Dina Babbitt in 2009 with the Marvel comics collection "Magneto Testament," which included a comic book retelling of her story (Photo/Amanda Pazornik)
Dina Babbitt in 2009 with the Marvel comics collection "Magneto Testament," which included a comic book retelling of her story (Photo/Amanda Pazornik)

In Auschwitz, she was forced to paint. Now her family wants her art returned.

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Santa Cruz resident Dina Babbitt lost her battle with cancer in 2009, but another important battle continues: retrieving the artwork she was forced to paint for Dr. Joseph Mengele as a prisoner in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Babbitt and her family began fighting with authorities at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum and Memorial in 1973 after the discovery of six of her watercolor portraits of Roma (also known as gypsies). A seventh was found in 1977.

After several failed attempts to get the artwork returned — including State Department intervention spearheaded by then-Rep. Shelly Berkley of Nevada; the involvement of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington; and a petition signed by 400 comic-book legends, including Stan Lee, declaring that artwork belongs to the artist — a recent discovery by Babbitt’s youngest daughter delivered yet another emotional blow to the family.

“I had begun having an ominous feeling anyway as the anniversary of my mother’s death was approaching,” Karin Babbitt said about learning that her mother’s paintings would be part of a new exhibit at the National Museum in Krakow. “There was nothing worse that you could put in my face at that time.”

Along with the ongoing rightful ownership issue, Karin contends that the Oświęcim-based museum is in violation of a “permitted public use” agreement that prohibits it from profiting from Babbitt’s work, for example, by reproducing the watercolors in books the museum plans to sell. Pawel Sawicki of the museum’s press office responded: “For this exhibition, a catalogue has been prepared which contains all works from the exhibition. Using the images in the catalogue is allowed as so-called ‘permitted public use’ connected with promotion of the exhibition.”

Karin, a special-education teacher and resident of Santa Cruz, where her mother lived for nearly 30 years, recounted the fraught history of her paintings that were signed and dated in 1944.

“The SS came in [to her barracks] and saw the art my mother had painted,” she said. “She was put in a jeep and driven to Mengele’s office in Birkenau. She’s thinking, ‘I’m dead.’” Instead, the SS told the young artist that she was to paint portraits of Roma Gypsy prisoners “to have a record of their inferiority,” Karin said.

Six watercolors of Roma Dina Babbit painted in Auschwitz
Six watercolors of the “inferiority” of Roma that Dina Babbit was forced to paint in Auschwitz

Babbitt agreed, but only if her mother’s life were spared. Mengele, who would come to be known as the “Angel of Death,” asked his prisoner, “What’s her number?”

Babbitt, born Dina Gottliebova in Czechoslovakia, survived the war, as did her mother. Afterward, the artist lived in Paris and then moved to Los Angeles, where she was an assistant animator for films, cartoons and other projects, including commercials for Cap’n Crunch cereal. When the museum located her in 1973, the single mother borrowed money for a plane ticket and flew to Poland to authenticate her work.

“She fell apart,” her 61-year-old daughter said, describing how her mother encountered the painted faces that she had created under inconceivable duress.

Fully expecting to take the paintings home with her, Babbitt was informed by museum officials that their historical significance superseded her right of ownership. It is a position they maintain today.

“The Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum [art collection] is unique of its kind,” according to a statement on the website. “The main objective of this site is to make it available to hundreds of thousands of pilgrims as well as researchers, and to document as widely as possible the crimes committed here.”

The statement, which outlines the museum’s position on stewardship of Babbitt’s art and other works created by prisoners, stresses the importance of collecting evidence from the war and protecting it from being dispersed, asserting that “every single loss of even the smallest part of the documentation will be an irreparable loss and a shadow on the memory of Auschwitz Concentration Camp victims. [Babbitt’s] watercolors are scarce surviving documents on the Holocaust committed on the Roma people. Both those Roma people who survived the mass murder and the representatives of European Roma organizations share our viewpoint that the portraits should remain in Oświęcim.”

If she was still alive, she would go and handcuff herself to the exhibit to be with her paintings and to make a statement.

That is not the view of Karin and her sister, Michele Kane, who lives in Las Vegas and has meticulously copyrighted her mother’s work through the U.S. Copyright office.

“Face to Face. Art in Auschwitz,” which opened in July and runs through Sept. 20, commemorates the 70th anniversary of the museum, established in 1947. Along with Babbitt’s paintings, it features other works created by prisoners. According to the website, “The exhibition presents nearly 200 original works performed, the majority of them illegally, by prisoners in the camp.”

Karin rebuts, “My mom was tortured, forced to draw for Dr. Mengele. Her work is being exploited. This is not an exhibit to say the Holocaust should never happen again. They are extorting the work of her hands. This is a public, intimate raping of Jews. If she was still alive, she would go and handcuff herself to the exhibit to be with her paintings and to make a statement.”

Alleging that “50 to 53 percent of Poland exists on Jewish plunder,” she said the museum is afraid that if even one item is returned, all items are at risk of being reclaimed.

“Ultimately, my mother got a letter saying if [the paintings] belong to anyone, they belong to Dr. Mengele and his heirs since they were painted under his employment,” Karin says with incredulity. “How do I feel about that? That they were ‘commissioned’? She told them every day, ‘I will hold onto the wire of the electric fence because life is meaningless.’ This is commissioned?”

Babbitt’s daughter continues, “I want Jews to understand they’ve been given a consciousness based on our horrible history. We move through the world looking for peaceful solutions to problems. We have wonderful attributes. But our generation and future generations have to realize they haven’t finished with us. We need to focus on us.”

Dina’s daughters say their greatest hope is to find an international attorney willing to take their case to The Hague, to fight for what Karin calls “humanity” and “to stop the torture of Jews.”

Overcome with tears, she remarked, “The one dream my mother had was that she wanted her paintings to be displayed in America because she was an American and proud to be one.” Composing herself, she added, “If my mother knew I was crying, she’d be furious. ‘If you cry,’ she would say, ‘they win.’ ”

Elissa Einhorn
Elissa Einhorn

Elissa Einhorn began her writing career in the Bronx at the age of 8. She earned a master’s degree in communications and journalism 20 years later. While Elissa worked for non-profits her entire career, including as a Jewish communal professional, she now enjoys working for herself as a freelance writer. Still, her most treasured role is that of ima (mom) to twin daughters who she is (finally) happy to count among her friends.