Elissa Brock, # 26057302
ARTH 205: Introduction to Modern Art
Professor: Samantha Burton
TA: Heather Francis
23 November 2011
The Maternal Bond: Loss, Strength, and Survival
This paper will explore how the relationship between mother and child changed throughout
their personal experience of the Holocaust. Due to environmental, social, and external factors, this
relationship was forced to adapt. This maternal relationship is a difficult one to track since many
Jewish families were separated even before they reached a concentration camp. Few mothers were
allowed to remain with their children. Only people deemed fit to work survived the Holocaust in
most cases. This often excluded women and children, who were seem as inferior and incapable.
The role of maternity can be reconstructed through interviews with survivors, testimonies, artwork,
analysis, and especially though artwork. An especially relevant work of art is Halina Olomucki’s
painting, Mother and Child. This paper will use all of the aforementioned domains to construct and
present the bond of maternity during the Holocaust as illustrated through public and private
In the years following the Holocaust it became apparent that public memory differed
between countries. Some countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, were able to publicly
admit to their guilt through personal memory and experiences (Ensink, 36). Other East European
countries, such as Poland, only spoke about their involvement in a more distant way, through
political memory (Ensink, 23). Also, the method of remembering differed depending on the
country. Neitzche, a philosopher of the time, believed that history could only be properly
commemorated in the absence of emotion. This objective history commanded the absence of
hatred, resentment, triumph, and revenge in any commemorative practices. These practices
included speeches, writing, film, and artwork (Ensink, 2). This ideology is in contrast to the role Brock 2
that I believe artwork, and other forms of representation, has served as evidence of the human, and
maternal, experience throughout the Holocaust.
Samuel Bak, a Jewish survivor as well as an artist of the Holocaust, further develops this
idea of the importance of the visual image. His inspiration for his artwork came from his
experience in concentration camps during the Holocaust. He explains that survival was intertwined
with death, that “no one’s survival can be detached from the loss of someone else” (Bak, 17). His
artwork, produced after the Holocaust, represents the dismemberment of art and faith (Bak, 27).
The role of faith in Jewish artwork starts as a personal connection for the artist but can extend to
apply to the Jewish population as a whole. When faced with symbols of Judaism, different people
react different ways. What stays constant, is that every individual identifies these symbols as
Judaic. This represents greater idea that while experience may be specific to one person, it is still
felt by the whole nation.
To understand the role of faith in artwork one must first understand the role of faith within
the Jewish religion. Many Jews, both those who survived the Holocaust as well as those who
analyzed it, felt that the Holocaust was a dark period characterized by the absence of God
(Raphael, 18). The Jewish God is faceless. Therefore, Jewish artists struggle to depict God in their
works. This wasn’t a problem for artists who depicted the Holocaust due to absence of God,
believed by many, throughout the time period. This was true for artists who lived through the
Holocaust, in their artwork produced during as well as after the war. Those who did choose to
represent religion did so through the use of religious and spiritual symbols, such as the Star of
Both during as well as following the Holocaust, the female body was used in Jewish art.
The female body, which traditionally represented the Jewish household and Jewish values, Brock 3
changed in its role in representation after the Holocaust. At this point, it was used to represent the
“collective loss of Jewish life” (Raphael, 88). Women in Holocaust art typically had shadowed
faces or no faces at all. This facelessness represents the lack of individuality. These women
became unidentifiable. This draws a parallel to their defenselessness as was experienced by the
nation at large (Raphael, 88). The Jewish people as whole were defenseless to the power exerted
on them by the Nazi regime. Jews were not seen as people and they had no identity of their own.
As such, they were powerless in the concentration camps and were powerless to escape death.
Even though it was difficult to produce art during the Holocaust, due to laws against
drawing and the production of art, a few artists managed to do so. Paper, pencils, and especially
paints were hard to find. Artwork was hard to store because of the stark conditions in the barracks
where the Jews slept in the concentration camps. Towards the end of the war the laws were not as
strict and it became more common for inmates to find paper and pencils to use (Raphael, 117).
Female artists during the Holocaust generally recorded labor and relationships. They
recorded this in memory, in writing, and in art. This subject material represents key aspects to
female life during the time (Raphael, 117). An example of this is Halina Olumucki who was in
Birkenau. When the war started, like many young girls, she was separated from her mother who
was later killed (Learning about the Holocaust through Art). Throughout her time as an inmate in
Auschwitz she took it upon herself to depict women and their children (Learning about the
Holocaust through Art). Women would ask her to paint their daughters as evidence of their
existence (Learning about the Holocaust through Art). These mothers knew that it was unlikely
that they, or their daughters, would survive. They said, “we want to be among the living, at least on
paper” (Sujo, 10). This was a responsibility she took seriously and believed that it was her duty, as
a historical and moral witness, to provide a testimony of their life. She saw herself as an observer Brock 4
throughout the Holocaust. This status of an observer within her own experience can be interpreted
as a coping mechanism. Perhaps by distancing herself from her reality she was able to survive it.
More importantly, she felt that she was a “link between living and the dead” (Sujo, 91) and she
ensured that not all victims of the Holocaust would lose their mothers.
Halina Olumucki’s painting Mother and Child, shown in Figure 1, is an example of the
visual evidence that many sought to record. Amongst other interpretations, this work represents the
maternal bond. This painting suits the terminology given by the Nazis of “degenerate art” (Strom,
223). Though this term became popular in the pre-World War II era, it’s influence continued into
the Holocaust. This term encompasses all art by Jewish artists, whose subjects have unattractive
faces or distorted figures. Anything that didn’t glorify war, and the German tradition, would fall
under this category. The only artwork worth viewing had to be realistic, of German countryside, in
the classical style or using German folk tradition. Anything that could fall under the heading of
abstract or expressionist was also considered degenerate.
In Mother and Child (Fig. 1), the viewer can see a mother holding a child against her chest.
The mother has dark hair and a darkened face. Her large eyes, surrounded by dark bags, are
focused elsewhere and her mouth is in a frown. Her face is hollowed, with distinct cheekbones,
and a long, pointed, nose. Her glance gives the impression that she is looking for a way out; for
somewhere to go, or for someone to help. Her child’s face, in comparison, is illuminated. The
child’s eyes are looking directly at the viewer. Even though the eyes are not clear, they seem to be
both focused and penetrating in their stare. The child’s mouth is slightly ajar and her face is
rounder and plumper than her mothers’. Both mother and child’s bodies