Teaching the Holocaust with Visual Art

Introduction 

Visual art (broadly conceived) is a poerful and thought-provoking tool that educators can use to teach their studnets abotu the Holocaust. 

Within the study of the Holocaust and other genocides, scholars often divide works of art into four main areas: 1) art created by victims and survivors, 2) art created by perpetrators, 3) art created by third-party witnesses and others, and 4) public memorial art. 

Note: each category of art differs from the other when taking into account intended audience, circulation during and after the events in question, access and engagement with the artwork today, and questions regarding current status and provenance (e.g., did the artwork survive and how did it survive?, Who/what organization is currently in possession of the art?, How did those institutions come to possess the art?, etc.).

Four Categories of Art in Holocaust Education

Art Created by Victims and Survivors

Whether satirical, fantastical, or realistic, art created by victims and survivors of genocide depicts the complex human responses to persecution, and to the destruction of one's life and culture. During and after the Holocaust, individuals in ghettos, concentration camps, postwar DP camps, etc. lacked access to basic supplies. The resulting artworks thus varied widely in size, medium, and preservability. Although a lot of art has survived, much of it has not. Therefore, art is just one (i.e., is not the only) way to grapple with horrific events as they unfolded. 

Nevertheless, a welath of resources are available to teach about the Holocaust using art made by victims and survivors. 

CHGS collections include artwork created by victims and survivors of the Holocaust. Below are links to selected materials, which include image scans, biographical information of artists, and other relevant information. 

Art Created by Perpetrators

Great care must be taken to contextualize art created by perpetrators of genocide, and art made by the Nazis and their collaborators is no exception. Beginning with their seizure of power in Germany in 1933, the Nazis heavily censored art collections, and either confiscated or destroyed workls deemed "degenerate." By the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, many prominent artists from the Weimar Republic (1918-1933) had either fled Nazi Germany, remained marginalized from their professions, or were victims of Nazi persecution themselves. As such, the art produced by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War and the Holocaust was deeply ideological and genocidal in nature.  

  • The German Propaganda Archive (Calvin University: Grand Rapids, Michigan) contains translated and other primary sources, including examinations of the use and misue of visual art and propaganda during the Nazi era. Note: the site also includes materials from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany, 1949-1989) that should be contextualized separately. 
  • Facing History and Ourselves, an educational site that challenges teachers and students to stand up to bigotry and hate, has contextualized Nazi art and propaganda in its resource collections. 

Art Created by Third Parties and Witnesses

From World-War-II-era comics, to paintings and photographs made by soldiers who liberated concentration camps, artistic responses to the Holocaust by third parties have been in circulation since the horrific events in question took place. Art of this kind offers audiences today with the diversity of responses to events that took place between 1933-1945 in Nazi Germany and Europe. Examples include:

Public Memorial Art: Remembrance and Aftermath

Spread across sites in and beyond Europe, memorial artworks serve as visible reminders of the past. Due to the sheer level of devestation wrought by the Nazis and their collaborators, and the locations around the world in which survivors settled, memorial art is a global phenomenon. As a result, memorials also attempt to represent something about horrific events that took place, while also directing attention to local audiences encountering the memorial. Although the other categories mentioned on this page include artworks from many mediums, memorial art is arguably one of the largest categories of art related to the Holocaust. It includes painting, sculpture, installations, architecture, etc. Examples to use include: 

Additional Resources

The following are a selection of web sites that specialize in artwork created during or in response to the Holocaust and other genocides.

  • Art of the Holocaust is a site devoted to art of the Holocaust from the University of South Florida. It includes Nazi art, art by survivors, and teaching guides. 
  • Learning About the Holocaust Through Art is an important contribution to Holocaust education. This website provides high-quality reproductions of art works produced during the Holocaust. It also includes biographies of the artists and histories of the ghettos and camps in which the artists were interned. Study resources and lesson plans support its use in the classroom, and an interactive section enables users to choose and annotate works for their own online collection. The website is available in English, Hebrew, Russian and Spanish. The website has been jointly produced by World ORT (an international educational charity) and Beit Lohamei Haghetaot (Ghetto Fighters' House Museum - a major Holocaust museum in the Western Galilee).
  • Exhibitions: Yad Vashem is a collection of online exhibitions produced by Yad Vashem, the State of Israel's memorial to the Holocaust.
  • Imperial War Museum (UK) - Artist Responses to the Holocaust
  • From Google Arts and Culture - Art and the Holocaust

Art of Diversity and Acceptance

COEXISTENCE is an outdoor exhibition by the Museum on the Seam (Jerusalem, Isreal). The exhibition brings the universal message of diversity and acceptance of the other to the world community. In 2004 CHGS, the University of Minnesota and several community partners brought the exhibition to the Twin Cities. 

Art in Response to other Genocides

Alfredo Jaar: Rwanda