Art or a part of history?

Los Angeles Times – Wednesday, November 29, 2006

By Larry Gordon, Times Staff Writer

THE LITTLE wooden house surrounded by redwoods in the Santa Cruz Mountains is more than 6,000 miles and 60 years away from the horrors of Auschwitz. But on an easel in the sunny living room is a small portrait that Dina Gottliebova Babbitt recently painted of a fellow prisoner in that Nazi death camp.

The picture is a modified copy of one she was forced to paint in 1944 as part of Josef Mengele’s murderous theorizing about racial differences. Mengele had plucked Babbitt, a Czech Jew, from a group headed to the gas chambers and ordered the artist to produce portraits of doomed Gypsies that would capture skin tone better than his photographs did.

“I painted what I saw, very definitely,” recalls Babbitt, now 83 and a retired Hollywood animator. “And what I saw was despair and sadness.”

In 1973, Babbitt was stunned to learn that seven of those nine watercolors had survived and were in the museum at the former concentration camp in Poland. Since then, she has been trying to retrieve them — a quest that raises painful questions about ownership of the products of slave labor as well as the artworks’ role in documenting Holocaust history.

Babbitt’s supporters say she has moral and legal rights to the art. But Auschwitz museum officials disagree, and even some leaders in the American Jewish community are torn, describing the issues as more complex than in many instances of art looted by Nazis.

For Babbitt and her mother, the art truly was a lifesaver. The work afforded them extra bread amid starvation and time to keep death at bay. She wants the paintings now, not to sell, she says, but to briefly hold and then lend to a museum of her choice.

“I wouldn’t be alive if it hadn’t been for those paintings, and my kids wouldn’t be here. And they know that,” said Babbitt, who has two daughters and three grandchildren. “This is something that belongs to our family more than anything else I can possibly think of.”

The watercolors bear her signature, “Dinah 1944.” (She later dropped the “h” to help Americans pronounce it as DEE-na.) They are, she said, “a part of me” and about the only remnants of a youth robbed of all else, including a father and a fiancé killed in the Holocaust.

Her cause has won the backing of Congress and was given a boost last month when J. Christian Kennedy, the State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues, raised the matter as “a humanitarian effort” with Polish officials in Warsaw. “Safe to say, we are working on it,” said Kennedy, who declined to discuss the Polish response.

Other officials suggest that a compromise, first discussed years ago, might award Babbitt at least a couple of the works while the museum keeps the bulk of what it considers irreplaceable evidence of the Nazis’ plan to wipe out Gypsies along with Jews.

In September, about 450 cartoonists and artists from around the world petitioned the museum to make reproductions and give the originals to Babbitt. Signers include Art Spiegelman, creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus” graphic novels about his family’s Holocaust experience.

A petition leader was New Jersey-based cartoonist Joe Kubert, whose own 2003 graphic novel has parallels to Babbitt’s life. If Kubert’s Polish Jewish family had not emigrated in the 1920s, Kubert thinks, they would have been slaughtered. His book “Yossel, April 19, 1943” imagines an artistic Jewish boy surviving for a while in the Warsaw ghetto by drawing cartoons of superheroes for Nazi soldiers.

“Here was a woman who actually experienced the things I only imagined might have happened to me,” Kubert said of Babbitt, whom he learned of after completing his book. Not giving her the art is “terribly unfair.”

RESTITUTION cases involving Nazi-confiscated property have been in the news lately. In one of the most prominent, five Gustav Klimt paintings seized by Nazis in the late 1930s and exhibited for decades in Vienna were returned in January to Maria Altmann of Los Angeles and other heirs after a court fight. And in France last year, a man noticed his father’s suitcase in a Holocaust exhibition and now wants Auschwitz, which lent it for display, to give it up.

Yet some observers who celebrate the Klimts’ return say the Babbitt situation is more legally murky.

“I can’t imagine any other case like this. It’s unique,” said Stuart E. Eizenstat, a former U.S. deputy Treasury secretary who served as a special envoy on Holocaust reparations during the Clinton administration and was involved in previous Babbitt negotiations.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international Jewish affairs for the American Jewish Committee in Washington, D.C., and who sits on an advisory panel for the Auschwitz museum, saw the paintings recently and described them as “very powerful.”

“It’s just so tragic that sides which should understand each other should be facing off against each other,” he said.

The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum insists it is the rightful home of the paintings, which it says it bought from other camp survivors in the 1960s and ’70s. At a time when some voices still deny the Holocaust, artifacts proving that history should be shown in their original setting, museum officials say.

“These objects speak here with a totally different voice than in any other place, anywhere in the world,” Auschwitz museum Director Piotr Cywiski said in a recent interview at the site, which includes grisly displays of victims’ hair and eyeglasses.

“We are torn between our empathy for a person who went through hell at the orders of Mengele and our duties as a museum,” Cywiski said. “This is one of the most difficult and painful cases we have dealt with.”

If Babbitt prevails, the museum contends that any product of slave labor, even the infamous gateway to Auschwitz, might be claimed by survivors.

The paintings, framed under glass and no larger than about 18 by 14 inches, are piercing portraits of six adults and one child, all of whom apparently died at Auschwitz.

Babbitt is now working from a photograph of her original to re-create her portrait of Celine, a beautiful dark-haired French Gypsy who had just lost a newborn to starvation and illness in 1944. Both in their early 20s at the time, the women became friends during the sitting, sharing rations and communicating through fragmented French. Babbitt dragged out the work for a week, double the usual time, to slip Celine rare pieces of white bread.

“When you do a portrait, you somehow become bonded to the person in a way,” recalled Babbitt, who retains a soft Czech accent.

In 1944, she wanted to show Celine with a blue scarf covering her ears, “like a Gypsy Madonna.” But Mengele pulled back the fabric to show an ear he thought proved racial inferiority.

On the easel in Felton, Babbitt’s new version shows no ear.

AT first, memories of Auschwitz seem incongruous in a Northern California house backed by a mountain creek.

Still striking, with light blue eyes and carefully coiffed red hair, Babbitt welcomes a visitor with tuna sandwiches and coffee. Her 7-year-old dachshund, Penelope (no German name for her pets, Babbitt stresses. “No Heidi, no Hans”), barks protectively.

Babbitt, who has heart problems and arthritis, talks for nearly four hours with self-deprecating humor about her life. She cries only when she recalls a teenage acquaintance who went to the gas chambers with his parents rather than accept a chance to work for the Germans and save only himself.

She rolls up a sleeve of her black turtleneck and shows her forearm, slightly scarred where her concentration camp number was tattooed. (She had it removed during an unrelated surgery in her 40s.) The number, 61016, had a symmetry that she sometimes used to play the California lottery. “It doesn’t work,” she wryly complained.

Besides the new “Celine,” her easel bears a tempura cartoon of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” romping in the Alps. Babbitt finished it a few weeks ago for a talk at a local school.

“Snow White” was crucial to Babbitt’s life at several points. She saw the 1937 Disney film seven times in her Czech hometown of Brno and even sneaked into theaters forbidden to Jews by hiding her yellow Star of David patch. The movie helped form her artistic ambitions.

At Auschwitz, a Jewish leader asked her to paint something soothing on a wall of a children’s barracks. She drew a “Snow White” scene from memory and expected punishment. But SS guards who saw the mural ordered her to draw things for them and in return gave her cigarettes, which she traded for bread.

Mengele then heard of her abilities. Babbitt knew he was the doctor who dispassionately dispatched new prisoners to death or to work. She also had heard of his experiments on babies and twins but never witnessed them.

After she was told to paint the Gypsies, Babbitt said, she told Mengele she would rather die if her mother was not also let out of a group soon to be gassed. “That was super chutzpah,” she recalled. “I never had much. But that was it.” Her mother was allowed to live.

Mengele told her to sign the paintings. Then Mengele himself sat for a black-and-white sketch, which has not been found. “This was the first time I really got to look at him,” she said. “I thought his eyes looked dead.”

Babbitt and her mother managed to hang on until January 1945, as the Russians approached. The Nazis then forced the captives on an evacuation death march and shipped the survivors to work camps in Germany. There, on May 5, 1945, they were finally “free, free, free.”

IN the post-liberation period, she went to Paris, where she had relatives, and studied art. She became an assistant to American cartoonist Art Babbitt, who had been one of Disney’s “Snow White” animators and who was working in Paris on a project. They married and boarded a ship to the United States in 1948. Ahead were motherhood, a Hollywood Hills home, divorce and jobs at such studios as Warner Bros. and Hanna-Barbera, coloring and drawing the likes of Speedy Gonzales and Daffy Duck.

Out of the blue in 1973, the Auschwitz museum sent her a letter telling her it had the paintings. An official had noticed that the signatures matched those on Babbitt illustrations published in a book soon after the war.

Babbitt said she borrowed money for a trip to Poland with a suitcase to carry the artworks home. “The minute I had them in my hands, I couldn’t control myself. Tears were running,” she recalled. But she was not allowed to take them.

Years of correspondence, miscommunication, negotiations and fruitless discussions with lawyers followed. She returned to Auschwitz in 1997 with an NBC News crew in tow but had no success again.

Her cause was taken up by U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley. The Nevada Democrat knows Babbitt’s daughter Michele Kane, who lives in Las Vegas and has worked as a television reporter there. Berkley attended ceremonies at Auschwitz last year on the 60th anniversary of liberation and saw the paintings.

“After so many years, the impact is extraordinary. She captured the pain and the misery that was etched into the faces,” recalled Berkley, who sponsored 2002 congressional resolutions urging the Poles to hand over the paintings.

Another strong advocate for Babbitt is Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. Medoff, who helped organize the cartoonists’ petition, said “Today Poland is a free country, and they should understand that buying stolen property doesn’t buy you the right to it.”

Babbitt acknowledges that she and her family rejected a more restrictive compromise in the past but now might consider one permanently giving her several of the works of her choosing.

“If there is no other chance, I will have to,” she said. “What else can I do? I’m not going to live long anymore. So at least I want to hold them.”

Special correspondents Ela Kasprzycka in Poland and Veronica Zaragovia in Florida contributed to this report.