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New Exhibition at Yad Vashem – First time outside the borders of Eastern Europe

Private Tolkatchev at the Gates of Hell
Majdanek and Auschwitz Liberated: Testimony of an Artist

Yehudit Shendar, Senior Curator, Yad Vashem Art Museum (right),  together with Tolkatchev's two children, Ilya and Anel at the opening of the exhibition Yehudit Shendar, Senior Curator, Yad Vashem Art Museum (right), together with Tolkatchev's two children, Ilya and Anel at the opening of the exhibition
One of the Nameless, 1944. Gouache, charcoal and crayon on paper One of the Nameless, 1944
Gouache, charcoal and crayon on paper

On Sunday 24th February 2002, Yad Vashem opened a new temporary exhibition of works by Jewish artist, and Red Army soldier, Zinovii Tolkatchev – the first time that the artist’s work will be exposed outside the borders of Eastern Europe.

Born in White Russia, Tolkatchev served as an official illustrator for the Red Army’s documentation unit. In the summer of 1944 he was sent to Lublin, adjacent to he Majdanek death camp, and for 35 days devoted himself, virtually devoid of food or drink, to the Majdanek series. “Hatred guided my paintbrush, urged me on, and the brutal reality inflamed my imagination” he recalled. Tolkatchev worked quickly to complete the series before the trial of the Majdanek death camp commanders in November 1944, and the exhibit opened the day before the trial, in the art museum in Lublin.

Majdanek’s barbed wire fences did not prepare Tolkatchev for his next assignment. At the end of January 1945, he accompanied the Committee for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes to Auschwitz, only hours after the Red Army entered the camp. Again, Tolkatchev felt the need to rapidly sketch the sights he witnessed. Finding himself without paper, he entered one of the rooms in the camp’s former headquarters where he found a supply of Nazi stationary on which only a few days prior, extermination orders had been written. The Nazi letterhead became an integral part of his compositions in the Auschwitz series, giving a symbolic voice and form to the Nazi soldiers. Despite the insufficient materials – pencil and paper - Tolkatchev, almost possessed, augmented the black and white sketches of all he saw, with the literal testimony from the few survivors able to utter words.

Yad Vashem’s exhibition of Tolkatchev’s Majdanek and Auschwitz series, displaying the artist’s work for the first time outside the borders of Eastern Europe, will grant viewers a rare opportunity to see the horrendous truth of the Majdanek and Auschwitz death camps as experienced by a soldier in the Red Army – an artist and a Jew. Zinovii Tolkatchev passed away in 1977 in Kiev, Ukraine.

The opening took place in the Yad Vashem Auditorium, in the presence of Tolkatchev’s two children Ilya and Anel from Ukraine.

For more about the artist, click here