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Vanderbilt University Collection of Holocaust Art

In November 1988, Vanderbilt University displayed a newly-purchased collection of 57 works, 55 of which were original drawings by artist and Holocaust survivor György Kádár. This was the first full exhibit of these drawings since they were shown in Budapest in 1947.

In October 1989, the drawings went on national tour. During the same fall, the Jewish Confederation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee presented 16 new pieces to Chancellor Wyatt at the opening of the 1989 Holocaust Lecture Series, bringing the total of works in the collection to 73.

György Kádár: Survivor of Death, Witness to Life is a traveling exhibit first shown at Vanderbilt University’s Sarratt Student Center Gallery in November 1988. It is a project of the Holocaust Lecture Series Committee, a group of representatives from the sponsoring organizations, Vanderbilt University’s faculty, staff and students, and members of the Nashville community. The following text is taken from the Introduction of the Exhibition Catalog of the Vanderbilt University Collection of Holocaust Art by György Kádár.

Copyright © 1988, Holocaust Lecture Series Committee, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee 37240

Library of Congress Number 88-51267, Printed in the United States of America, Published by University Publications

JoEl Logiudice, Curator of the Exhibition

Michele Douglas, Editor of the Exhibition Catalog

Sponsors

  • American Jewish Committee, Nashville Unit
  • The Jewish Federation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee
  • National Converence of Christians and Jews, Nashville Chapter
  • Vanderbilt University: Divinity School, Office of the Provost, Office of Student Affairs, University Chaplain
  • Vanderbilt University Affiliated Ministries: Baptist Student Center, Jewish Student Union, Presbyterian Campus Ministries, Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Chapel, United Methodist Campus Ministries, Vanderbilt Catholic Community

In addition, this exhibition has been aided by grants from the Cavalier Family Philanthropic Fund; Ann and Bob Eistenstein; the Gannett Foundation; Eugene and Reva Heller; John Lassing; the Tennessee Arts Commission; the Tennessee Humanities Council; and the Werthan Foundation.

INTRODUCTION

by Beverly A. Asbury, then university chaplain and director of religious affairs at Vanderbilt University and the founder of the Holocaust Lecture Series. He served as the chair of the Tennessee Commission on the Holocaust.

Vanderbilt University is a most unlikely place for a collection of Holocaust drawings. Until recent years, and maybe still, it has been known as a Southern university, the home of the Fugitive and Agrarian movements, with a largely white Anglo-Saxon Protestant makeup which reflects the region and its upper socio-economic classes.

Nashville is just as unlikely a place for one to look for support to acquire and house such a collection. The city has been known for its singularity. Whatever diversity existed was black-and-white, but even that dualism has rarely come to expression in the music for which Nashville is known. “Country” is the way the rest of the nation would tend to look on us, a city far more widely known for various Baptist and Methodist denominational enterprises than for its Jewish population and institutions. At first blush, it is just as unlikely that I would be involved in this project, a university chaplain who is himself a Southern Protestant.

Yet, despite all these unlikelihoods, there now exists the Vanderbilt University Collection of Holocaust Art by György Kádár. The fact that the Collection exists here gives testimony to teh changes taking place at Vanderbilt, in Nashville, and in the South. It says something significant about the University’s aspiration to be more diverse, more plural, more national in scope as it continues to contribute to the educational development of the South.

Vanderbilt’s decision to acquire Kádár’s drawings also acknowledges the universal importance of the Holocaust. There is no reason why the Holocaust should be commemorated and studied only in New York, Washington, Atlanta, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Los Angeles. There is no reason why the Holocaust should be considered and explored only in areas where large Jewish populations exist. The Holocaust was perpetrated by the Nazis against European Jews, but its implications and lessons concern all human beings everywhere. Furthermore, given the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, it is highly appropriate that a university in the South’s Bible-belt should see the Holocaust’s significance as a part of its own educational commitments.

What is more, a recent sequence of events at Vanderbilt made the acquisition of Kádár’s drawings unthinkable. Since the academic year 1978/79, Vanderbilt has held a lecture series on the Holocaust. It has received its financial and public support not only from the University but also from the Nashville community. Its sponsors include Christian organizations as well as Jewish ones. This lecture series has become the longest-sustained series about the Holocaust on a university campus in the United States. While the series has not been noted for papers published, it has become well-known for having created a critically-informed and sensitive audience in Nashville and Tennessee.

The lectures have also contributed to the teaching of various classes on the Holocaust at Vanderbilt and in several public and private secondary schools. Indeed, through the Tennessee Commission on the Holocaust, the lectures have influenced the development of several outstanding educational programs for public schools and universities throughout the state. In other words, there was a solid base on which to build in proposing a Vanderbilt Collection of Holocaust Art.

Certainly I had learned through years of lecturing on the Holocaust the value of visual materials. It is one thing to lecture on the Holocaust in historical, psychological, or theological terms. It is quite another to present pictorial images of the experiences that lie behind the concepts and theories. I have found that without images the concepts may well remain at an abstract and unreal level for many students. When they see that it was people who suffered and other people who caused suffering, there is frequently a change in students’ perceptions of the Holocaust itself. The seeing may come through Elie Wiesel’s Night, or it may come through Alain Resnais’s film Night and Fog, or in yet other media. But there is no doubt that such seeing stimulates the imagination.

To speak of “coming to see,” then, is to speak of looking at something in a thoughtful way, to ponder it, and to take it seriously. Coming to see means becoming aware, sensing the relation of things and how those things do or do not hold together. We come to see, to be aware, in concrete situations and events, at particular times and places, and our seeing or awareness is always an event of meaning for us.

When we see, we become events of meaning ourselves. That is, we do not and cannot stand apart from what we have seen. When it is the Holocaust we have seen, it is no longer an abstraction, no longer at a distance from us. We relate to it in drawing close or in withdrawing from it. We become our own insight or our blindness in relation to it. If we numb ourselves to what we see, that numbing will become part of our interpretation. The same is true of what we ignore or refuse to see.

When we see the Holocaust, we become more self-aware, more world-aware. In a sense, we, too, become victims or survivors in our imaginations. To be sure, in the case of many undergraduate students, seeing the Holocaust means seeing life, perhaps for the first time, as separation as well as closeness, as dying as well as pleasure, as lack of fulfillment as well as prospects of success. Seeing the Holocaust reveals to us how death determines our place in the scheme of things, whether death comes as a natural event or by an act of absurdity or malevolvence, and regardless of courage or cowardice. Through our moral and intellectual imagination, the Holocaust becomes part of our meaning.

Of course, in coming to see such things, we human beings may respond by massive denial. Or we may choose to seek a new sense of how our world and we are put together and to come to terms with that sense, no matter how much we must revise what we previously held to be true. The outcomes of our lives depend a great deal on what and how we see and on what we do with the seeing.

At the very least, our lectures on the Holocaust have had an educational commitment to helping people to come to see. In seeking to fulfill that commitment, we have used art, music, photography, and cinema as well as formal academic lectures. Therefore, there was a likelihood about Professor Robert Tanner’s proposal to me in April 1987 to have Vanderbilt acquire Kádár’s drawings.

Tanner, whose parents are Hungarian and who lost several close relatives in the Holocaust, is related to Kádár by marriage. He had learned about the drawings from Kádár’s sister, Lili Deutch, who lives in Los Angeles, and had obtained photocopies of an album of photographs of the art that she had in her apartment. It was immediately evident that the drawings would have a remarkable value in teaching the Holocaust, in bringing people to see the human dimensions that lie behind the more conceptual studies. Later we received the photographs of the drawings directly from Kádár, and he explained that the quality of the photographs did not do justice to the tonality of the drawings. Nevertheless, the photographs convinced us that our initial judgments were sound.

We knew that there were fifty-seven drawings in the collection, and we learned in a letter from Kádár of 8 September 1987 that

The collection involves an original poster, the invitation for the exhibition and a very important documentary map of an SS officer who was shot down in the war. The sizes are written in centimeters on the cover of the drawings….The smaller drawings were executed in Buchenwald; the bigger ones were done in 1945 when I came back very sick. One should think of them this way. They were exhibited in Hungary in 1946 adn 1947, but a part of them were displayed in numerous countries.

We knew then that our exhibit of his drawings would be the first full exhibit since 1947. We also had a listing of the works with their sizes and how each was done (tempera-photo, print, pitt-crayon, India ink, crayon, charcoal, felt pen, and pencil). What we most needed and wanted to know was about the experiences lying behind each drawing. That meant knowing about Kádár as a man and as an artist. What we have learned is reflected in the article by Dr. Sybil Milton and in the quotations that accompany each drawing’s reproduction in this catalog. At this point, however, a summary may help frame the rest of the story.

The central facts are these. In June 1944, Kádár was arrested and sent by train to Auschwitz. Prior to that time, he had been held in labor camps by the Hungarian fascists. As a result of problems arising from curvature of his spine and a bad heart, he had been released. At some point, perhaps in 1943, his wife’s family obtained a pass for Kádár identifying him as a Protestant. My surmise is that his wife’s father was Jewish and her mother a Christian. As the quotations that accompany each drawing in the catalog indicate, Kádár’s wife and family were killed on New Year’s Day 1945. By the time of their deaths, Kádár has been in Nazi hands for over six months. Dr. Milton explains in her article the circumstances of his imprisonment.

At Auschwitz, he was selected by the notorious Dr. Mengele to live while the remainder of his relatives except his brother, were sent to the gas chambers. The slave labor he performed is described alongside the drawings as is the fact that the SS, from time to time, pressed him into serving them as an artist. This latter fact may well have been a factor in his having been taken to Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, when the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz and other camps in Poland as the Soviet armies advanced. In any event, he was there for a very brief time before he was sent to Ohrdruf, the camp he described, as the war came to a close, as the worst of all the camps in which he was held. Kádár experienced and survived the worst the Nazis inflicted on their victims. Whatever “services” he was forced to render to the SS were not rewarded with more humane treatment. They meant for him to die or be killed.

Kádár was liberated by the Americans at Buchenwald on 11 April 1945. The remarkable story of how he got from Ohrdruf to Buchenwald is told in Kádár’s words accompanying the drawings. A few months after liberation he made it back to Budapest. He had started his drawings while still in Buchenwald and finished them in the weeks following his return home.

At the end of April 1988, we began trying to recapture the experiences upon which his drawings were based. Dr. Milton and I met Kádár at his sister’s home in Los Angeles. Over and over, he reiterated what he had written earlier, that he was an artist and not a historian. He said, “My drawings should talk instead of me,” and we agreed that it was through his drawings that people would come to see the Holocaust and its implications for our world at the end of this wonderful and terrible century. While respecting his wishes, I would still like to convey something of the dramatic impact of the man himself.

The picture of Kádár in this catalog as he appeared on 30 April 1988, opposite the photograph made in 1946, gives a sense of what a warm, vibrant man he is. The facts are that in 1988 he was seventy-six years old, and he still had the bad heart and bad back that had marked his life. Beyond such facts is a man who seemingly can go all day without a pause. He talked hour after hour about the horrors, the humiliations, the tortures he lived through in Auschwitz, Oranienburg, Sachsenhausen, Ohrdruf-Nordhausen, and Buchenwald in 1944 and 1945, as a man thirty-one years old. He inquired of his interviewers if we were growing tired and needed rest. He was unfailingly courteous and accommodating. He was patient with our interrogations and with the process of translation. He showed a sense of humor about life as often as he expressed outrage over the Holocaust. His continuing sorrow and pain were made evident in his telling of how he has now returned in his art to his Holocaust experiences, this time in a more reflective and less emotional or documentary style. Here is how he expressed it.

No matter how busy I am, I have started a new set of drawings of that horrible experience of mine. This way, I try to get them out of my tormented mind and get rid of the agonizing dreams, still persecuting me. In this new set, which I am just preparing, I wish to find a more concentrated way of pointing out my agonies; however, with unceasing outcry and anger. Even more so, as very few of the witnesses are still alive. The new set of drawings can be exhibited in different museums of the Holocaust.

Kádár has not spared himself the experiences of the Holocaust. He does not claim to be anything more than an artist, and nothing less than one. Consider the fact that he was liberated at Buchenwald in April 1945, and that the first exhibition of these drawings took place in February 1946. In characteristic modesty and humility, he said

I sincerely hope that my drawings meet your expectations. I have to mention that they were made under extraordinary circumstances at that time partly in Buchenwald, in the state of recovering after a typhus epidemic and partly in the hospital after my return home, in an emaciated condition of 35 kg (77 pounds) when I was not able even to walk or talk. Thus, under the influence of my terrible experiences, their documentary character is perhaps more important than their artistic effect.

Just as he did not spare himself, so he did not spare his contemporaries. They were made to see through his drawings what the Holocaust had been. And he has not spared us. Nearly fifty years later, it is difficult to look at his drawings without disbelief or denial or withdrawal. It is, I think, impossible not to be moved by them. It is not information about the Holocaust which he gives us. Kádár gives us his story, the experiences of one individual. His art is a form of narrative testimony which focuses on the experiences of suffering, of cruelty, of ideology run amok. We are given the opportunity to come to see on a human scale the bureaucratized violence of our century. His drawings present to our sight a civilization become Necropolis, a city of anti-life and anti-nature. Kádár’s drawings immerse us into meaningless, absurd death, randomly delivered, robbing both life and death of personal meaning. His drawings illustrate the vicious cycle of total ideological certainty and victimization, violence, and mass death.

Kádár survived, and he has refused to avert his gaze from the terrors of the world. But his witness is not to death but to life. By giving death its due, Kádár penetrates beyond death to a true source of life, to the artistic imagination and to the artist as creator. Robert Jay Lifton has referred to “the painful wisdom of the survivor,” and Kádár embodies just such a painful wisdom. He carries within him the imprint of his immersion into death in the Nazi camps, but he is full of life and love and humor and creativity. This survivor of death truly witnesses to life. His drawings call us to see through them and beyond them to new possibilities for our personal and societal lives. His drawings confront us with a history that could have been avoided. The murder of the Jews and millions of others was not predetermined. Kádár believes, as do we, that there were other human choices that could have been made. From his art we may all learn and resolve as Kádár did that we must remember for the sake of the future and the choices that will be and are open to us to act decently and justly. Kádár’s painful wisdom has become available to all of us, and it compels us to seek life and to oppose holocausts, whatever form they may take in whatever place on earth.

It is Kádár’s expressed hope and our firm commitment that this Vanderbilt Collection of Holocaust Art will be made available to large numbers of people that they may come to see and in seeing come to act to enhance life rather than death.