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January 23: Mengele’s Jewish Portraitist

January 23, 2015
portrait-of-gypsy-prisonerDina Gottliebova Babbitt, an artist whom Dr. Josef Mengele spared from death at Auschwitz in order to have her draw Roma inmates in service of his racist theorizing, was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia on this date in 1923. Deported to Auschwitz as a 19-year-old art student, she drew a scene from Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” the last movie she had seen, on a wall of a children’s barracks. (Not every child was put to death immediately in Auschwitz: Romani children were often used in Mengele’s experiments, Romani families were sometimes allowed to stay together to avoid violent resistance, and children as young as 12 and 13 were put to work alongside adults in forced labor brigades.) Gottlievbova’s talent was discovered by Mengele, who ordered her to paint watercolor portraits of Roma inmates before they were gassed; his primary interest was to capture their skin colors, for which he thought the new technology of color photography was inadequate. Gottliebova successfully bargained for her mother’s life. After their liberation, she became a Hollywood animator and married Art Babbitt, the creator of Disney’s “Goofy” character — who had also worked on “Snow White.” In 1973, she learned that the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum had seven of the watercolors she had painted. She campaigned for their return, and even won a U.S. Congressional resolution declaring the paintings to be her property, but she died in 2009 before resolution of the issue. “[T]he Museum is profoundly convinced that the watercolors should remain in Oświęcim. From the moment of its establishment, this institution has been — with great effort — collecting and preserving most various post-camp remains, doing everything for them to survive and certify about the crimes committed by the Nazis in the place they are most closely connected with. Both death certificates, prisoner cards, etc., produced in large number by scrupulous Nazi camp bureaucracy, and works of art created in the camp, either made by prisoners on orders of the SS or illegally, are a unique document and piece of evidence, having the biggest meaning, significance and impact in the place of their creation.” —Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum