A portrait of survival: Students take up artist’s fight to bring home Holocaust paintings

At 86, Holocaust survivor Dina Babbitt recently found herself in an unusual place: high school.

Before her, hundreds of students sat quietly in Palo Alto High School’s Haymarket Theatre. Babbitt was on stage, her petite frame and vibrant red hair illuminated by the auditorium’s spotlight, her hands gently clasped in her lap.

Accustomed to speaking Czech, she struggled at times to find the right words in English. Still, the students sat in silence.

At one time, Babbitt and her saga had been simply a class project. Now she was very, very real.

David Rapaport’s history students are Babbitt’s newest allies in her three-decades-long battle with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland.

Languishing on the museum’s premises are several original paintings that Babbitt created for Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. The artwork — portraits of Gypsy, or Roma, victims — kept Babbitt and her mother, Johanna Gottlieb, alive during the Holocaust.

Officials at the Auschwitz Museum, however, claim the portraits are museum property. They won’t release them to Babbitt, despite the fact that the museum is only displaying reproductions of the portraits, while the originals sit in storage.

Dina Babbitt (left) and David Rapaport share a laugh while looking at the comic inspired by Babbitt’s quest to retrieve her paintings. photos/amanda pazornik

“Everyone in my family exists today because of these paintings,” Babbitt, who now lives in Santa Cruz, told the students March 5. “They need to be somewhere safe where my kids, grandchildren and the public will be able to visit them.”

Rapaport’s students have pledged to help Babbitt obtain her artwork from the museum. The artist first spoke to his classes two years ago, and Rapaport felt her struggle would make a good class project.

“Her story is so touching,” said 16-year-old Talia Brody. “Growing up, I heard about my own relatives in the Holocaust, but I never had the chance to see a survivor in person. I’m never going to forget this.”

For the class project, the teens are sending letters and e-mails to the museum, and they plan to publish a pamphlet about Babbitt’s ordeal. Ultimately, Rapaport wants Babbitt’s narrative integrated into the ninth-grade history curriculum.

“ ‘Six million’ is a number that is hurting our ability to tell the story of the Holocaust,” Rapaport said. “It limits our understanding when we lose the narrative. You have to build a connection to current injustices like Dina’s story.

“It doesn’t always have a happy ending, but that doesn’t mean the fight isn’t worth fighting.”

Palo Alto students pepper Babbitt with questions during an intimate discussion.

Wedged in a cattle car with her mother and 2,500 others, Babbitt, then a 19-year-old art student from Prague, arrived at Auschwitz in September 1943. She was stripped of her clothes and belongings, and given an oversized brown dress that drooped on her slender body. She tied a small piece of rope around her waist to prevent the garment from slipping off.

When Babbitt’s mother caught a glimpse of her daughter, she laughed and said that she looked like a Franciscan monk. It would be one of the few lighthearted moments the pair would share.

In Auschwitz, Babbitt saw people willing to help one another stay alive. She spoke to the Palo Alto students of young individuals whose strength, compassion and bravery gave her hope that good could exist among such evil.

“The way she talked about the people she knew and almost started crying was so powerful,” said Meredith Fitch, 16. “Seeing her eyes and being able to hug her made it so real.”

One of the people Babbitt spoke about was Fredie Hirsch, her former youth group leader. He arranged for the interned children to have their own barracks by telling the SS men that it would be easier to control them in a confined space. He then asked Babbitt to paint a scene to brighten up the barracks’ dingy walls.

Babbitt signs a replica of her mural depicting a Swiss mountainside and a scene from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

“We weren’t allowed to sneeze, but he wanted me to paint something,” Babbitt recalled. “There were no trees, no blades of grass, no birds, no flowers. So I painted something cheerful for the children to look at.”

The mural Babbitt created was a scene inspired by “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” a 1937 movie she snuck in to watch countless times after Jews were banned from theaters. On the walls of the barracks, Babbitt replicated the beloved characters to the delight of the children.

Shortly thereafter, in March 1944, an SS man approached Babbitt to ask if she’d painted the wall. When she answered “yes,” Babbitt was immediately hustled into a car and taken to another section of the camp, one filled with Romas. She was sure her life was over.

“I was looking out the window and looking for my mom,” she said. “I wanted to wave to her one last time.”

But what Babbitt thought was a death sentence may have saved her life.

Babbitt’s artwork had caught the attention of Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death,” who was stationed at Auschwitz. He commissioned her to paint portraits of Roma prisoners, whose skin tones could not be captured accurately in photographs.

In a small room with two chairs — a tablet and watercolors resting on one, her subject placed on the other — Babbitt started to paint.

As soon as she completed the last brush stroke, Mengele asked for a new portrait. Babbitt plucked young girls from the camp and brought them to her makeshift studio, where she painted one stoic face after another.

A panel from “The Last Outrage,” a six-page story about Babbitt included in Marvel’s “Magneto Testament.”

“I met an incredibly beautiful young girl with a blue scarf named Celine,” Babbitt said. “She looked like a Gypsy madonna. I found out that she had just lost her baby. At two months old, the baby starved to death.”

During her time in the studio, Babbitt asked Mengele if her mother could be transferred to the camp. The doctor obliged, and the two were reunited.

In the end, all of the camp’s Roma prisoners were killed, including the 11 whose portraits Babbitt painted. Babbitt and her mother survived internment in two more concentration camps before being liberated in May 1945.

After the war, Babbitt pursued work as an animator in Paris before coming to America. She married, moved to California and raised two daughters. After a divorce in 1962, Babbitt returned to work as an animator, on such characters as Tweety Bird and Wile E. Coyote.

In 1973, Babbitt received a letter from the Auschwitz Museum telling her that her portraits had survived. She immediately flew to Poland, excited for her family to see the artwork that had saved her and her mother.

“I held the paintings in my hands and broke down a little bit,” Babbitt said. “They were in cheap little frames with glass. The paper got yellow; otherwise, everything was perfect.”

But when she tried to place her paintings in a briefcase to take home, the museum refused, arguing that they were rare artifacts and important evidence of Nazi genocide.

That was the beginning of Babbitt’s enduring fight. Now, she said, the museum is “counting on me to die.”

“They’re trying to wait me out,” she said. “Pretty soon, I’ll be gone and it can keep the pictures with no problem.”

Several people, in addition to Rapaport’s students, have taken up Babbitt’s cause to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, has been speaking with the Polish authorities on a private basis to try and secure at least one of the paintings, Rapaport said. Baker has been involved in Babbitt’s case for more than 10 years.

Her story got international attention recently when it was included in the final issue of “Magneto Testament,” a five-part comic book series detailing the experience of the Jewish X-Men character during the Holocaust. The six-page story, “The Last Outrage,” was written by Holocaust historian Rafael Medoff and illustrated by legendary comic artist Neal Adams.

Rapaport recently received word from the archives division of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., that it may be open to include Babbitt’s narrative, specifically the student recording of her talk at Palo Alto High School, in an existing exhibit.

“My hope is for the museum to do this quickly so Dina’s story can take its rightful place in the United States,” Rapaport said.

Elie Wiesel also plans to speak out on her behalf, Babbitt said.

“I feel helpless,” Babbitt said. “This is the feeling when you were in camp and being kept against your will. The people in Auschwitz don’t understand what it would mean for me to hold my paintings in my hands.”