How I bring my visions to the canvas
Narratives and abstracts from tape recordings made by Auschwitz-Birkenau prisoner Adolf Frankl, Tattoo number B 14395
I distribute the colors onto the canvas with a palette knife, my fingers, and a brush, without plan or model. I am so engrossed in the work that I spatter face, hair, clothes and shoes with paint, and sometimes inadvertently put the paintbrush into my mouth.
In a mixture of JOY and ANGER, I create areas of color most of which unconsciously form a harmony – or the opposite. After some hours, I am forced to lie down because I feel so shattered. I sleep a little, smoke a cigarette and think about the past, about my youth and the women and also about the dreadful pictures of the camp. The ghosts creep slowly from the darkness. It gets to be unbearable. I flee to the coffee house; behind me I feel the unfinished picture ordering me back to work.
In the evening when everyone else is asleep, I take out the colored canvas and observe it for many hours from my bed. Through hand motions, through one eye, and then by looking in the mirror I try to find the solution of how to present to others the atrocious thoughts which course through my head. With closed eyes I see before me how the Jewish girls, Zion's Flowers, were standing by the barbed wire fence of the camp when I arrived at Birkenau1, bent forward with their legs spread to keep them from falling, and with their arms hanging. They gazed at me like animals. Those eyes – I cannot forget them!
"Don't worry. You'll survive this for three or four weeks, and then you'll leave by the chimney", said an acquaintance called Süss from Trenčin. He was a Kapo – this was the name given to prisoners detailed by the SS as camp overseers. He wore beautiful laced high shoes.
My painting brings me back to earth. Slowly the colors create faces, and some animals – blurred animal-like persons – and again the memories come back to me in force. In my thoughts, I also see before me a large man with a thick black beard. He is the stringently religious, incorruptible, principled Rabbi Goldstein, who used to walk proudly through the Judengasse (Street of the Jews) in Bratislava to his Sabbath lecture and quote liberally from the Torah at other times during the week. In the Sered' concentration camp, I saw him without his beard. His tiny face stared at me full of the fear of death.
I see the faces clearly and also recognize Herbert, a German foreman from the "Weberei" of the women's camp in Birkenau. He used to be with the Navy. He called me "Wolf" and also "Fox", sometimes. Herbert told me that bromide2 was mixed with the food, and sometimes he brought food without it. Once, when an acquaintance who worked in the SS kitchen passed me a piece of a lettuce leaf, the action was unfortunately noticed by a SS woman. Thereupon she beat me with a whip. She whistled Herbert over. He said to her "That's a Grüner3!" Herbert began to beat me, threw me to the floor and kicked me with his feet. Next day I asked: "Herbert, why did you beat me? Did you not recognize me?" Whereupon he answered: "Wolf, I did not recognize you".
In Birkenau I also recognized the lawyer from the Sedlárska in Bratislava – a careerist – a giant of yesterday. Before the deportation he had a large practice. His waiting room was always full of clients.
Now I saw him coming out of the "Kommando Mexiko4" in the camp. In this commando, prisoners had to demolish damaged barracks, mostly with their bare hands and in freezing conditions. His head was shaved, the face black and the glasses cracked. At the whistle of the morning roll call – he was dead!
I also see how, in Birkenau, I swapped bread for cigarettes, how at night in the barracks I searched for cigarette butts, and was thereby caught by a Kapo – a former policeman. I had to bend over the oven and got ten strokes of the stick on my bare bottom. I screamed with pain so loudly that you could have heard it in Cracow. It was almost unbearable!
And always there were the rats, large fat rats! They were the only creatures which always found something to eat. Even today I can still smell the malodor of burning flesh and hair, and can see the smoke rising from the crematorium chimneys. I will never be able to hive off or forget this smell. It follows me everywhere.
I turn again to the picture. Colors and blurred faces take shape. I like the lurid, luminous colors. They should glow as a fire does! For me, the deep impact of the colors is the basis of my works. They are the origins of my painting. I admire Chagall. We have one thing in common: the power of the colors is dominant in the pictures. My pictures, however, portray my own terrible experiences, show only depressing scenes and I am unable to explain many things that are portrayed in them. When painting, I don't think about whether it is good or bad. My VISIONS emerge from the patches of color – albeit with many pauses and corrections – but I don't think about perspective, comparable sizing, phrases or directions.
As one who experienced it first hand, I only want to commemorate the undeserved lot of millions of Jews, Sinti and Roma and all other fellow prisoners, children as well as unborn babies, and their indescribable fear. By my own hand, I want to try to record these memories, which are etched within me as a terrible anger, so that people will be reminded of this tragedy in the future.
A critic once told me that he saw snarling dogs in one of my pictures that was comparable to one of Chagall's motifs. However, my pictures document my own experiences, my own hell … That is Frankl – not Chagall!
1 Birkenau (Brzezinka) was part of the concentration and extermination camp of Auschwitz (Oświęcim). In this camp, the prisoners vegetated under inhuman conditions. Most of them were living skeletons. Adults, teenagers, children and babies were murdered in the gas chambers here through highly burocratized, industrialized means such as medical experiments, poison injections, shooting, hanging, beating, burning, freezing, torture, starvation, slavery, and catastrophic sanitary conditions. The demeaning, inhuman living conditions and the hopeless situation drove many people to suicide. Auschwitz-Birkenau is the world's largest cemetery.
2Bromide is a substance that suppresses the sexual urge, and it was mixed into our food.
3"Grüner" was the name given to professional criminals; they wore a green emblem. I was not one of them. The prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau and in the outer camps were tattooed on their lower left arm. Additionally, different categories of prisoner wore an emblem on the left upper side of their jacket and also on the right trouser leg.
4 "Kommando Mexiko" was the name given by the prisoners in their camp jargon to the notorious work commando of the camp section B III in Birkenau, probably because the prisoners wrapped themselves in a poncho-like blanket in order to try to protect themselves from cold and frost.
The camp section B III was called "Mexico" and was built as the last section of Birkenau in late summer 1944, but was never completed. It served as a depot and transit camp for Jews who were designated to be transported on to Germany for forced labor. Conditions in this section of the camp were extremely bad and the work, which was carried out by prisoners mostly in the open, extremely hard.
Translated by Imogen Lathbury