Freeze Frames Melancholy Paintings Evoke Holocaust Trial
A powerful new permanent exhibition of paintings at Berlin's Jewish Museum evoke a lesser known Nazi trial of the 1970s, as interpreted from TV coverage of the proceedings. Only one of 16 accused guards at the Majdanek concentration camp was handed a tough sentence, drawing widespread public outrage.
Forty-four faces gaze from 44 frames of various sizes in Minka Hauschild's portrait gallery: men and women, old and young alike. Some are painted naturalistically and others are distorted. The nameless portraits are arranged in gallery style across the wall and seem to blend into an anonymous mass.
Only a closer look at their back story reveals that the faces are separated by the greatest trench of German history: They are victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust.
Hauschild, an artist from Düsseldorf, who painted the portraits in the mid-1990s, says she wanted to capture a sadness that is so overwhelming that it cannot be pinned down or named.
"It's just like a piece of music which really moves you deep down. You don't even know what exactly it is that stirs you. And every attempt to intellectualize between culprit and victim prevents this reaction that goes much deeper and is much more essential," she explains.
The newly opened permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Berlin deals with the process of remembering the darkest chapter of German history. It portrays the nation's attempts to come to terms with the past and to re-establish justice in postwar Germany.
The paintings in the installation tell the story of the Majdanek trial. The case, heard in Düsseldorf between 1975 and 1981, probed the murder of Jews and other persecuted minorities committed at the Majdanek concentration camp in Lublin, Poland. After the Auschwitz trials in the 1960s, it became the second trial in which a German court ruled in a case involving the genocide of European Jews.
The trial holds historical significance -- not for any landmark decisions, but because it revealed the impotence of the German judiciary. Of 16 accused camp guards, only one was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. All others were cleared or received only minor prison sentences. Still, the trial left a lasting impression on German society because it forced the public to face its collective guilt outside of the courtroom.
Shaping Collective Memory
The public reception of the trial is also the focal point of Hauschild's portrait series. The artist modeled the paintings after photos she took of her TV set during the television premier of Eberhard Fechner's influential documentary about the six-year-long court battle, "Der Prozess" (The Trial), which first aired on German television in 1984.
"I zapped into (the documentary on television) and was completely devastated." Hauschild says. "There were these sallow faces in front of that kind of 1970s wallpaper -- everything slightly yellowed. This yellow trial ambiance. And I thought I have to have these portraits."
Each of her paintings seems to capture the flickering, cold light of the television screen. For some, the artist used a special pearly paint to create the illusion that the faces are lit from behind. Others are crossed by black lines, mirroring the disruptions that appear when photographing TV screens. They remind the viewer that what they see is mediated by the camera, and reopen the learning process the German public faced in the 1980s to the visitors at the Jewish Museum.
While intellectuals and journalists in Germany already began to grapple with the infamous chapter of national history after the Auschwitz trials in the early 1960s, large parts of the population still attempted to banish the past from their memories.
Hauschild, who had just started her studies at the Düsseldorf Kunstakademie, an internationally renowned art school, the year the trial ended, says she doesn't remember even registering that it was taking place in her hometown at the time. It was only after she stumbled across the memorable documentary a few years later that she tried to learn as much as she could about the trial.
A Journey of Self-Discovery
For Hauschild, the one and a half years she spent working on her portraits were also a way to deal with her own second-generation guilt. Like many Germans at the time, her parents, who were still teenagers during the Third Reich, were also involved in Nazi organizations: her mother in the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girls' wing of the Nazi Party youth movement; and her father in the SA, the paramilitary wing of the NSDAP, where he served a brief stint before becoming a soldier during World War II.
The artist said she was shocked to discover the extent to which her own parents and grandparents were entangled in an injustice that had seemed so distant and abstract to her before. "Painting also was a form of self-scrutiny for me and an exploration on how human nature works -- what are we made of and how can we perpetually work on transforming the unwholesome into the wholesome," she says.
The debate that followed the Majdanek trial and Fechner's film forced many who had consciously or unconsciously blocked the past from their daily lives to reassess it. In the aftermath many citizen initiatives distanced themselves from the verdict that was viewed by many as a farce and ensured that the shameful chapter of German history would not be forgotten.
"For us as historians, the things that happened afterwards are retrospectively much more important (than the trial itself)," says curatorial assistant Monika Flores Martinez, who prepared the new exhibition.
A Window into the Past
Many visitors who come to the Jewish Museum have never heard about the Majdanek trial or the concentration camp in Poland, Martinez says. Some are too young, and around 70 percent come from abroad and are often not as familiar with the history of the Third Reich.
"The images are the right way to address them, because they speak an international language," she says. "They provide a direct window to look into the past."
The portraits allow for a more personal approach to history. They draw visitors in and invite younger generations to delve deeper into the past, where cold numbers and plain facts often only manage to induce horror and reinforce the barrier that appears to separate them from the historical era.
Hauschild's paintings on the other hand reveal that history is continuous and remind us that seemingly normal people committed atrocious crimes and still refused to admit to their guilt 30 years later.
This human angle and perceived normalcy highlights an important point. Time and again voices in Germany urge to leave the past behind. Such calls were already made in the early 1960s during the Auschwitz trials and they continue to be made today. But Hauschild's portraits implicitly challenge this line of thought, because they expose the incorrigibility of human nature.
By choosing not to label perpetrators and victims and thereby allowing visitors to align with one side, Hauschild forces us to see the bigger picture: a picture that posits that the dividing line between good and evil is blurred and that even those who were only indirectly involved in the Nazi past, or those who were born after the Holocaust cannot be relieved of their guilt.
"Life is much too multilayered and tinged with grey to make these black and white distinctions," the artist says. "Latently the potential to become a perpetrator is present in all of us. Depending on the cultural circumstances and family situation we grow up in, it is fostered more in some and less in others."