‘The picture of Belsen was one of hell, what I imagine hell to be. Skeletons shuffling along. You could speak to someone and they would die in front of you, just collapse where they were. There were dead bodies all around.’
Mala Tribich, survivor of Belsen
Bergen-Belsen or Belsen was a Nazi concentration camp in what is today Lower Saxony in northern Germany. It was originally established as a prisoner-of-war camp but in 1943 was expanded to take Jews from other extermination camps. From 1941 to 1945 over 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war had perished and 50,000 inmates had died along with them.
On 11th April 1945 it was ‘liberated’ by the British 11th Armoured Division. On entering Belsen they found a scene of absolute horror. There were 60,000 people starving and sick, and 13,000 unburied corpses strewn all over the camp. The scenes that greeted the Allied troops were famously documented by BBC’s Richard Dimbleby who was embedded with them:
‘‘…Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which… The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them … Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live … A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days. This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.’’
Doris Zinkeisen arrived soon afterwards. Following the liberation of Europe in 1945, Zinkeisen was commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee as a war artist for the North West Europe Commission of the Joint War Organisation of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John (JWO)
Zinkeisen was one of a small number of artists and an even smaller number of women artists who produced pictures of Bergen-Belsen in the months following its liberation. The other artists there included Leslie Cole, Mary Kessell, Sergeant Eric Taylor (one of the camp’s actual liberators), Edgar Ainsworth, and Mervyn Peake. Her painting ‘Human Laundry’ shows German orderlies washing camp inmates before they go to hospital. ‘Human Laundry’ is arguably the most powerful art work produced by any or the artists present.
Between the 1st and the 4th May former ‘prisoners’ would be taken to the Stable Blocks and shaven, washed and deloused and then taken to newly established hospitals with the Bergen-Belsen Barracks run by the Red Cross. Much photographic evidence was taken for obvious reasons and there is a photo depicting just this procedure. It shows the Stables and the 60 beds that it contained. Two German doctors and two German nurses attended each table. It is of course a moment in time captured, yet even though its immediacy is profound, we do not get to see what exactly is taking place or the circumstances by which this scene came about. This is where Zinkeisen’s painting shows us what is missing and provides a much more nuanced and detailed evaluation and a more truthful rendering. The devil truly is in her detail.
There is so much contained in this painting it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps with Zinkeisen’s most obvious and effective motif in the painting and perhaps for all paintings of the aftermath of the liberation of the Concentration Camps under the Nazis and in fact under any totalitarian regime, the contrast between the well fed, rounded bodies of the German medical staff and the emaciated, skeletal bodies of their patients.
The nurses are immaculate. Their white overalls are in pristine condition. They could easily be women of the Reich at home baking bread or cleaning the kitchen. It might well be a scene of delightful domesticity were it not for the skeletons lying on the kitchen-like tables and intruding upon the harmony. The dichotomy between appearance and reality goes to the heart of the very creation of such death camps. The pretense in the Nazi Reich that these camps did not exist and yet, most, were aware of their purpose no matter how far away they were from the atrocity. Ignorance was not a defence at Nuremberg. And neither could it be for the vast majority of the German people.
It also speaks to me of efficiency and order. The Holocaust utilised the modern machinery and mechanisms of death. From start to finish it was about process. And Doris Zinkeisen has captured that here. The same process that will save lives here, was used to murder millions. But the bestiality of such acts does not become less evident. For the transition to hospital takes place in a Stable Blocks which were converted into improvised decontamination facilities. The inmates have replaced the animals. And that is what the Nazi ideology of racial superiority and purity realised in the death camps, had deliberately reduced them to. The only ray of light here is that of the 14,000 people who passed through the Human Laundry, only two died.
The camp inmates needed to be washed and deloused to prevent the further spread of typhus which was rife in the camp, before they were transferred to the hospital. The brown colouring of the prisoners clearly emphasises the sickness of those poor people. Yet they will survive the typhus. The doctors and nurses will not be so ‘lucky’, however.
Initially the German nurses, originally brought in from a military hospital to help, were hostile to working in the Human Laundry, but it is documented that as they witnessed the arrival of the inmates they, with mouths open and with horror struck upon their faces, broke down in tears. The humanity and professionalism of these nurses soon wore down the overriding sense of hatred towards them that the British liberators had. A month later 32 out of 48 nurses had typhoid. How many of them died I know not. But the horror of Belsen was not over.
In her painting, to the very left, is what looks like a piece of dark coloured drapery hung across the entrance, with the purpose I assume, to provide some sort of makeshift privacy. An attempt at such normality does seem rather perverse given the horror of what was taking place. However, a piece of drapery would surely not hang like that. So the more I look at it, the more it seems to me to take on the features of a face, a darkly totemic face of anger and hate.
There is something primordial about this figure. It is certainly not out of place here. For what is taking place here, right now, in the Stables is a battle between the forces of light and darkness. We are witness to the light being forced back into both the painting and the Universe. Darkness has seemingly won. But good people are making valiant efforts to redress the balance. Humanity is coming together once more to ease the suffering of those who have been at the mercy of unparalleled evil in the world. It is fundamentally, a truly great painting, of human redemption in the face of so much unquantifiable evil, and for me personally, it is this powerful message that must be at the heart of any commemoration and celebration of ‘Victory in Europe Day’.
Not the celebration of victory against the Third Reich with its jingoistic and bigoted undertones, but the celebration of what humanity can achieve ‘After the Fall’. I believe we can literally see and feel the very beginning of the modern human rights movement in Doris Zinkeisen’s painting: ‘Human Laundry’.
In 1948 the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ was signed. Prior to this it had been universally accepted that states had carte blanche right to do to its people whatever it wished and the death camps under the Nazi regime had taken that situation to the nth degree and even further, into the abyss. The UDHR passed because countries were reacting to this horror and to this possibility.
We are once again in very dark times and the message inherent in the painting is as relevant now as it was in 1945. The light is beginning to fade and the dark totemic faces are many, but we can, even in the most terrible situations, let the light back in by facing up to the horrors, and allow the truth, to wash us all, just a little bit cleaner. The act of bearing witness to atrocities and injustice is invaluable.
For it is the way that a better tomorrow can be created by facing up to the evil that ordinary men and women can do. It is through art and not through immediately shocking, photographs, that we can fully recreate the scenes inside Belsen, that comprise the very everyday — cleaning and washing — with the essence of evil — the extermination of an entire people. Very slowly as we look upon the painting we begin to find ourselves witness to the very Holocaust itself, for great humanist works of art , unveil to all of us, the very truth of our existence. Good and Evil.