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Art of the Holocaust: Creativity in Extremis

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27 January marks both Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. The date was chosen because it was on 27 January 1945 that Soviet Union troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.

The slogan of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust is ‘Learning lessons from the past to create a safer, better future’.

In Chapter 9 of her book Art and the Second World War, Monica Bohm-Duchen reflects on an important source of information about this past: ‘the art produced in the concentration camps and ghettoes – against all the odds – by the victims of the Nazis’ genocidal policies‘. She notes that although ‘the art of the Holocaust is no longer a neglected subject, it – like the Holocaust itself – tends to be seen in isolation from the war of which in fact it forms an integral part‘. The re-contextualisation of art of the Holocaust, then, forms a central aim of the chapter. Comparing, for example, the art of the Holocaust to that ‘produced by Allied inmates of the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, and even by those held in British and American internment camps‘ enables Bohm-Duchen to draw out striking, common characteristics: ‘a determination (conscious or otherwise) to endow their dehumanised subjects – and the artist himself or herself – with dignity and individuality, an avoidance (with a few notable exceptions, particularly in the art of the Holocaust victims) of graphic depictions of atrocities, and a tendency (in the absence of photography) to use relatively naturalistic styles as the most direct means of communication‘. These artistic similarities seem to suggest a shared response to situations of extreme horror and, therefore, a shared humanity. It is this shared humanity which Holocaust Memorial Day encourages us to foster, by reminding us of the terrible crimes which have been perpetrated when fear and ignorance have prompted its denial.

Because the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is journeys,  the commemorations were launched this morning at King’s Cross Station in central London. The station will also be the venue for events throughout the day, organised in partnership with Camden Council, The Wiener Library, Jewish Museum London and Pan Arts. There is an exhibition, entitled ‘Drawing Inspiration’ and curated by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, taking place at the Aside Bside Gallery in Hackney, until 3 February 2014. The exhibition features the drawings, paintings and digital art works created by members of the public in response to stories from the Holocaust, Nazi persecution and subsequent genocides.


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