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Buchenwald through the eyes of an artist


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The Buchenwald Series An Artist Depicts the Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the Nazi’s.About the Artist A Jehovahs Witness survivors introspection opens a window into the Nazi darkness.

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Buchenwald through the eyes of an artist

  1. 1. The Buchenwald Series An Artist Depicts the Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses by the Nazi’s.About the Artist A Jehovahs Witness survivors introspection opens a window into the Nazi darkness. As prisoner #1795, Johannes Steyer shares 27 freeze-frame visions that contrast ten years of Nazi terror with individual religious determination and hope. Born on September 28, 1908, in Röhrsdorf, near Chemnitz,Steyer went to work right out of elementary school straightening needles onknitting machines (Nadelrichter für Strickmaschinen). After his retirement,Steyer pursued painting as a hobby.Using aquarelles, he created a vivid record of his Nazi-era experiences. In the1970s, he completed the chronological Buchenwald Series from hismemories, printed pictures and personal photographs of the former camp.The artist chose to use bright colors, perhaps reflecting the hope andoptimistic yearning that infused his Christian faith. Steyer left his watercolorautobiography to the Wachtturm-Gesellschaft History Archive inSelters/Taunus, Germany. He died at the age of 90 on March 1, 1998.
  2. 2. 1. "We do not want Jehovah Gods Kingdom. We have our church and ourFuehrer!"The artist Johannes Steyer stands mute and faceless at the centre of thecomposition, the garden gate crosses and circles the centre of his body. He istargeted because of his ministry. Over his head hangs a swastika flag. Thefamily vehemently rejects the message, releasing a dog and a huge,snakelike echo of the Nazi salute. Ominously, the figure of a brown-shirtedNazi storm trooper stands down the road. Storm clouds roll on the horizon.
  3. 3. 2. "Ill have you arrested!" Steyer is denounced to the police by a Nazi and isarrested on March 5, 1935. The storm clouds are now fully overhead, and thedarkness of the composition is interrupted by the spotlighted Nazi flag, nowtaken up by a stiff breeze.
  4. 4. 3. "He will return at about noon, so it is said." Steyer is arrested by the Gestapo and locked in a tall-gated van that drives into pale uncertainty. He is bound for Sachsenburg concentration camp. A clock stands in dramatic shadows that lengthen on the table, marking the agony of the passing hours for Steyers wife as he fails to return. He will be in custody for the next ten years.
  5. 5. 4. "Deported to a concentration camp." Arrival at the concentration camp is the beginning of abuses, being forced to do the so-called Saxon Salute for hours within the shadow of the walls. A red stain now marks the clouded sky. The dark shadow of the walls are repeated in each depiction of camp violence.
  6. 6. 5. "Under construction”—behind this, the first barracks are being built in the woods. A new concentration camp arises in the middle of a great forest.Jehovahs Witnesses are among the first arrivals of prisoners atBuchenwald. For the first time, the alien darkness of the forest is depicted.Buchenwald means "beech-tree forest," and the thick forest is a profoundand recurring image in Steyers paintings. The foreground is dominated bythe deep and broad roots of beeches, which must be dug out by hand andwith hoes. These roots will emerge in many of the forest paintings. Theforest frequently contains glimpses of a soft glow, the concept of freedombeyond its confines.
  7. 7. 6. "Foundations are ready." The prisoners, including Jehovahs Witnesses, are forced to build barracks that they will live in when complete. The foreground is considered in Steyers characteristic palette of pale earth tones and pastels, which contrast with the dark background of the ever-present forest. In the shadows, guards are stationed regularly, only their faces and hands discernable.
  8. 8. 7. "An inmate was is missing during role call”: after a long search, the prisoner was finally found, sometimes only the next morning." Huge indefinite masses of figures are standing for role call—an ordeal that could last 18 hours or more until an escapee could be captured. A figure staggers forward for punishment by another prisoner and stalking SS guards.
  9. 9. 8. "Strapped to the block”, 25 strokes for laziness at work. Two SS men administer brutal punishment to a half-naked prisoner before the block- like ranks of other prisoners, who are forced to watch. Guards encircle the gatehouse and all its windows. Another prisoner lies in the shadows nearby, apparently beaten unconscious or dead.
  10. 10. 9. “The Punishment Battalion” The scene is forced labour designed to kill. Arriving Jehovahs Witness inmates are always assigned to this battalion. Prisoners are hunched over at work in a quarry, forced to carve chunks of stone that they load a cart nearby; they dig holes that look like graves. On the ledges above, the guards and their guns form grave markers, symbolic of death. Steyer here has evidently paused to look up from his work. He views mistreatment, but he also sees a patch of lightly colored flowers. Flowers and a beautiful sky remind him that God is still with him, giving Steyer endurance, strength, and hope.
  11. 11. 10. “Torture by Stones” Jehovahs Witnesses (Bible Students) and a group of Jews struggle to carry stones from a quarry." Figures march along a low path, creating an impression of crawling underground. The first set of figures bears the yellow star, identifying them as Jewish prisoners. One figure has collapsed, and he holds his hands up in futile defence against the guard who aims his rifle at him. Behind this is another group of prisoners, Jehovahs Witnesses, or Bible Students. All are forced to carry huge stones. The line is fluid and uniform in the bearing of their burdens. Above the path, amid the dark trees, stand guards armed with rifles and dogs. Barely visible beyond the claustrophobic forest are pale houses recollecting the dream of freedom.
  12. 12. 11. "Craving for Freedom”. A desperate prisoner lies dead on the electric fence, shot from the tower.A harsh juxtaposition is formed between the grim realities of the camp, thejagged barbed-wire fence, the looming shadows, the squat towers thatmarch into the distance, and the pale unreality of the dawn of spring.
  13. 13. 12. "The Kapos." The SS appointed prisoners as Kapos to control other inmates. The prisoners march along ant-like, carrying huge round stones balanced on their shoulders, while the weight seemingly crushes their heads. The prisoners march into an indefinite distance, seeming to come from a great subterranean cavern. The distances involved are illusionistic: the dimensions of the quarry are seemingly modest, but the work involved is titanic. The Kapo is darker and larger than his fellow prisoners, at once less and more. In the foreground a crude figure lays sprawled and contorted, bleeding from the head, probably dead, a victim of Kapo violence. But the march goes on unendingly and no one is allowed to aid him. The SS officers look on with approval.
  14. 14. 13. "Get out for roll call!!" Additional Kapo abuse is depicted. Two Kapos flank the door, brandishing symbols of official and personal violence. Both wear a green triangle, marking them as "professional criminals." The prisoners are disgorged chaotically through the doorframe, flinching and falling.
  15. 15. 14. “Roll Call”. Guards armed with guns and the commandant complacently gazes at their handiwork as the prisoners stand for roll call. Dark figures of the SS stride through the ranks of compressed prisoners. A dead prisoner lies in the shadow of the guardhouse.
  16. 16. 15. “Returning to the Concentration Camp”. After long day, exhausted prisoners in a work detail are watched by a guard. Elongated evening shadows delineate their path. Two figures support a third, their eyes downcast. The figure groupings of the prisoners stand in contrast with the isolated guard and his rifle.16 "Between life and death." In the midst of the dark forest, a group ofprisoners carrying an injured or dying figure walk along a branching path ontheir way back to concentration camp. One branch leads to the indistinct lightof sunset, perhaps a symbol of life or freedom; the other terminating abruptlyat the margin of the painting, the return to the darkness of imprisonment,which could mean death.
  17. 17. 17. "Done for the day." In the moonlit forest, almost obscured by the trees, a late labor detail walks back to concentration camp, following a fellow prisoner pushing an injured comrade along in a wheelbarrow. The ever-present guards seem inhuman in the night.
  18. 18. 18. "After morning roll call, moving out to work …" At dawn, the prisoners had begun their day. Now, arranged in anamorphic ranks, punctuated by the dark figures of guards and SS officers, they pass below the looming guardhouse into the dim forest. The clock tower shows 6 oclock.
  19. 19. 19. “Against the Sky” is a studied examination of the fortress-like camp enclosure, which denies freedom and discourages escape. The camp is patrolled from within by dark soldiers and machine guns. The guardhouse and barbed wire create contrast with the pastel sky.
  20. 20. 20. "I wont come out to work today … got an interrogation." In contrast with the geometrically reduced prisoners in the background, an intimate group of prisoners face one another during roll call, their eyes appear bruised as they secretly discuss in innocuous terms the unexpected event" of being interrogated by SS or Gestapo in the Political Department. It means no outside labor for this day, but could also mean torture or death during interrogation.
  21. 21. 21. “Prisoner No. …000, report to the camp commandant immediately!" The call likely strikes terror into the heart of the prisoners. But to the scowling guard, it is all in a days business. The guard sits hunched at his desk, taking the prisoners number from the log book for the day and announcing it to the camp population. Visible from his window: the dusty roll call square; long lines of prisoner barracks; the guard towers; and the great forest – the microcosm of the concentration camp. In this painting the camp is depicted from the perspective of the guard in the main tower. The room is dark purple, the color denoting the prisoner group to which Steyer belongs – Jehovahs Witnesses.
  22. 22. 22. “Prisoners stand facing a long desk”. Behind the desk are the clerks, who are attempting to induct the prisoners into the Nazi army. The repeat of prisoner, desk, clerk, and papers stretches the full length of the long room. Massed like corded wood, more prisoners await their turn. The central figure, Steyer himself, stands before a throng of German military officials and SS who intently observe his refusal to be inducted for military service. Only this clerk points to a purple form, perhaps the infamous "Declaration," giving Steyer a chance to renounce his faith and leave the camp.
  23. 23. 23. "The Sword of the Church”. Hitler attacked Jehovahs Witnesses, Jews,political [dissidents], and criminals. The intention was a disguised persecutionof Jehovahs Witnesses, i.e., not as Christians, but because they wereconsidered criminals. A huge, ranting caricature wreathed in a halo towersover a German town, his finger pointed in accusation towards the objects ofhis hatred. The town bristles with jagged church spires topped with crosses,and from the windows fly Nazi flags, in turn emblazoned with the Aryan cross,symbolic of the Nazi party. This iconography references the root of Steyerspersecution as one of Jehovahs Witnesses, the exclusion of the BibleStudents from the sanctioned Christian religions.
  24. 24. 23. "This brood will be exterminated in Germany!" Hitler reacts hysterically to the flood of protest telegrams sent on October 7, 1934, by Jehovahs Witnesses from around the world. A claustrophobic atmosphere is created by color fields of black and red, the Nazi colors, that heavily frame a manic Hitler. The Fuehrer stands pounding an SS podium with reddened hands, memorialising the moment of Hitlers raving boast.
  25. 25. 25. "The gladsome news." From an aerial view looking down at the barracks,a great mass of prisoners surge into the dusty alleys of the camp, seenrambunctiously gamboling, dancing, embracing one another, and running,arms outstretched towards freedom, as the camp is liberated. Two prisonersin the center join hands. A group of prisoners stage a revolt shortly before thecamps official liberation.
  26. 26. 26. "Thanks to God, the power of the evil ones is broken!”. “The SS have fled… we are free!" The central figure, possibly Steyer himself, looks up atheaven, arms outstretched as he thanks God for freedom. In the background,liberated prisoners continue to dance, talk, and celebrate their liberation. Inthe centre, again, two prisoners join hands. While the shadows indicatesunlight off to the right, from the forest the symbolic glow of freedom beckons,now seemingly extending into the camp.
  27. 27. 27. "Free!" The familiar scene of the oppressive gatehouse, now free ofguards, and the dark forest are radically changed as the figures joyouslygesticulate, one haloed by the light of the now-open gate. The clock towershows almost 4 oclock - the hour of liberation.