many people are still so intensively engaged with the topic of Auschwitz after more than fifty years. That means for us a kind of moral support."
Krystyna Oleksy, 1996
“Jozef Matinya goes with us to the main camp. Here was his cell. The stone barracks were also restored, now housing offices and archives. Jozef Matinya wishes to show us the photo labs: This is very important to him. 40,000 photos are preserved in Auschwitz, 40,000 of millions. Because, for the most part, their deterioration cannot be halted, they are rephotographed, for scholars and relatives. The faces of Auschwitz. Half of the cost for this microfilm camera was raised with donations, the other half was donated by the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Personal mail, lists, all important documents are preserved for posterity. For Jozef Matinya, the photos are invaluable. It is as if the past is looking at him: Jozef Matinya, eighteen years old.”
Particia Schlesinger, commentary, NDR Panorama, 1996
“Nothing can really reflect the horror or the crimes that happened here,” he says, “not even fifty percent of it can be processed retrospectively. But these objects must be preserved as evidence. This is my thirtieth time in Auschwitz, but it keeps attacking me. Young people must understand what happened here.”
Jozef Matinya, 1996
“The suitcases. Many people were simply wrenched from their homes, most of them told that they would be taken to a place in the East where they would feel better. They packed and traveled to their deaths. The suitcases are now preserved, each piece of luggage individually, depending on material, condition, and age. There are still roughly 100,000 shoes in Auschwitz. They are rotting in rooms without air conditioning and with large fluctuations in temperature. For a long time, they could not be preserved because the funds were lacking. Now, made possible by donations, they are being individually catalogued and saved from deterioration. For Jozef Matinya, they are the worst, especially the shoes of the children killed in Auschwitz.”
“Whenever I see these shoes,” Jozef Matinya explains, “I once again see the many women and children who were led from the ramp directly into the gas chambers. It is right and important to preserve all this. I am glad that this is now possible.”
Particia Schlesinger, commentary, NDR Panorama, 1996
"Gegen das Vergessen", NDR, 1998:
“To meet with Yehuda Bacon and Sigalit Landau in Jerusalem, I flew to Israel in February 2014. In Jerusalem, I always have the great honor of living with Greta Klingsberg. After the founding of the state, she helped build up radio in Israel; and she also survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. One February evening, I thus sat with her at the kitchen table. We hadn’t seen each other for a long time, and there was a lot to talk about while drinking good red wine. One topic was a graphic novel that she had been given by her friends for her eighty-fourth birthday. She said in her own inimitable way: ‘Hogwash, comics, I don’t like them at all; they knew that, for me they are nothing. I’m for literature, Jürgen! The first comic in my life. I just wanted to look at it, started reading, and couldn’t stop. This book is true. With a lot of feeling and great drawings, Kichka captured exactly the mood that we, the survivors, had and have. The silence in the first decades, then the dam burst, and later the interest of the younger generations in us. The difficulties in the families, in the immediate surroundings. The problem of not getting out of the camp ourselves, and dragging others into it.’ Greta wanted to meet Kichka. She had already looked up his phone number, but there was no real reason for her to call him yet. Answering machine, message left. The next day we actually met, and we agreed on further cooperation. Thanks Greta!”
Claudia Roth on the exhibition
"The memory of the Holocaust unites the Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków (MOCAK) and the Center for Persecuted Arts in the Solingen Art Museum. Maria Anna Potocka (Director of MOCAK), Delfina Jałowik (Head of the Art Department at MOCAK), and I have been working closely together since 2015. Our exhibition and projects do not exclusively deal with the Shoah, but it is always present.", Jürgen Kaumkötter
The MOCAK is located in the former Oskar Schindler factory. The exhibition program is strongly influenced by the museum’s proximity to the former Kraków ghetto, the concentration camp at Płaszów, and the short distance to Auschwitz, as well as by the sociopolitical significance of the Shoah. The memory of the Shoah and the rehabilitation of forgotten artists was the reason for the founding of the Center for Persecuted Arts. In the collection of the Center, a civic foundation for persecuted arts, there are many works from the ghettos, camps, and hiding places: the art of catastrophe.
"Because Solingen is a city which, in my view, has the task of being a constant admonisher—in Europe, in Germany—for human rights. In the 1990s, we experienced the darkest hour of our post-war history when five young women were murdered here. And that is a task for the city, also for the future, to never stop admonishing: “Be careful, it can happen very quickly that words become actions. Be careful that arsonists do not find a platform to assert themselves here.” This must always be the admonishing role of the city of Solingen.", Lord Mayor of Solingen Tim Kurzbach about the foundation of the Museum Center for Persecuted Arts
Michel Kichka is one of the most influential comic artists in Israel. He was born in Belgium in 1954 and emigrated to Israel in 1974. Kichka teaches at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem and works regularly as a caricaturist for international newspapers, including the Courrier International and the Herald Tribune. He is also involved in the organization Cartooning for Peace. In Second Generation, he very sensitively draws the relationship with his father Henri, who was born in 1926 and deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Henri Kichka experienced how his entire family was murdered by the Nazis. He remained silent for many years, and only began to report on his experiences in the concentration camps after his youngest son committed suicide. He went to schools and regularly traveled to Auschwitz together with young people. Henri Kichka was a busy contemporary witness until his death in 2020.
Nevertheless, the experiences of the Second World War and the Shoah are always present in the family life of the Kichkas. They influence everything: their everyday life, the education of the children, their behavior at the dining table, at school, and at family celebrations. Second Generation begins with an image which almost everyone has in their minds when it comes to survivors: the tattooed numbers on their arms. Young Michel holds his father tightly and asks himself who wrote these numbers on his arm, what a camp is, what his father looked like there, and how he in particular managed to survive.
Perpetrators and victims will remain connected for generations.
Statement of Michel Kichka in Auschwitz and I (english transcription below):
"I am Michel Kichka. I was born in Belgium. I am sixty-five years old and emigrated to Israel in 1974. I studied at the Bezalel Art Academy and teach there myself today. I draw political caricatures and graphic novels, and I am preoccupied with illustrations in general.
I grew up in a house of Shoah survivors, but I was not aware that I belong to the second generation. I did not know this, and I could not formulate it either—not as a child, not as an adolescent. I had to wait until I was fifty years old to read in a book published by my father what had happened to him. And I think this is typical for most families of survivors. I thus only know of two groups: the 95% who do not talk about it, and the 5% who talk incessantly without stopping. I belong to the majority.
I try to look more at the positive fact that he stayed alive, that he found the strength to do so. It is by no means a matter of course that he started a family, or that I am here. That I am in Israel.", Michel Kichka
The first joint exhibition of the MOCAK and the Center for Persecuted Arts was Poland – Israel – Germany. The Experience of Auschwitz, which took place in 2015. It picked up on and continued the inaugural exhibition of the Center for Persecuted Arts, which was shown in the German Bundestag in January 2015 on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The theme was the interconnection between three people: In Theresienstadt, Peter Kien taught twelve-year-old Yehuda Bacon how to draw. Both came to Auschwitz; Kien died, but Bacon survived, went to Jerusalem, and became an artist and teacher at the Bezalel Academy. There, he taught Sigalit Landau drawing. Today, Landau is one of the most influential contemporary artists in the world.
Kien, Bacon, and Landau are linked by the catastrophe of the last century, the Shoah. It is the core of their art.
As a survivor of the Shoah, Yehuda Bacon felt a responsibility to tell his story. He decided to become an artist, also to process his experiences. This was used as evidence in trials against Nazi criminals, such as the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials.
Yahuda Bacon in Auschwitz and I (english transcription below):
"I wanted to memorize everything I saw, from the very beginning, even if I did not believe that I would ever get out of the concentration camp.
Everyone was completely alone. Friendship was almost impossible, only if you happened to know someone very well or if someone was a relative. And now there was a group of children, former children. We were wonderfully organized; we had already been together in Theresienstadt. We helped each other, shared our last piece of bread [...]. That does not exist here. Between the others. We thus had a better chance to survive.
For example, on the death march—that’s when I saw all these elderly people being shot. Those who could not go any further were shot. Further. Further, further. [...] None of these people received any help whatsoever, but our group of children did not leave anyone among us alone. No one was shot. Even if one was already too weak—two boys came from the right and left and dragged him on. That is, we saved his life. That was a matter of course.
I witnessed the insane transports from Hungary. 400,000 people in a short time, and they brought various things with them. What was our task? To take the food out occasionally. They had to leave everything behind and were driven on. Suddenly, we needed wood, [...] 400,000 people cannot disappear so easily. It was too much. The ovens could not cremate all of them, so quickly and well; thus, once again, large pits with wood and then the gasoline and then throw in whoever they could, even small children and so on..., but that’s already written down everywhere. […]
I saw, and I was a curious child—a lot of walls, filled with wood. So well-prepared. I knew this was the wood for the huge masses. And I asked the Kapo—how many people is it for? And he told me a fantastical number. There are still roughly fifteen million or what; yes, all the Jews are alive, almost all of them are already gone. So, he says, now in the program are the slaves. Now the slaves will be exterminated in a different way, and we need so much wood here for that.
We were already very clever and practiced. Women asked us questions. We were already old prisoners. What’s wrong, my child? How old was your child? If it was indeed a child—seven or eight years old—it was surely dead. Because it was surely murdered. All mothers with children up to the age of nine or ten years were immediately exterminated.
It was not a belief, nothing, that one gets ahead. When I saw this with the eyes, the eyes, those shot, the open brain, that is not so pleasant there, I said something very paradoxical for me. Thank God that my father went to the crematorium. Why? I knew exactly how and what would happen. But you suffer for only five to ten minutes; it is hard. But that’s it, and they are much worse than dogs there. Things like that in your head—it is very difficult to explain to a normal person.
The first period of time after liberation. How do you live? How do you give meaning to it?
I came out of the concentration camp, and a little boy, and I can now throw a stone at them. But then another thought came to me: What happens then? What happens then? The ashes of Wisla, of Auschwitz—my father will not suddenly be there. He will not rise from the ashes. That is nonsense. What can you do? And what will happen when I throw the stone. Maybe the person is not guilty at all. And even if they are, I’ll pass the hate on. Is there something solved by that? Nothing.
I already noticed that somehow instinctively.
I did not see that all are evil. And villains and so on. But there are also people, there are still normal people, that was something new.
I also remember an episode after the war. I was amazed to see that, shortly after liberation, a normal funeral took place. I went there and suddenly saw a real cart on which the coffin was being transported, with two or four or six horses, and music was playing. And then I thought, people are crazy—a person is dead, and that’s the kind of effort you make? It was unbelievable for me. Just a week before, I was in Mauthausen and saw other things.
The question is: Humankind, where are you? What are you doing? That is, those who want to hear, hear this mysterious voice. What are you doing with yourself?
What do you do with your talent? You have, everyone has a little talent for something. There are two answers to this call. And I can say, here I am. Yeah, I’ll take it on myself. I don’t know what the role will be. But I take it upon my shoulders, and the other answer is [...]. Am I my brother’s keeper? How does this concern me? It has nothing to do with me. And everyone has this in them.
There are always some excuses. But the question is: Did I do what I could do? Did I at least try?
Everyone has to try to do what they can, and they really have to do this with open hearts."
Authors: Christine Thalmann and Julia Riedhammer
As the fourth artist with works on view in the German Bundestag, the Israeli caricaturist Michel Kichka, successor of Yehuda Bacon in the art academy, presented his graphic novel Second Generation. It sensitively depicts the traumatization of the survivors’ children and grandchildren. German public television, represented by and under the leadership of the northern German broadcaster Norddeutscher Rundfunk, accompanied the exhibition in the Bundestag with the tri-medial project Auschwitz and I, initiated by Patricia Schlesinger. In addition to the extensive radio, Internet, and television program, the project also included an appeal for donations for the didactic program of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. In 2015, the collected money was handed over to the memorial foundation during an event at the MOCAK.
Patrizia Schlesinger on the project Auschwitz and I:
The Bundestag project traveled on to the MOCAK in Kraków, where it was on view from May 15 to October 31 and illustrated how differently Auschwitz is viewed as a site of the Holocaust from the perspectives of Poles, Israelis, and Germans. An intensive discussion arose around several contemporary works.
“History has led us to shift all the responsibility onto the Nazis. ‘Oh, the Nazis did that; we’re all good.’ And this is the great warning: We must remember that what happened is part of us, part of all of us, part of European culture, part of the religions of Europe.”, Maria Anna Potocka in Auschwitz and I
Curated by Delfina Jałowik and Jürgen Kaumkötter, Poland – Israel – Germany. The Experience of Auschwitz was also presented in Solingen from December 9, 2015 to January 24, 2016 – again adapted to the location.
Death Does Not Have the Last Word by Jürgen Kaumkötter, then curator in Solingen, now director there, about artists who created works in ghettos and concentration camps during the Second World War. The Polish edition of Michel Kichka’s graphic novel Second Generation was also realized in the wake of the exhibition.
In the late summer of 2018, the documentary film of the MOCAK and the Center for Persecuted Arts, Kichka. Life Is a Cartoon, was premiered in the competition of the Montreal World Film Festival in Canada. Its world premiere had already taken place in Brussels in March 2018, in the presence of the Kichka family. The German-Polish co-production focuses on the post-Holocaust relationship between father and son Kichka. Henri, the father, is a victim and contemporary witness of the Holocaust. Michel, the son, has been waiting for explanations since his childhood. The trauma of the Shoah determines the lives of all family members. Despite or perhaps because of the oppressive subject matter, the documentary is full of lightness, affection, and hope.
On the occasion of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp, the German Bundestag continued its cooperation with the Center for Persecuted Arts, and both the MOCAK, represented by the curator Delfina Jałowik, and the German public broadcaster ARD now participated under the auspices of the Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg (rbb) with the project Auschwitz and I. The Art of Remembering. The project What can each individual do? in the context of Auschwitz and I was initiated by Christine Thalmann and Julia Riedhammer.
The life of the painter David Olère was portrayed in a multilayered manner on the Internet site auschwitzundich.ard.de. He was one of the few prisoners of the so-called "Sonderkommando" (Special Unit) who survived the concentration camp and the war, and at the same time the only one who recorded these experiences in paintings and drawings. The Center for Persecuted Arts realized the art exhibition David Olère. The One Who Survived Crematorium III in the German Bundestag in cooperation with the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The curator and co-curators of the exhibition were Agnieszka Sieradzka of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, Marc Olère, and Serge Klarsfeld.
The site auschwitzundich.ard.de contains interviews with the artist’s grandson, Marc Olère, as well as with contemporary witnesses, including Yehuda Bacon, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld, staff members of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial, young people, and politicians from Poland, Israel, France, and Germany, conducted and recorded by the rbb. All of them tell their own stories and talk about how they dealt with the Shoah. The interviews that the rbb conducted as part of the multimedia project Auschwitz and I were part of the exhibition in the Bundestag.
One quintessence of all these projects is the book Polyphony of the Holocaust. Voices on the Culture of Remembrance, edited by Maria Anna Potocka. In 2015, following the controversy surrounding the exhibition Poland – Israel – Germany. The Experience of Auschwitz, the MOCAK invited various people, including philosophers, historians, literary scholars, psychiatrists, artists, curators, and writers, to discuss the ways in which the Holocaust was remembered and the limits to artistic freedom that were tied to this. In other words: This book was not so much about the Shoah itself, but rather about the responsibility of how the memory of the mass murder takes place. In addition to international positions, the first edition of the book presented above all the Polish perspective. The German edition from 2020 takes up many aspects of the Polish edition, but extends it to include the participants in the project Auschwitz and I.