Art Analysis Lesson
The Artwork Of David Olère
Slide Show Assembled by Professor Richard Gair, Valencia Community College, Orlando, Fl.
The documentary value of the sketches and paintings of David Olère is tremendous. No
actual photographs were taken of what went on within the crematoriums; only the
hands and eyes of David Olère reproduce the horrible reality. David Olère did not
sketch for pleasure. He sketched in testimony to all those who never came back. The
lone witness (Olère himself) is often present. The ghostly face observes with pain the
inhuman scenes that cannot be erased from his photographic memory. The book, David
Olère--The Eyes of a Witness, published by The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation in Paris in
1989, contains a three page summary of David Olère's life and one hundred pages of
his artwork. All of the text appears in both English and French. Olère's pencil sketches
and color paintings capture the everyday events in the concentration camps during the
Holocaust. There are also portraits of some of the Nazi soldiers and layouts of the
A more recent book, Witness: Images of Auschwitz, combines Olère's artwork with text
by his son, Alexandre Oler. Olère's artistry is truly one of the best and most important
representations of the atrocities of the Holocaust.
David Olère is well-known as an artist whose work testifies to the enormity of the Holocaust. A survivor of Auschwitz, his
drawings, paintings, and sculpture have helped considerably to reveal the truth about the atrocities suffered by Jews and other Nazi
victims at this notorious death camp. David Olère was born in Warsaw, Poland, on January 19, 1902. At a young age, he was
accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts, and remained in Poland until he was sixteen. During his teenage years he exhibited
woodcuts at museums and art houses in Danzig and Berlin. He was later hired by the Europäische Film Allianz as a painter,
sculptor, and architect. So began his short career as a set designer in the film industry. Olère even worked briefly for Paramount
Pictures in Europe, and befriended the company's president. In 1930 Olère was married to Juliette Ventura, and the couple moved
to a French suburb. They had a son, Alexandre. Once war was declared in Europe, Olère was drafted into the infantry regiment at
Lons-le-Saunier. On February 20, 1943, he was arrested by French police during a round up of Jews at Seine-et-Oise. Olère was
detained at Drancy, then deported to Auschwitz.
From March 2, 1943, to January 19, 1945, David Olère was interned at Auschwitz. There he worked as a Sonderkommando, part of
a special labor unit responsible for emptying the remains from the ovens of the crematory and for removing the bodies from the gas
chambers. The horrors he witnessed there are incomprehensible to anyone who did not personally experience the Holocaust. He
saw the victims of the gas chamber undress in the cloakroom, paralyzed with fear and the knowledge of certain death. He saw the
incineration of countless bodies. He saw the so-called medical experiments performed on the weak and the sick and the old. He
saw the SS rape and torture young Jewish girls. He saw prisoners suffer terrible cruelties while living under the most deplorable of
conditions. And on a regular basis, he saw disease, despair, and death. David Olère was one of the few laborers to penetrate the
dark interiors of the crematoria and the gas chambers of Auschwitz and to emerge alive. He took part in the evacuation death
march of Auschwitz in January of 1945 and was finally liberated by the Americans at Ebensee in May of that year.
The work of David Olère has exceptional documentary value. No photographs were taken at Auschwitz of what went on in the gas
chambers and crematoria. Only the memories of Olère, reproduced as art in his drawings and paintings, give an account of the
horrible reality. He was the first to draw the plans and cross-sections of the crematories in order to explain exactly how the Nazis
ran their death factory. He did not sketch for pleasure while at Auschwitz; there he was forced to work as an illustrator and to write
and decorate letters for the SS. One of his paintings shows Olère painting designs on a lampshade. The works of art he produced
after his release were created out of an obligation he felt to those who did not survive. He believed he had to tell the true story of
their fate, and he did so in the best way he could, through his art. In his paintings he himself is sometimes present as a ghostly face,
floating in the background, a silent, pained witness observing the inhuman scenes that could not ever be erased from his memory.
In 1962, David Olère retired from his work as an artist. In 1985, he died. His widow and son have continued his twofold quest of
informing the world of the truth about Auschwitz and honoring the victims by remembering their pain. Olère's paintings and
drawings have been exhibited at several museums, but spreading his message presents a challenge. The paintings are frequently
graphic and repulsive--the gruesome scenes seem to repel the audience rather than attract it. Yet his work only represents the truth,
a goal the best of artists aspire to achieve.
SOURCE: Serge Klarsfeld, David Olère: L'Oeil du Témoin/The Eyes of a Witness. New York: The Beate Klarsfeld Foundation,
Their Last Steps by David Olère. 1946, 33x41 cm, Olère Family.
ThreeMuselmänner support each other as they falter toward the gas chamber. Muselmannwas the camp term for those whose physical and
mental exhaustion made them candidates for "selection."
Consider the drawing "Their Last Steps." What grim building dominates the landscape?
Does the shape of that building form a symbol that you might not expect a Jewish artist to include in a painting?
What is it? Other twentieth century Jewish artists have used this symbol to represent the suffering of the Jewish
people in their Holocaust art. Maybe you can locate some.
What adjectives describe the physical condition of these men?
How has the artist suggested their loyalty to one another?
Admission in Mauthausen by David Olère. 1945, 34x23 cm, Ghetto Fighters House, Israel.
In January of 1945, prisoners admitted to Mauthausen were forced to stand in the snow for three hours after a freezing shower. Olère was
sent to Mauthausen after his evacuation from Auschwitz in a death march.
In "Admission in Mauthausen" there is a strong contrast in the way Olère depicted the
prisoners and their captors. List several ways in which this particular picture emphasizes
that contrast. Consider the way the figures are grouped. Consider the men's posture.
Does it change your feelings about the image to realize that this is a roll call in the
David Olère Punished in the Bunker by David Olère. 46x61 cm, Yad Vashem Art Museum, Israel.
The cell was so narrow that Olère was unable to sit, stretch or lie down for the 48 hours of his punishment.
In "David Olère Punished in the Bunker," the artist uses something like an x-ray technique to show us the cramped quarters
in which prison inmates were often forced to spend long periods of time. What detail tells you this is a self-portrait?
Even though we can see through the walls of the bunker here, we cannot see into the prisoner's mind. He seems quite
passive, almost like a sleeping man or a corpse. What do you suppose his thoughts are?
Try to express some of the things that might be going on in the heart of a man confined like this. Is he angry? Pessimistic?
Confused? Is he thinking about the distant past or the events of the day that he has just lived through? Is he thinking about
the future? Is he praying?
For a Crust of Bread by David Olère. 1946, 21x27 cm, Olère David Olère Working in a Tunnel at Melk by David Olère.
Family. 1947, 20x38 cm, Olère Family.
David Olère depicts himself writing letters for the SS and From Mauthausen, Olère was sent to dig tunnels at the camp
decorating them with flowers in exchange for a crust of bread. of Melk on the Danube.
Olère's talents as an artist and translator (he spoke Polish,
Russian, Yiddish, French, English, and German) made him
useful to the SS.
Compare "For a Crust of Bread" and "David Olère Working in a Tunnel at Melk." Both show him doing work for the SS. What general
observations can you make about the conditions under which he worked?
In the Melk tunnel scene, does his expression seem to suggest anything about his state of mind?
In the office scene, he is decorating letters for the Nazis. The German words indicate that these are love letters, probably for the officers
to mail home. Why is this a disturbing detail?
The Experimental Injection by David Olère. 1945, 92x72 cm, A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, New York.
The infamous Dr. Mengele administers an injection as terrified prisoners look on.
Many of the prisoners at Auschwitz were the victims of cruel and unnecessary medical experiments like the one about to take place in
"The Experimental Injection." There are six men here who each seem to have a very different reaction to the event. Think of them one by
one and record your observations. The guard appears to be snarling. Why?
Does the prisoner seem unusually still? Why or why not?
The artist has not shown us the face of the doctor. Does this create any particular impression for you of the doctor's personality or his
feelings for the "patient"?
What symbol has the artist hidden in the folds of the doctor's coat?
Compare the three spectators. Describe how each reacts to what he sees.
Which of the three do you think has been in the camp the longest? How can you tell?
David Olère Burying the Remains of Children by David Olère. 32x40 cm, Olère Family.
Olère's first assignment at Auschwitz was as a grave digger of bunker 2. His prisoner number, 106144, is seen both on his shirt
and as a tattoo on his left arm.
Study "David Olère Burying the Remains of Children." One of the most painful jobs assigned to Olère at Auschwitz must have been the
burial of murdered children. Compare the figure of Olère in the foreground with that of the SS guard in the background. How do you think
each man feels about the job he has been assigned to do?
The artist has placed the Nazi at the center of the painting, but his own self-portrait tends to hold our attention. Perhaps this is because of
the gesture that he is making with his left hand. What kinds of emotions does an outstretched hand express?
Notice the unburied hand to the left of the shovel. It is a realistic detail, of course, but it may also be seen as a symbol. Like Olère's hand, it
is outstretched; it reaches upward even in death. What sort of thoughts do you have as you think about this lifeless hand?
Destruction of the Jewish People / Destruction du peuple juif
1946, 29x20 cm, Ghetto Fighters House, Israel.
The fire consumes Torahs, phylacteries, and a tallis, as well as various Christian religious articles.
In the woodcut, "Destruction of the Jewish People," Olère presents us with a literal image of the destruction by fire which gives
meaning to the term "Holocaust." Distinguish the two kinds of burning that are illustrated here.
What sort of variety is there among the objects that are being consumed in the foreground?
Name something that the Nazis were unable to destroy.
The links below will take you to a web site that has the
entire collection, as well as other artists responses to the
The Artwork Of
Art in Response to