Friday 17 May 2013

Snow White in Auschwitz

The Dina Babbitt Story cartoon courtesy

My husband said to me today:  "I have a blog post idea for you."  He stumbled upon a Neal Adams comic about a Jewish woman named Dinah, who, while imprisoned at Auschwitz, painted a mural of Snow White on the wall to calm down the children.  "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" had been the last movie she she had seen before the war.  Thanks to her artistic talent, Dinah survived the war.  And in a twist of fate she ended up marrying a Disney animator named Art Babbitt -- who was the head cartoonist on the movie "Snow White".

Image courtesy

Dinah Gottlieb was born in Czechoslovakia in 1923.  At 3 years old, she started drawing on paper sacks that her grandmother kept.  At 19, she entered the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague where she studied drawing.  In 1939, Dinah was forced to abandon her art classes as the Nazis imposed stricter and stricter limits on Jews in occupied Europe.  In 1942, Dinah and her mother were imprisoned in Theresienstadt.  The following year, they were transported to Auschwitz.

Auschwitz entrance courtesy

At the infamous concentration camp, Dinah was approached by Freddy, an acquaintance from Czechoslovakia, to draw a mural to calm down the children.  The young artist complied, painting a picture of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.  Fearful that she would get in trouble for the artwork, she was surprised when Dr. Josef Mengele praised her for her talent.  The "Angel of Death" who was known for his horrific experiments on prisoners, asked Dinah if she would do some sketches for him, hoping that her artwork could pick up skin tones that his camera could not.  In return, he would spare her from the gas chambers.  She agreed, but only if her mother was spared as well.  Dr. Mengele promised that Dinah's mother would be safe.

"Selena" by Dina courtesy 

The Nazi doctor brought Dinah a pad of paper, some watercolours and two chairs, one for her subject and the other for her easel.  With her pad perched precariously, Dinah sketched eleven subjects over the course of the next year, signing each one "Dinah 1944".  Every subject was a Romani, or "gypsy", a group that was considered "inferior" by the Nazis. Every subject, after being sketched, ended up being "exterminated".  Sadly, Dinah remembers one woman who had just lost her two-month-old baby to starvation.  The artist took an extra long time to draw her, slipping her food each time she sat for her.

In May of 1945, the survivors of Auschwitz were liberated by the Allies.  Dinah and her mother moved to Paris where the artist looked for work as a cartoonist.  She applied for a position at Warner Brothers and was interviewed by none other than Art Babbitt, the head cartoonist for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs".

Dina and her mother in postwar Nice, France courtesy

Mr. Babbitt not only hired her but married her as well.  The couple moved to California where they had two daughters.  Sadly, the union was dissolved in 1963 at which point Mrs. Babbitt, now known as Dina, returned to work.  She sketched such characters as Tweety Bird, Wiley Coyote and Cap'n Crunch.

It was that same year that the Auschwitz Museum bought some watercolours signed "Dinah 1944:.  Not connecting the name with Dina Babbitt, they were not able to contact the artist -- for six years.  In 1973, Dina borrowed money to fly to Poland to retrieve her paintings.  However, the museum refused to return them to her, saying they were an integral part of Auschwitz' history (although they had 2000 other pieces of art to display).

Romanis painted by Dina at Auschwitz courtesy

There began a political battle to get the paintings back that would last until Dina died.  In 2002 Congress declared the painting rightfully Dina Babbitt's.  Certain politicians tried to put pressure on the President to in turn put pressure on the Polish government for the artwork.  In 2006, 450 cartoonists and comic book creators signed a petition supporting Dina.  A short film, "The Last Outrage", an adaptation of Neal Adams' comic strip, was produced in 2009.  The paintings remain, however, in the museum.

As Dina explained:  "Every single thing including our underwear, was taken away from us...My dog, our furniture, our clothes.  And now, finally, something is found that I created, that belongs to me.  And they refuse to give it to me."  Frustrated, Dina passed away from cancer in 2009.  Her children continue to lobby the government for the return of the watercolours.

Dina Babbitt

Dina Babbitt at her easel courtesy


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