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Jewish Journal

Through the Looking Glass

Paintings by two survivors give testimony to the fate of Roma and Sinti prisoners


by Naomi Pfefferman

September 30, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Fifty-five years ago, they survived Auschwitz by working for the notorious Dr. Josef Mengele.

Karl Stojka, an 11-year-old Roma boy, served as a messenger for the chief Auschwitz physician. Dina Gottliebova Babbitt, a Czech-Jewish artist, was forced to paint portraits of Roma and Sinti, commonly referred to as Gypsies, before they died.

The artists had heard of each other through a documentary filmmaker and had hoped to meet.

They got their wish last week at the opening of an exhibit, "Memory and Meaning: The Holocaust Through the Eyes of the Artist," presented by the Jewish Federation's Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust in partnership with Second Generation.

Stojka and Babbitt, who had flown in from Vienna and Santa Cruz , respectively, searched for each other among the 500 guests in the gallery at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. When they were finally introduced by the filmmaker, Hilary Helstein, who is also an exhibit co-curator, they enthusiastically shook hands and embraced. On the wall, their paintings hung side by side, a testimony to the thousands of Roma and Sinti prisoners who died at Auschwitz.

The pieces include six of Babbitt's watercolor portraits, among them a striking, white-haired man and a sad-eyed young woman. One of Stojka's jarring, Expressionist-style paintings describes their probable fate: In the piece, naked figures in a vast truck, driven by a grinning skeleton, speed toward a fiery crematorium. Beneath the image, scrawled block letters reveal the date: Aug. 2, 1944.

At the opening, Stojka jabbed a finger at the figures in the truck. "Here is my family," said the artist, who suddenly blanched, removed his hat and wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. Stojka has painted 1,000 images of Auschwitz and hopes to paint 1,000 more. But viewing his own work is often traumatic. Breathing heavily, he exited the gallery, sat in a chair, closed his eyes and sighed deeply. "I cannot sleep after I see these paintings. Everything comes again."

Before the Holocaust, Stojka, the son of an itinerant horse trader, roamed the villages of east Austria in his parents' caravan. It was an idyllic, if poor childhood, cut short by Auschwitz, where he caught the eye of Dr. Mengele while working in a canteen frequented by high-ranking SS officials.

Stojka, nicknamed "errand-boy" by the officers, became the doctor's personal assistant. He cleaned Mengele's loaded revolver, shined his black boots, served his meals and brought scissors to the white-tiled laboratory where Mengele experimented on twin children. Sometimes, Stojka saw the head of a child he knew swimming in a long, chemical vat containing tiny, severed body parts. When Karl cringed from the vat, Mengele would say, "Don't be afraid, errand-boy." After all, the doctor said, he was only trying to heal the children.

In October 1943, a cordial SS man drove Babbitt to the entrance of a Roma camp, where Dr. Mengele was busily snapping photographs. Mengele, apparently, had learned of Babbitt's artistic prowess after she had painted a mural of Snow White on a children's barracks. The doctor wanted to talk with Babbitt because he had a problem: The color photography of the time was too garish to accurately record the Gypsies' skin tones, he felt. Could Babbitt capture skin color better than a camera? he asked. "I will try," she said.

The artist heard nothing from Mengele for five months, but when her entire transport was gassed on March 8, 1944, she was spared by the Auschwitz doctor. Several days later, he summoned Babbitt to the Roma camp and asked her to pick a subject. In a state of shock and despair, she began to paint prisoners who became, for a time, her friends.

The one she remembers most fondly is Celine, a beautiful, distraught French woman whose 2-month-old baby had starved to death. Celine was starving, too, and Babbitt secured good, white bread to nourish her, at least for a while. "She was my Madonna," recalls the artist, who draped a blue cloth about Celine's face to enhance the effect.

Babbitt lingered over the portrait to allow Celine time to eat. But in the end it did not matter. When the last of 11 portraits was completed in summer 1944, all of Babbitt's subjects were gassed and burned. She survived, but she never forgot her Roma friends or her beloved Celine.

In 1973, Babbitt, then an assistant animator in Hollywood, received an unexpected letter from the Auschwitz Museum in Poland. The curators had been searching for her for 20 years, the letter said. They had found her paintings and wanted more information.

The single mother of two borrowed money for the plane fare and flew to Poland. Following a lengthy interview with the museum curators, she held the seven surviving portraits in her hands and wept. As she began to pack the paintings into her briefcase the officials snatched them away; the paintings belonged to the museum and were part of Polish history, they said. "I felt almost as helpless as I did the first time I was in Auschwitz," Babbitt recalls.

Devastated, she flew home and began a 25-year battle with the museum, which of late has gathered momentum. Babbitt was recently the subject of a feature story on MSNBC; a bill focusing on the return of the paintings is now in Congress; and "Memory and Meaning" has helped to put the issue on the map in Los Angeles.

Several months ago, Marcia Reines Josephy, the director-curator of the L.A. Museum of the Holocaust, approached the Auschwitz Museum with the help of Polish consul Pawel Potoroczyn. Josephy had heard that the curators were willing to loan Babbitt's portraits to museums, and wanted to know if she could borrow them for "Memory and Meaning." The Auschwitz curators said they would not send the originals, but they sent free copies as a gift to the L.A. Museum. The copies arrived, of all days, on Yom Kippur.

Babbitt, 76, was surprised to see the copies on the wall at the opening several days later. "But until I have my paintings, I will not feel whole," she says. "I still feel like I am a concentration camp inmate without any rights or power."

"Memory and Meaning" features the work of more than 40 artists, including survivors, and survivors' children and grandchildren. For more information, call (323) 761-8170.

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