I didn’t know about the work of Alfred Kantor until I came across an article about the repair and conservation of Kantor’s 1945 Sketchbook and Portfolio which represent his experiences as a survivor of Terezin, Auschwitz and Schwartzheide. The article shows a photograph of the original personal journal which represents both a visual testimony to the horrors of the Holocaust and a means to use the power of art to help him to survive his experiences. I also accessed an article in the New York Times by Paul Lewis (2003)
Kantor was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia on the 7th November, 1923. When we was eighteen years old, he was among the first Czech Jews to be deported to Terezin in late 1941, where he was forced to help build the ghetto there. His mother and a friend, Eva Glauber, joined him there in 1942 and survived on extra food obtained by Kantor while working in the kitchens and also the sending of regular food packages from his sister, Mimi who was married to a non-Jew and so saved from deportation. Whilst in Terezin Kantor began drawing scenes of daily life there for his notebook and also as souvenirs for other prisoners. His mother was transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1943 and a few weeks later, Kantor volunteered to go there with his friend Eva and entrusted his notebook to a friend who stayed behind (A. Kantor 1987:Introduction). It was difficult to find drawing materials, but he managed to get what he needed from the administration office and a physician also slipped him a watercolour set while he was working in the sick ward. He continued to draw, feeling obsessed by what was happening there although having to destroy the pictures.
Kantor’s mother was sent to the gas chambers in early 1944 and he was subsequently transported to Schwartzheide which needed to be rebuilt after Allied bombing. He learned later that Eva was gassed ten days after he left. Whilst in Schwartzheide he continued to draw, again having to destroy the pictures, although a few pictures survived from there, being smuggled out by a friend. As the Allies approached, the prisoners were sent on a death march towards the Czech border on 18th April 1944 (only 175 surviving from 1,000) then being put in railcars and sent back to Terezin where he was given shelter, new clothes and food by the Czech Red Cross. He returned to Prague, to be reunited with his sister Mimi, but after a while joined a group of former prisoners heading to the Displaced Persons camp in Deggendorf, Germany, where he acquired a blank sketchbook and began recreating the drawings he had been forced to destroy.
Kantor made his way to the United States after the war, was drafted into the US Army and, on discharge, completed his art degree. He married another survivor of Terezin with whom he had two children. In subsequent years he reworked the material in his sketchbook into a portfolio of full watercolour paintings. His 127 paintings and sketches of life in the concentration camps was published in 1971 by McGraw-Hill as, “The Book of Alfred Kantor”, with an introduction by John Wykert who is credited as co-author of the paperback edition. The book included an account of his experiences and there was a second edition in 1987. He spent the rest of his working life as a commercial artist in New York and died on 16th January 2003 in Yarmouth, Me. He was 79.
Alfred Kantor is not the only artist to present a living testimony from the Holocaust – a few others are mentioned here and, indeed, the more I’ve searched the more I’ve found. However, I’m focussing on Kantor’s book particularly because he survived Terezin and also makes reference to the fictional documentary film made there which I have previously written about.
The Sketches are impressionistic with a sense of immediacy, like a snapshot of a moment in time, which I think is due to the stance portrayed which also has a straight-forward matter- of-factness about it which reminds me of Daniel Blaufuks’s book. Alfred Kantor’s written captions speak for themselves, again with a straight-forward matter-of-factness about them yet with a chilling impact. He also points out in his Introduction the terrible irony that, when the Germans agreed to allow a visit from the International Red Cross to inspect Terezin, additional comforts appeared whilst, at the same time, hundreds were dying within Terezin’s walls and thousands were being deported to outlying prisoner camps at regular intervals.
The question could be asked as to whether Holocaust art can represent the meanings of the Holocaust in any profound way. I think it can. It does provide eloquent testimony to what occurred, represents the creative impulse that can survive such horrors and also , as in Kantors’s case, “By taking on the role of an observer I could at least for a few moments detach myself from what was going on in Auschwitz and was therefore better able to hold together threads of sanity” (ibid). He was intently observing, memorising the scenes and people; connecting his sight with his fingers, pencil and paint which I think is different from focussing with a camera; which stands between the person and the scene.
Kantor, A (1971)The book of Alfred Kantor: An Artist’s Journal of the Holocaust (1987) London: Judy Piatkus (Publishers) Ltd.
Lewis, P (2003) Alfred Kantor Dies at 79; Depicted Life in Nazi Camps [Online] Available at https://www.nytimes.com/2003/01/26/nyregion/alfred-kantor-dies-at-79-depicted-life-in-nazi-camps.html [Accessed 1February 2020].
Maccioni, O, Manias, C & Walsh, T (2019) A Testament To The Artist: Restoring Alfred Kantor’s Sketchbook and Portfolio [Online ] Available at https://mjhnyc.org/restoring-alfred-kantors-sketchbook-and-portfolio/ [Accessed 1 February 2020].