‘Lost Girls’ Artwork from the Holocaust

Marie Paneth and some of her students, all survivors of Nazi concentration camps. Photo: Columbia Studios. Prints and Photographs Division.

They are scenes filled with emptiness and born of the Holocaust: Streets with no people, houses with no one home, roads that stretch endlessly to no place.

A small collection in the Library’s Manuscript Division preserves drawings created by children who survived Nazi concentration camps during World War II — artworks that reveal the emotional state of young people who had endured unimaginable horror and lost everything but their lives.

In the months following the war, hundreds of those children — homeless and alone — were taken to facilities in London and the English countryside to be cared for. One of those helping the new arrivals was Marie Paneth, an artist and art therapist who had worked with children in a London air raid shelter a few years earlier and viewed art as good therapy for children who had suffered traumatic experiences.

The drawings held by the Library were made by 11 young Polish and Hungarian women, aged 16 to 19, who studied with Paneth at a London hostel beginning in March 1946. Paneth saved their work and documented their experiences in an unpublished book manuscript also held at the Library.

“The most vivid feeling they have,” she wrote, “is that of loss, of having lost and of being lost.”

An empty landscape, from the Paneth collection. Prints and Photographs Division.

The girls shared similar stories: Their families had been torn apart, parents separated from children, brother from sister, never to be seen again. They’d witnessed unthinkable cruelty and suffering in the concentration camps and somehow survived — lost and alone, but alive.

Maria — in the manuscript, Paneth used pseudonyms for her charges — was one. Her mother died before the war, and Maria later witnessed the execution of her father and sister by the Nazis. She was sent to the notorious Auschwitz extermination camp, where she narrowly escaped the gas chamber. She later was detailed to a German ammunition factory desperate for workers, saving her life.

In London, Maria and the others grappled with what they’d seen and experienced, with the strangeness and loneliness of their new lives, with losing everything and everyone they’d ever known. They struggled, too, with the guilt of surviving while millions like them had perished.

“I live. Those who could not take a piece of bread out of the hands of somebody who was too weak to hold it did starve and could not keep alive,” Ellen told Paneth. “[Those] who could not walk over the bodies of dead people died. The worst ones survived.”

Their new life at the hostel didn’t come easily: They fought, stayed aloof from others, refused to do their chores — enough so that the hostel warden wanted them removed. Paneth came to work with them as a last resort. She taught the girls science and math, helping make up for the years of schooling they missed while trapped in Jewish ghettos and in concentration camps.

An empty road with no people, a typical feature of the survivors’ drawings. Prints and Photographs Division.

She also met with them once a week to draw and paint. Their pieces in the Library’s collections convey their emotional state — despair, the feeling of emptiness, of being left alone without guide and support. “I wanted to paint a girl there,” Lena said of one of her drawings, “but I could not.”

Instead, they show endless and empty plains, roads leading nowhere, streets with no living beings, towns with no soul in sight. Only slowly did people begin to appear. Lena eventually drew one image with a person: a knight riding toward a house with a lit window.

A photograph in the Prints and Photographs Division shows Paneth with her pupils, their real names inscribed on the front and notes of thanks on the back.

Art, Paneth wrote, allowed these children to express through a medium other than words things that cannot be said in words — in images that, seven decades later, still haunt.

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