The Holocaust in art and literature

The Holocaust in art and literature

As one of the defining events of the 20th century, and one of the most stark examples of human brutality in modern history, the Holocaust has had a profound impact on art and literature over the past 60 years.


Some of the more famous works are by Holocaust survivors or victims, such as Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Imre Kertész, Jean Améry, Edgar Hilsenrath, Anne Frank and Gizelle Hersh, but there is a substantial body of literature and art in many languages. The Holocaust has been a common subject in American literature, with authors ranging from Sylvia Plath to Saul Bellow addressing it in their works.

In 1991, Art Spiegelman completed the second and final installment of his Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel, Maus. Through text and illustration, the autobiography retraces his father's steps through the Holocaust along with the residual effects of those events a generation later.

White Wolf, Inc. put out "Charnal Houses of Europe: The Shoah" in 1997 under its adult Black Dog Game Factory label. It is a carefully researched, respectful, and horrifically detailed supplement on the ghosts of the victims of the Holocaust for the "

Key works in other languages include Ukrainian Anatoly Kuznetsov's novel about the Babi Yar massacre and Polish Tadeusz Borowski's books "This way for Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen" and "We were in Auschwitz".

"Stalags" were pocket books that became popular in Israel and whose stories involved lusty female SS officers sexually abusing Nazi camp prisoners. During the 1960s, parallel to the Eichmann trial, sales of this pornographic literature broke all records in Israel as hundreds of thousands of copies were sold at kiosks. [ [ Documentary spotlights Stalags, Israeli pocket books based on Nazi themes] ]

Some alternate history fiction set in scenarios where Nazi Germany wins World War II, includes the Holocaust happening in countries where it did not happen in reality.


German philosopher Theodor Adorno famously commented that "writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric", but he later retracted this statement. There are some substantial works dealing with the Holocaust and its aftermath, including the work of survivor Paul Celan, which uses invented syntax and vocabulary in an attempt to express the inexpressible. Celan considered the German language tainted by the Nazis, although it is interesting to note his friendship with Nazi sympathizer and philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Visual Arts

Art inside the Nazi concentration camps and ghettos was punishable; if found, the person who created it could be killed. However, many people painted, sketched, and also made literary pieces of art. Many of the artist's pieces were found by the Nazis before they could complete them. The ghettos were a very dreary place. Jews needed a way to bring life into the ghettos, and bring out their human need to create and be creative. The Nazis branded art that portrayed their regime poorly as “horror propaganda”.

German internment camps were much less strict with art. A black, Jewish artist named Joseph Nassy created over 200 drawings and paintings while he was at the Laufen and Tittmoning camps in Bavaria.

While inside the Łódź ghetto, Mendel Grossman took over 10,000 photos of the monstrosities inside. Grossman secretly took these photos from inside his raincoat using the statistics department for the materials needed to make the photographs. He was moved to a labor camp and died in 1945, but the negatives of his photos were discovered and were put into the book, "With a Camera in the Ghetto". The photos illustrate the sad reality of how the Germans dealt with the Jews. The art, and photographs, that have survived World War II best illustrates the suffering and horror of those inside the ghettos, camps, and prisons.

Other survivors presented their memories of the Holocaust in various forms of art. Esther Nisenthal Krinitz (1927–2001), a Polish survivor untrained in art told her story in a series of 36 fabric art pictures that are at once both beautiful and shocking. "Memories of Survival" (2005) displays her art along with a narrative by her daughter, Bernice Steinhardt.


The Holocaust has also been the subject of many films, including "The Pawnbroker", "Schindler's List", "Voyage of the Damned", "The Pianist", "The Sorrow and the Pity", "Night and Fog", "Shoah (film)", "Sophie's Choice", and "Life Is Beautiful". A list of hundreds of Holocaust movies is available at the University of South Florida. [ [ Holocaust Films and Videos ] ]

With the aging population of Holocaust survivors, there has also been increasing attention in recent years to preserving the memory of the Holocaust through documentaries. The most influential of these is Claude Lanzmann's "Shoah", which attempts to tell the story in as literal a manner as possible, without dramatization of any kind.

Arguably, the most highly acclaimed Holocaust film by critics and historians alike is Alain Resnais’ "Night and Fog", which is harrowingly brutal in its graphic depiction of the events at the camps (one of the more notable scenes shows Jewish fat being carved into soap). Many historians and critics have noted its realistic portrayal of the camps and that it lacks the histrionics present in so many other Holocaust films. Indeed, renowned film historian Peter Cowie states “It's a tribute to the clarity and cogency of "Night and Fog" that Resnais’ masterpiece has not been diminished by time, or displaced by longer and more ambitious films on the Holocaust, such as "Shoah (film)" and "Schindler's List".” [ [ The Criterion Collection: Night and Fog by Alain Resnais ] ]

Central European Film

The Holocaust has been particularly important theme in cinema in the Central and East European countries, particularly the cinemas of Poland, both the Czech and Slovak halves of Czechoslovakia and Hungary. These nations were either host to concentration camps and/or lost substantial portions of their Jewish populations to the gas chambers and as a result the Holocaust and the fate of Central Europe's Jews has haunted the work of many film directors, although certain periods have lended themselves more easily to exploring the subject. Although some directors were inspired by their Jewish roots, other directors, such as Hungary's Miklós Jancsó, have no personal connection to Judaism or the Holocaust and yet have repeatedly returned to explore the topic in their works.

Early films about the Holocaust include Auschwitz survivor Wanda Jakubowska's semi-documentary "The Last Stage" ("Ostatni etap", Poland, 1947) and Alfréd Radok's hallucinogenic "The Long Journey" ("Daleká cesta", Czechoslovakia, 1948). As Central Europe fell under the grip of Stalinism and state control over the film industry increased, works about the Holocaust ceased to be made until the end of the 1950s (although films about the Second World War generally continued to be produced). Among the first films to reintroduce the topic, were Jiří Weiss's "Sweet Light in a Dark Room" ("Romeo, Juliet a tma", Czechoslovakia, 1959) and Andrzej Wajda's "Samson" (Poland, 1961).

In the 1960s, a number of Central European films that dealt with the Holocaust either directly or indirectly had critical successes internationally. In 1966, the Slovak-language Holocaust drama "Shop on the Main Street" ("Obchod na korze", Czechoslovakia, 1965) by Ján Kadár and Elmer Klos won a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965 and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film the following year.

While some of these films, such as "Shop on the Main Street" used a convention film-making style, a significant body of films were bold stylistically and used innovative techniques to dramatise the terror of the period. This included non-linear narratives and narrative ambiguity, as for example in Andrzej Munk's "Passenger" ("Pasażerka", Poland, 1963) and Jan Němec's "Diamonds of the Night" ("Démanty noci", Czechlovakia, 1964); expressionist lighting and staging, as in Zbynych Brynych's "The Fifth Horseman is Fear" ("...a paty jezdec je Strach", Czechoslovakia, 1964); and grotesquely black humour, as in Juraj Herz's "The Cremator" ("Spalovač mrtvol", Czechoslovakia, 1968).

Literature was an important influence on these films, and almost all of the film examples cited in this section were based on novels or short stories. In Czechoslovakia, five stories by Arnošt Lustig were adapted for the screen in the 1960s, including Němec's "Diamonds of the Night".

Although some works, such as Munk's "The Passenger", had disturbing and graphic sequences of the camps, generally these films depicted the moral dilemmas that the Holocaust placed ordinary people in and the dehumanising effects it had on society as a whole, rather than the physical tribulations of individuals actually in the camps. As a result, a body of these Holocaust films were interested in those who collaborated in the Holocaust, either by direct action, as for example in "The Passenger" and András Kovács's "Cold Days" ("Hideg Napok", Hungary, 1966), or through passive inaction, as in "The Fifth Horseman is Fear".

The 1970s and 1980s, were less fruitful times for Central European film generally, and Czechoslovak cinema particularly suffered after the 1968 Soviet-led invasion. Nevertheless, interesting works on the Holocaust, and more generally the Jewish experience in Central Europe, were sporadically produced in this period, particularly in Hungary. Holocaust films from this time include Imre Gyöngyössy and Barna Kabay's "The Revolt of Job" ("Jób lázadása", Hungary, 1983), Leszek Wosiewicz's "Kornblumenblau" (Poland, 1988) and Ravensbrück survivor Juraj Herz's "Night Caught Up With Me" ("Zastihla mě noc", Czechoslovakia, 1986), whose shower scene is thought to be the basis of Spielberg's similar sequence in "Schindler's List".

Directors such as István Szabó (Hungary) and Agnieszka Holland (Poland) were able to make films that touched on the Holocaust by working internationally, Szabó with his Oscar-winning "Mephisto" (Germany/Hungary/Austria, 1981) and Holland with her more directly Holocaust-themed "Angry Harvest" ("Bittere Ernte", Germany, 1984). Also worth noting is the East German-Czechoslovak coproduction "Jacob, the Liar" ("Jakob, der Lügner", 1975) in German and directed by German director Frank Beyer but starring the acclaimed Czech actor Vlastimil Brodský. The film was remade in an English-language version in 1999.

A resurgence of interest in Central Europe's Jewish heritage in the post-Communist era has led to a number of more recent features about the Holocaust, such as Wajda's "Korczak" (Poland, 1990), Szabó's "Sunshine" (Germany/Austria/Canada/Hungary, 1999) and Jan Hřebejk's "Divided We Fall" ("Musíme si pomáhat", Czech Republic, 2001). Both "Sunshine" and "Divided We Fall" are typical of a trend of recent films from Central Europe that asks questions about integration and how national identity can incorporate minorities.

Generally speaking, these recent films have been far less stylised and subjectivised than their 1960s counterparts. For example, Polish director Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" (France/Germany/UK/Poland, 2002) was noted for its emotional economy and restraint, somewhat surprising to some critics given the over-wrought style of some of Polanski's previous films and Polanski's personal history as a Holocaust survivor.

List of films that are based on holocaust

*"The Pianist"
*"Schindler's List"
*"The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas"
*"All My Loved ones" Fictional account of a child who is saved by Nicholas Winton
*"The Power of Good" A documentary based on Nicholas Winton known as the British Schindler
*"Nowhere in Africa"


The of Jews at Babi Yar inspired a poem written by a Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko which was set to music by Dmitri Shostakovich in his Symphony No. 13.

In 1984, Canadian rock band Rush recorded the song "Red Sector A" on the album "Grace Under Pressure". The song is particularly notable for its allusions to The Holocaust, inspired by Geddy Lee's memories of his mother's stories [ ] about the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, where she was held prisoner.

In Pink Floyd's album "The Wall", one of the record's tracks is titled "Waiting for the Worms". This song is set in the middle of the time the main character, Pink, has become a neo-nazi, and the head of a fascist group. The song seems to be set in a march down a main street in Brixton, England, with Pink singing/saying the lyrics through a megaphone. One of the lyrics from the song is, "Waiting! For the final solution to strengthen the strain!"

A song from Arcade Fire's 2007 album "Neon Bible" titled "Black Wave/Bad Vibrations" is rumoured to be about the Holocaust as well, with such lyrics as "Left my name with the border guards/a name that I don't need", "We'll make it if we run!/Run from the memory" and "been eating in the ghetto on a $100 plate". The music in the song itself seems very Eastern European inspired with string instruments and a military chorus in the background.

In 2007, composer Lior Navok composed "And The Trains Kept Coming..." (Slavery Documents no.3) for narrators, soloists, choir and orchestra, based on real documents, correspondence between the allies, train schedules and last letters. It was premiered in Boston, by the Cantata Singers, David Hoose, music director. []

ee also

* List of composers influenced by the Holocaust
* Nazi exploitation
* Trauma and the arts


External links

* [ Basic bibliography of the Holocaust]
* [ Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies: Artist Gallery] From Holocaust Survivors And Remembrance Project* [ Inmate Art from Concentration Camps and Gettos: Expressing the Inexpressible] :* [ Contemporary Art About and in Response to the Holocaust] :* [ Holocaust Literature] :* [ Music of the Holocaust --A Remembering for the Future]
* [ Art and the Holocaust] from University of Pennsylvania
*United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - [ Music of the Holocaust] and [ Poetry and the Holocaust]
* [ Essay on the history of Holocaust cinema]

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