“I Volunteer As Tribute.”
In fiction, a character can quickly promote themself from protagonist to hero by making a sacrifice. In fiction, sacrifices serve to move the story along. They aren’t actual risks because without them, you’re no hero and the story goes nowhere. In real life, there are no guarantees. You may be the hero of a novel, a novella, or a short story. Your sacrifice may be in vain, and your story may never be told at all. When dealing with a true story, it’s hard to fathom the kind of heroic resolve that 19 year old Annemarie Dinah Gottliebova of Brno, Czechoslovakia possessed. When her mother, Johanna Schawl Gottliebova was ordered by the Nazi’s puppet Czech government to report to a Transit camp for Jews, Dina Gottliebova volunteered to accompany her. She returned home from Prague where she was studying art, and joined her mother at Theresienstadt.
Dina had no one else besides her mother and her fiancée, Karel Klinger. Her father had moved on and started a new family having been left by Johanna when Dina was only four months old. Fascism had come to Czechoslovakia in 1938. The Munich pact allowed for the German annexation of the Sudetenland. By 1939 further German incursions into the sovereign nation served to break the last remaining European democracy up into the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and the ‘independent’ Slovak republic.
By January of 1942, while the Americans were setting up camps for the internment of their Japanese Citizens, Jews were being gathered together from all corners of the German empire, and forced into ghettos and transit camps. On January 21st, Dina’s 19th birthday, she and her mother reported as directed to the nearby high school that Dina had attended as a student a year before. The high school was now a processing point for Brno’s Jews. Much like modern air travel, the Jews were allowed one suitcase and one carry-on item. All money, jewelry and other portable valuables were seized when processing began.
In these early days of the Holocaust, Jews traveled by rail with a comfort level similar to pre-war standards. The standing-room-only cattle-cars between death camps were still in the future, as were the walled ghettos, but those were popping up all over the expanding Reich, in conquered town after conquered town.
Many towns had neighborhoods where Jews lived, segregated from Christians, generally by a mutual agreement. Just like we have Chinatowns in most major metropolitan cities today. To my knowledge, none of these “Jewish Quarters” were ever named Jewtown, although one town in France comes close. And to be fair in French it doesn’t sound that bad, Villejuif. Oddly enough Villejuif has no actual ties to Judaism or Jews.
Theresienstadt started as a garrison town built around a fortress. By the early 20th century, that fortress was little more than a prison for political and military prisoners. Gavrilo Princip, the man who assassinated the Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand (and his wife, feminists!), was imprisoned there throughout World War I. The German Invasion of Czechoslovakia filled up the prison, processing as many as 32,000 prisoners
The smaller fortress was such a convenient spot for the Gestapo that they annexed the Large Fortress across the river for use as a ghetto. Terezin, as it was known to non-German speakers, conveniently came with walls already built. All they had to do to make it a fine ghetto was to impose rules, curfews, gold stars, and fill it with Jews.
Prior to the Nazis designating it a future ghetto Theresienstadt was just a town of 7000 people. It had a few Jews but it was about to get loads more, trainloads. The evolution of a “Jewish Quarter” to a “Ghetto” was made possible by three ingredients: Walls, Uniforms and Rules. The “Old Reich” or Germany Proper, did not have walled ghettos, but Hitler needed someplace to hold his Jews and so places like Theresienstadt and Lodz, Poland were created.
On November 24, 1941, the first group of 342 Jewish men, known as the Aufbaukommando, were sent to Theresienstadt to build and prepare 10 barracks for future Jews. Men and women were to be separated upon their arrival in Theresienstadt. Three days before Pearl Harbor on December 4th, 1941, another 1000 Jews arrived in Theresienstadt. These Jews arrived in two shipments: Aufbaukommando 1 and Aufbaukommando 2. The Jews of these two shipments, commonly referred to as AK1 and AK2 made up the body of the Jewish “self-government’ for the ghetto.
With adequate housing and government in place, Jews from Prague, Brno and The Old Reich were forcibly ordered to relocate to Theresienstadt. Dina and her mother were among the first 7000 Jews sent to the town turned ghetto. As the population grew, the Nazis made the decision to turn the entire town into a prison camp and notified all the Non-Jews who had called Theresienstadt home prior to the ghetto-fication that they would have to relocate by June of 1942.
The prison camp, Theresienstadt, was a convenient dumping ground for the Jews found to still be living in the Old Reich. Many of these Jews were too old to emigrate or hide as their brethren had done. The camp also became a repository for the Jews who had fought for Germany in the first World War, Artists, Musicians, VIPs as well as a host of unfortunates: the deaf, dumb, blind, and criminally insane. And because the Holocaust isn’t heart wrenching enough, let’s not forget the Orphans.
Because of Theresienstadt’s high profile prisoners, the camp became the face of concentration camps in the German empire. If a camp was to be toured by the Red Cross, or to be featured in a propaganda film, it would be Theresienstadt. Despite its surface look of a “model Jewish settlment”, it was a concentration camp, and it took lives. Over 33,000 lives to be inexact. Causes of death ran from malnutrition, disease, starvation, old age and the catch-all of the SS’s ever deadly “whim”.
Survivors have estimated the camp to have held 75,000 prisoners at one time, although official records peg the peak at 58,491 in September of 1942. That’s a 700%+ increase over the original 7000 Jews within less than 9 months of opening. Despite squeezing 50,000 people into accommodations meant for 7000, the Jews of Theresienstadt did their best to maintain a semblance of everyday life. At the direction of the Gestapo and SS, the camp was self-governed by a “Cultural Council” later more formally named “the Jewish Self-Government for Thereseinstadt.”
The first of these leaders was Jakob Edelstein, a Polish born Jew and the former head of Prague’s Jewish community. In early 1943, he was demoted and made first alternate to Paul Eppstein, a Jew that the SS felt was more prominent in the community. Prominence played a large part in social life in Thereseinstadt. Those determined to be Prominentes were permitted to live in single dwellings appropriate for 1 person or a man and wife. Edelstein served as the underboss of the Cultural Council until he was arrested in November of 1943, when a discrepancy of 55 Jews was discovered and Jakob was accused of helping them escape. He was deported to Auschwitz in December of 1943, where he was imprisoned for six months. In June of 1944, Jakob Edelstein was reunited with his family, just in time to watch them all murdered. First they killed his mother in law then his wife,Miriam, and then, Ariel, his 12-year-old son. When he could shed no more tears, he was shot to death in the crematorium of the gas chamber.
On September 7th, 1943, Dina and her mother were separated. Both were being shipped to Auschwitz along with 5000 others from Theresienstadt. Johanna Schawl was sent in the first transport, Dina in the second. The young girl, now 20 years old, spent the entire three day train ride to Auschwitz worried that her mother might not be alive when she arrived.
Dina’s transport was deboarded as all new arrivals were: Men on the left, Women on the right. Dr. Josef Mengele, known to history as the Angel of Death, personally oversaw the intake lines. With a flick of his finger, he could send an elderly man straight to the gas chamber by pointing left, or point right, and let the harshness of the camp’s lifestyle take its time in ending the unfortunate soul’s existence.
Mengele directed Dina to the right, just as he had for her mother the day before. The two women reunited in the family camp barracks after Dina was processed. Processing, for Auschwitz detainees, was a cute little euphemism for being stripped naked, shaved of all body hair (can’t have lice in a prison camp)meant being shaved of all body hair and relieved of any personal belongings you somehow managed to keep with you up until now.
Camps like Auschwitz were run by the SS, but they were staffed by Funktionshäftlings, a position held by Jewish prisoners. These Funktionshäftlings were also called referred to more commonly as Kapos. The Kapos of Auschwitz were very much like the self-government of Theresienstadt, Jews in charge of other Jews, holding onto their own meager powers at the mercy of the SS. After the war, some kapos like Orli Wald, the Angel of Auschwitz, were lauded for their attempts at saving and protecting as many of their people as they could. Others, like Josef Kramer, were prosecuted as collaborators and war criminals in their own right.
Whilst living at Auschwitz, a kapo named Freddy, brought paints to Dina and asked her to paint a mural in the children’s bunkhouse. He thought such whimsy might brighten the time they had left, and make this time easier on the children. Dina painted a Swiss landscape full of mountains and meadows. The children watched rapt as she worked her magic on their wall. The wall came alive as Dina exercised the passion she had practiced so much as a child, sitting at her grandmother’s table drawing on paper sacks. The older children begged her to draw them Snow White and her Seven Dwarves.
Dina painted the request from memory. When Snow White had been released in 1937, she had seen the film seven times, once for each dwarf. When she was done, she had far exceeded what Freddy had expected of her. Both she and the kapo began to worry that their efforts to brighten the children’s quarters might anger the SS. Such displeasure could be fatal for both. Those Jews who were demoted from their rank of Kapo were returned to the bunks from their private bedrooms, and as retribution, they were often beaten to death their first night back in general population.
Days after her mural went up, Dina was called out of her bunk by a Dr. Lukas. She thought the other shoe had dropped, but the SS man in the Jeep only wanted to verify that she had been the one to paint the mural. Dina affirmed that she had been the artist responsible. At which point, Lukas beckoned her to come with him. He even opened the jeep door for her. Unused to such chivalry, Dina suspected Lukas of mocking her with sarcastic politeness.
Dina sat in the jeep with Lukas, white knuckled, looking out the windows of the jeep. Scanning the horizon, the corners of buildings, the fenced in yards for any sign of her mother. Dina was sure, Lukas’ approval of her work was merely a cruel ruse, and that he was driving her to a gas chamber or some other means of her own doom. Her dread only increased as they left the Jew encampment. Lukas drove Dina to an adjoining part of Auschwitz, to a Romany, a.k.a Gypsy, camp.
There Lukas led her to a man ducked under the black cloth of an old 1940s box camera. The man was Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death. He asked her brusquely, “Can you do portraits?”
“Yes, I believe so.” Dina replied, she had done a few at art school.
“Can you recreate skin tones, accurately?” He asked.
“Depending on what I have to work with, I can do my best.”
“Very well.” Mengele replied, walking off and leaving Dina once again with Lukas.
Six months went by, and Dina began to believe her encounter with Mengele had just been a bad dream. Dina survived. As hundreds of people from her original transport dropped around her, Dina and her mother survived. Disease and starvation claimed prisoner after prisoner. The survivors of Dina’s transport were shipped off to a quarantine camp, so as not to contaminate the stronger, newer inmates being brought in to camp.
Dina and her mother did not believe that the Quarantine camp was a gateway to a work camp transfer as the SS and Kapos claimed. They had never seen a transfer into their camp and held no such faith that there was a transfer out. On the morning of March 8th, 1944, an SS officer referred to as Bulldog came to the Quarantine camp with a list of names that would not be transferring to the “other” work camp. ‘Bulldog’, or probably more accurately ‘Buldok’ since the prisoners spoke Czech, read off 27 names. Dina’s mother was on the list, along with 10 sets of twins that were being sent off to one of Mengele’s studies. Dina’s name was the last one called. Those that were not on the list were sent off to the next work camp, which was, in fact, a gas chamber.
On March 10th, Dina was given her first assignment from Mengele. She was to go out into the Romani camp and pick out a subject for portraiture. Over the course of the next six weeks, Dina painted Roma after Roma. She believes she painted 11 Roma prisoners in all, as well as two portraits of her fellow prisoners, and several under-the-table assignments of guards and guard’s loved ones. What Mengele got from the portraits was some odd reinforcement of the difference in Aryans and Roma in the shape of their mouths, the width of their hairlines, the hues of their skin tones. What Dina got was a continued existence.
During the time, Dina painted for Mengele she negotiated for the life of her beloved mother as well as herself. She promised that if her mother were not spared, she would walk off into the Roma camp, to the barbed wire and force an SS guard to kill her, denying Mengele his precious portraiture. Dina rushed her first portrait, but grew to take her time with them. Their lives weren’t easy before she chose her subjects, but after they were finished their lives were worth even less. Their purpose was served. So Dina took as much time as she could with each subject.
Her second subject, Celine, was the grieving mother of a 2-month-old. The young mother didn’t consume enough calories to make enough milk for the infant. The food in the Roma camp was lousy with some sort of mold that sickened those who ate it. Dina snuck the young woman some white bread. It made little difference. Celine did not survive the camps. Eventually, all the Roma in camp were exterminated. After the portraits were finished, Dina was commissioned to paint the medical experiments and practices that Mengele performed on his ‘subjects’.
As 1944 became 1945, the war was going poorly for Germany, they were being forced to withdraw from several positions and camps. The Gottliebovas did what so few from their original 5000 had, they survived Auschwitz-Birkenau. The Mother/Daughter pair were marched out of Auschwitz on January 18th, 9 days ahead of the Soviet Forces that would liberate those souls left behind. Dina and her mother were marched for three days back to the cattle cars. Along the route, Dina took most of her sustenance from snow. The water in the snow gave her a case of dysentery which caused her to dehydrate even faster than the calories being burnt on the death march.
As they were waiting to board the trains, the dysentery got the best of her and she soiled herself. It was her 22nd birthday, and instead of celebrating with cake and ice cream, she had polluted snow and feces. Her only present that year were a pair of panties given to her by her mother. Let’s just say, that her mother was the type of person who would give you the ‘shirt off her back’ and leave the panties provenance to that.
Dina’s train ride led her to Ravensbruck, a women’s camp second only in size to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The camp was in Germany, 56 miles north of Berlin. She spent three weeks there before being transferred to a subcamp, Neustadt-Glewe, to work at an airplane factory. On May 5th, 1945, Dina and Johanna were finally liberated by Soviet forces and 4 U.S. G.I.s.
The Gottliebovas spent six weeks bouncing around a floundering Germany, seeking a way to get back to their ancestral home. Finally, they found passage with a large group of repatriates travelling back to Prague via bus. They arrived on June 17th, and attempted to catch their breath and get on with the business of rebuilding their lives. The mother and daughter eventually made their way to Paris, a city that would at least understand what it had been like to live under the Nazi regime.
There Dina found employment as an animation assistant. It soon became clear that she had also found love. Dina married one of the lead animators, Arthur Babbitt, six months later. The beautiful irony is that Babbitt had been one of the animators on the feature film Snow White. Although he was more well known for being the creator of Goofy. In 1948, the pair moved to America. In Los Angeles, Dina animated at MGM, Warner Brothers, and on lots of other lots. The couple had two children and three grandchildren and were married for 14 years. Her ex-husband remarried in 1967. Just as her father had remarried after the breakup of his marriage to her mother.
Remember him? Dina’s father, stepmother and two half-siblings were not as lucky as the Gottliebovas. They did not survive their own internment in the Nazi camps. I wish that’s where Dina’s story ended, that she never heard the words Auschwitz-Birkenau again. But that’s not what happened. In 1963, six portraits that had been signed Dinah 1944 were sold to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial museum. They later purchased a seventh from a separate seller in 1977. Ten years after the museum purchased the watercolors they were able to match up the Dina(h) 1944 signature from the paintings to a series of paintings published in a book that Dina had painted regarding the holocaust.
The A-B Museum reached out to Dina to inform her that her paintings had survived and asked her to authenticate them. She did so, borrowing money for her flight to Poland and fully expecting to take the paintings home with her. The Museum had other plans. Multiple agreements had been proffered by the museum international council, most revolved around lending some or all paintings on a rotating schedule to Dina for the term of her life with the understanding that they would be returned upon her death.
Dina found all such offers unacceptable. The paintings were hers. She had done them under threat of death. They were something tangible she could take with her from a place where all had been taken from her. Dina fought the museum for the next 20 years. They offered reproductions, she countered that they could have the reproductions and she would take the originals. She argued that they themselves admitted she had done them when they had her authenticate them, the museum countered that she herself admitted she did them for “Mengele” making the paintings a ‘work for hire’ and thus that if any one had the rights to them it would be the heirs of the Angel of Death and not the artist.
The museum’s entire position is rather infuriating, but if they let decency get in the way of precedent, they might find themselves losing key pieces of history as the survivors or victim’s heirs sought to reclaim what was once their familial property. The Auschwitz-Birkenau museum makes the claim that history and the preservation of history supercedes that of property and ownership. Despite support from animation and comic book insiders like Stan Lee and Neal Adams, and the best efforts and reproachments of US Congress, Dina was unable to secure her paintings from the museum.
She died at age 86 in 2009 of abdominal cancer. The paintings remain on display at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, when they’re not traveling as part of a separate exhibit. One can’t help but wonder how much personal property belonging to other survivors is sitting under glass and behind placards describing how important they are to history. The goal of the museum is to make sure we never forget the Holocaust, and they must take that seriously, because they make sure that the people whose property they’ve acquired can never forget what they’ve lost.
An audio reading of this entry along with additional commentary on its relevance to the theft of Jewish riches, art, property and money will be available in February 2017 on Episode 4 of the “White History Month” Podcast.