Dina Babbitt survived Auschwitz by making portraits for the Nazi Josef
Mengele. And she wants them back.
By Ron Grossman
Chicago Tribune staff reporter
FELTON, Calif. — Dina Babbitt once made a deal with Josef Mengele, the
notorious Nazi doctor who subjected concentration-camp prisoners to
horrendous medical experiments.

He needed someone to illustrate his perverse racial theories with
portraits of Auschwitz’s Gypsy prisoners, an inferior group according to
Nazi ideology. A trained artist, she agreed to do the work as the price
of saving her mother, as well as herself, from the concentration camp’s
gas chamber.

As things turned out, Babbitt, her mother and the portraits survived.
She eventually settled in Northern California, while seven of her
paintings wound up in a museum at Auschwitz dedicated to preserving a
historical record of the Holocaust.

Ever since discovering in 1973 that they were there, Babbitt has tried
to get them back. Museum officials have steadfastly stonewalled her
request, once invoking the legal principle of work for hire–the concept
that the patron, not the artist, holds the rights to a commissioned work
of art.

“A museum official wrote me saying that legally the only one who might
have a claim on the paintings was Dr. Mengele, and he wasn’t likely to
exercise it,” said Babbitt, 83. “Their position is finders keepers.”

Congress has adopted resolutions recognizing “the moral right of Dina
Babbitt” to the paintings and urging diplomatic efforts to have them
returned. Gallery and museum directors, including a former head of the
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, have petitioned on Babbitt’s behalf.
Last month, 450 cartoonists from this country and abroad sent a petition
to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum.

After the war, Babbitt worked as an animator in Hollywood, helping bring
to life cartoon characters like Daffy Duck. Earlier, the route to her
survival ran through Walt Disney’s classic “Snow White and the Seven
Dwarfs.”

Mengele learned of Babbitt’s artistic skills because of a mural she did
in the children’s camp at Auschwitz. To make their environment a little
less harsh, she painted a mountainside scene on a barracks wall. She
asked the children if there was anything they wanted her to add.

“They said: `Snow White,'” Babbitt recalled. “It was the last movie
they’d seen before being taken to a concentration camp.”

Babbitt lives on a mountaintop high above the Pacific Ocean. Hairpin
turns wind up to her home through spectacular scenery, not unlike the
bucolic landscape she once painted. A scaled-down version of that mural
sits on an easel in her combination living room-studio. Grumpy, Happy,
Sleepy and the others seem to float in the sky–witnessing the work’s
origins in the wishes of children who perished during the Nazi era.

Babbitt is re-creating the painting for a forthcoming series of public
events planned by the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, a
Pennsylvania think tank that has taken up her cause. It coordinated the
museum directors’ and cartoonists’ petition.

“We sent copies to the Polish Embassy in Washington, but neither even
gave us the courtesy of a reply,” said Rafael Medoff, the Wyman
Institute’s director. “It’s one last chance to do a little bit of
justice for an elderly lady living in California.”

Teresa Swiebocka, curator at the Auschwitz museum, explains that the
petition by Babbitt’s supporters doesn’t alter the situation. “We
haven’t any reason to change our attitude of a few years ago,” she said.

`Work will make you free’

In a statement posted on its Web site, the museum notes that Babbitt
wasn’t the only prisoner to create artworks in Auschwitz. What if they,
or their heirs, asked for them back, the museum said–posing the example
of the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work will make you free”) sign
that marked the camp’s entrance. It was produced by an inmate who was a
master ironsmith.

Babbitt, who passed through that gate 63 years ago, still carries
herself with a gentle style reflecting the refined Central European
society where she was raised. She was born in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Her
family was Jewish, albeit they only went to services on Yom Kippur, a
day of fasting.

“There was a lady who brought to synagogue an apple with cloves in it,
supposedly so the aroma would distract her from hunger,” Babbitt said.
“But I think she took little bites of the apple.”

With a vividness of detail others might not be able to summon when
narrating yesterday, Babbitt recalled life behind barbed wire. It was an
experience she volunteered for.

In January 1942, her mother’s name appeared on a list of people to be
transported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in northern
Czechoslovakia. The methodical Nazis didn’t deport all Jews at once,
lest the machinery of the Holocaust be overburdened.

Babbitt (her maiden name was Gottliebova and she then spelled her first
name Dinah) didn’t have to go yet. But determined to be with her mother,
she insisted on signing up, much as air travelers put their names on a
standby list. Theresienstadt was a place of death–but also of life. She
found her first love there.

“He was 24, I was 19,” Babbitt said. “Karel had such spirit. Oh, I loved
him so.”

A skylight and dreams

Karel Klinger, who grew up on a country estate, reported for his
deportation with several farm animals, explaining he didn’t know what
else to do with them. Amused by the beau geste, the Nazis made him the
keeper of the stables at Theresienstadt. He had a room over the stalls
and improvised a skylight.

“We would lie in bed and look at the stars,” she said, “and think of
names for the babies we planned to have.”

Those dreams were put on hold in 1943, when Babbitt and her mother were
transferred to Auschwitz, in southern Poland. It was a factory of death,
where prisoners dubbed Mengele the Angel of Death.

Babbitt’s skills–she’d studied painting since age 6–fit Mengele’s
needs. He had tried to illustrate the Nazis’ racial theories
photographically, but frustrated by the film of the day, sent for her.

When she completed the first Gypsy portrait, he asked her to sign it.

For all the blood on his hands, there was another, almost gentle, side
to his personality, Babbitt said.

“One day, Dr. Mengele came in and said: `My wife has had a baby,'”
Babbitt recalled. “He’d brought me a little package of cookies.”

In January 1945, with Soviet forces closing in on Auschwitz, Babbitt and
her mother were among prisoners evacuated by the Nazis. Despite the
privations of that death march, the two of them survived, returning to
Czechoslovakia before moving on to Paris.

A friend brought the news that Klinger had perished.

“He handed me a small, ripped piece of paper on which Karel had
scribbled a few words as he was dying,” Babbitt said. “On it, he had
written: `I legally declare Dinah Gottliebova to be my wife.'”

In 1973, by then married and living in California, Babbitt received a
letter from the Auschwitz museum. It had acquired the Gypsy portraits,
which had been preserved by some of the last inmates in the camp. Museum
officials had tracked her down, thanks to the clue of that signature
Mengle insisted she put on the watercolors.

“I took a briefcase and went to Poland, thinking I’d be bringing them
back,” Babbitt said. “But they said I had to leave the paintings there.”

A decade ago, Rabbi Andrew Baker tried brokering a compromise between
Babbitt and the museum. Baker, a staff member of the American Jewish
Committee and advisory committee for the Auschwitz museum, said he can
see the issue from both sides.

“You can understand their meaning to Dina but also to the museum,
especially with the rise of Holocaust deniers,” Baker said. “It’s
essential to have actual artifacts of the Holocaust to preserve a memory
of the horrors.”

Babbitt has memories, too, and they’re emotionally bound up in those
Gypsy portraits. Besides representing her talent, they are totems of a
pivotal moment in her life. They witness a passage into adulthood–a
season of first love, a time when her mother began to lean on her.

Recalling all that, Babbitt said, she lies awake at night. The
paintings, she thinks, could bring relief from insomnia.

“If I had them back, maybe I could sleep,” she said. “I could sleep
again.”