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Holocaust Family Weeps as Portraits Go on Show in Israel

"Dvora Milka Semmel, Mikhailowka Camp, 1943" by Arnold Daghani. In April 1943, Semmel and their daughter Zyla were executed together with other 53 labor camp inmates. Source: Yad Yashem via Bloomberg

Dvora Milka Semmel fixes us with a resigned grimace.

She has a blue kerchief, lined face and brown eyes. She peers from a portrait painted months before she was gunned down by the Nazis with 53 fellow labor camp inmates.

Her 79-year-old granddaughter, Nira Gold, stares immobilized at the painting with tears welling, as she seeks solace from her 73-year-old sister Amira Bar.

“The Nazis took the elderly out of a line-up -- that was grandmother,” Gold says. “The minute they took her, the oldest daughter ran after and they were both shot. Right in front of everyone. I just wish there was a way to tell my mother” that the painting exists, she says. “I’m crying for her.”

Bar nods. Their mother took them to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum often when they were children and “looked for so long” for something from her mother. Her grandmother’s likeness, hung next to that of Gold’s grandfather, hangs in an exhibition, “Last Portrait: Painting for Posterity,” at Yad Vashem.

About 6 million European Jews were killed in the Holocaust during World War II in a Nazi campaign across Europe that included random executions, plunder and death camps. Most of the faces that look out from the exhibit’s charcoal, pencil, watercolor and oil portraits didn’t survive.

Counterfeiters Film

Sketches include those of men who printed fake foreign money for the Nazi regime and whose story was commemorated in the movie “The Counterfeiters.”

For Avraham Zolenfeld, who says he was the youngest counterfeiter, the portraits are less significant than his two return trips to Sachsenhausen to revisit the printing press.

“I don’t recall at all the faces except for those I saw after I was freed,” Zolenfeld, 87, says, shaking his head. “I don’t want to disappoint but I prefer to remember places rather than people.”

The exhibition’s portraits are grouped thematically and into specific categories. The blurry lines and downcast glances of the subjects in one such group reflect the precariousness of existence in the camps and ghettos.

Moritz Muller worked in the hospital of the Theresienstadt Ghetto and started painting and sketching the patients he cared for. He recorded the date of the portrait and dates of many of the deaths.

Unearthed Drawings

Jacob Lifshitz, active at the Kovno Ghetto, buried all of his drawings in the Jewish cemetery a few days before the ghetto’s liquidation. He died of starvation. His wife survived to return, unearth the drawings, bring them with her to Israel and donate them to Yad Vashem.

Four Czech artists in Theresienstadt used caricature, a style which allowed them to capture the faces of many people in just a few strokes. Their subjects added captions to their likenesses such as that done by Max Placek on which Viktor Ullman, the Czech composer who was sent to Auschwitz in 1944, scribbled: “Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.”

“What is really characteristic and surprising is that we almost don’t find Holocaust attributes in these portraits,” curator Eliad Moreh says. “The message is that they wanted to be remembered as human beings and not as victims.”

She quotes from a poem by Benjamin Fondane, that opens the exhibition on its entrance walls: “I too had a face marked by rage, by pity and joy. An ordinary human face.” Fondane was killed in Auschwitz in 1944.

“Last Portrait: Painting for Posterity” runs through Fall 2012 at Yad Vashem, Har Hazikaron, Jerusalem. Information:

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