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Images from the Liberation of Majdanek and Auschwitz

Tolkachev Artworks
US Holocaust Memorial Museum; Państwowe Muzeum na Majdanku

Soviet troops liberated the Majdanek killing center in July 1944 and the Auschwitz camp complex in January 1945. Among those Soviet soldiers were artists who began to capture the unimaginable scenes they encountered, using their talents to create representations of the so-called "Final Solution" and to process the shocking reality of the Nazi camp system.1

Participating in both liberations, a Soviet Jewish soldier named Zinovi Tolkachev created a series of artworks. After making sketches at Majdanek, Tolkachev spent 35 days creating paintings and engravings of what he had witnessed. The Polish-Soviet Nazi Crimes Investigation Commission displayed much of Tolkachev's work at the Lublin Art Museum in November 1944, just one day before the beginning of the Majdanek Camp Commandant's trial.2

Based on his work at Majdanek, the Nazi Crimes Investigation Commission brought Tolkachev to Auschwitz immediately following its liberation by Soviet troops. The suffering and brutality Tolkachev encountered at Auschwitz was on a scale beyond what he had seen at Majdanek. Drafted on paper from the camp's former headquarters, many of Tolkachev's drawings appear on sheets once used to issue execution orders. At Auschwitz, Tolkachev also wrote down stories from survivors as he drew.

The two featured illustrations are reproductions of Tolkachev's Majdanek and Auschwitz drawings. The first image is a woodcut engraving showing a Majdanek survivor standing in front of a watchtower.3 The work was also produced as a painting, in which Tolkachev painted the patch red—the prisoner badge typically assigned to people targeted as political enemies of Nazism. He also enlarged the prisoner's "P" marking, which indicated the prisoner's Polish nationality. The image is both realistic and stark, reflecting how Tolkachev used his drawings for documentation while still capturing an emotional quality. The second featured drawing, made months later at Auschwitz, exemplifies his approach to drawing the prisoners. Two children, apparently baring the tattoos on their arms for the viewer,4 stand before a watchtower and a bleak skyline.

Creating art after liberating death camps was not only a way to document horrific crimes.5 Tolkachev's works also capture his own reactions to these events as a Soviet Jewish artist. After creating the initial drawings, Tolkachev continued to develop the images for publication and exhibition, reimagining the scenes into woodcuts, paintings, and more detailed drawings.

Barbie Zelizer, Remembering to Forget: Holocaust Memory through the Camera's Eye (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 56–57. Zelizer notes, however, that the photos of Majdanek were fairly restricted, a "far cry from the images that would circulate later with the liberation of the western camps." Furthermore, few of those photographs depicted survivors or victims, unlike Tolkachev's drawings.

For more on the Majdanek trials, see photos from the Imperial War Musuem. See Private Tolkatchev at the Gates of Hell: Majdanek and Auschwitz Liberated, Testimony of an Artist (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Art Museum, 2005). 

Originally displayed as part of a 1945 exhibition in Kraków, the image reproduced here appears in Zinovii Tolkachev, Kwiaty Oświęcimia (Kraków: Państwowe Muzeum na Majdanku, 1945), 13. A digitized version of the book is also available.

The image reproduced here appears in Zinovii Tolkachev, Kwiaty Oświęcimia (Kraków: Drukarnia Narodowa, 1946), 28. A digitized version of the book is also available.

After liberation, the testimony of camp survivors became a primary form of evidence in war crimes trials. See the related Experiencing History item, "On the Auschwitz trial in Kraków (impressions)".

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First image:

"4. Marked [Polish: Napiętnowany]

5. Guard towers [Polish: Wieże strażnicze]"

Second image:

"Stigmatized [Polish: Napiętnowane]"

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
Państwowe Muzeum na Majdanku
Accession Number ND699.T6 A4 1945b
Accession Number D805.5.A96 T655 1946
Date Created
1944 to 1945
Photographer / Creator
Zinovii Tolkachev
Majdanek, Poland
Auschwitz, Poland
Still Image Type Artwork
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