18 paintings by former Sonderkommando prisoner David Olère enriched the Collections of the Auschwitz Memorial
The Collections of the Auschwitz Memorial have been enriched with 18 unique paintings by David Olère, a French Jew of Polish descent, Auschwitz prisoner and member of the Sonnderkomando, who portrayed in his post-war works, the tragedy of people murdered in the gas chambers of the German Nazi concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.
David Olère was born on 19 January 1902 in Warsaw. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In 1918, he went to Berlin and later to Paris where he settled permanently. He belonged to the so-called School of Paris. He worked for various film studios (created set designs, costumes and advertising posters), for Paramount Pictures, Fox and Gaumont among others.
On 20 February 1943, due to his Jewish origin, he was arrested by the French police and placed in the Drancy camp. On 2 March, he was deported from Drancy to the German Nazi Auschwitz camp, where he was registered with number 106 144. Throughout his entire stay at the camp, he worked in the Sonderkommando, a special work unit forced by the Germans to aid in the operation of the crematoriums and gas chambers.
‘David Olère is the only prisoner of Sonderkommando who transferred his traumatic experiences from the shadow of the crematorium chimneys on paper and canvas. Thus their completely unique value as documents illustrating the history of the extermination. They come from an eyewitness and show both the everyday life of Sonderkommando's work, the strength of the trauma but also the will of life of the person who went through the darkest of the camp experiences,’ said Dr. Piotr M. A. Cywiński, the director of the Museum. ‘So far, thanks to Serge Klarsfeld, there has been only one picture of Olère in our possession. At the moment, we can say that our collections have become the largest collection of paintings painted by this author in the world. Several paintings are in the possession of Yad Vashem and a few others in private hands. Several dozens of black and white sketches are also part of the Lohamei haGetaot collection in Israel’ added Cywiński.
‘In his works, David Olère combines the artistic vision with thoroughly reconstructed realities of the camp. Consequently, his paintings depict those who did not survive, sometimes as faces and spectres of witnesses presented in the painting scenery, or sometimes they constitute the main theme of the work. Olère also condemns the perpetrators of those events, who also occupy considerable space in his works. These works also contain autobiographical motifs. The artist showed what kept him alive and eventually helped him to survive – love for his wife, knowledge of languages, the ability to acquire additional servings of food. Often in the paintings, we see the author himself, with a tattooed number on his arm, as a prisoner of the Auschwitz camp, who saw with his own eyes the process of the extermination,’ said Agnieszka Sieradzka, an art historian at the Collections.
According to the head of the Museum Research Centre Dr. Piotr Setkiewicz, Olère’s works are of unique value to researchers: ‘In fact, his drawings and paintings are the only iconographic representations of the work of the gas chambers and crematorium, which details were known only to the members of the Sonderkommando. One can read from them not only the design details of these buildings. They are also a valuable source of information on work and relationships that prevailed among the prisoners of Sonderkommando.
The Museum, together with David Olère’s grandson as well as Serge and Beata Klarsfeld, is planning to organize a temporary exhibition of works by this unique artist.
The acquisition of the 18 paintings was possible thanks to the Minister of Culture and National Heritage.