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Portrait of an old woman walking behind barbed wire drawn in Gurs by a German inmate

Object | Accession Number: 1988.4.5

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    Brief Narrative
    Pencil drawing of a stooped woman walking in mud behind a barbed wire fence drawn by Gert Wollheim while a prisoner in Gurs internment camp in late 1940. Wollheim, who fled Nazi Germany for Paris, was arrested by the French in spring 1940 as an enemy alien. France was invaded by Germany in May 1940 and surrendered in June. Northern France was controlled by the Germans and a collaborationist French government was set up in Vichy. Wollheim's work was in the Nazi Degenerate Art exhibit and he was active in leftist, radical politics. Gurs at first interned political prisoners, and then Jews. Wollheim was sent there in November. Camp conditions were primitive; it was overcrowded and water, food, and clothing were in scarce supply. Wollheim was transferred to Septfonds on January 1, 1941. He escaped and went into hiding until the region was liberated in August 1944. He emigrated to New York in 1947.
    Artwork Title
    Frau hinter Stacheldraht
    Alternate Title
    Woman Behind Barbed Wire
    Series Title
    Gurs Interment Camp, November 1940-January 1941
    creation:  1941 January 01-1941 January 07
    creation: Gurs (Concentration camp); Gurs (France)
    depiction: Gurs (Concentration camp); Gurs (France)
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection
    front, lower right corner, cursive, pencil : Gurs (BP.) / Wollheim 41
    Artist: Gert H. Wollheim
    Subject: Gert H. Wollheim
    Gert Heinrich Wollheim was born on September 11, 1894, in Loschwitz, Germany, to Heinrich and Gertrud Gehlert Wollheim. He had two brothers: Hasso, born October 1, 1893, and Gunther, born January 8, 1896. Gert’s father Heinrich was born in 1855 to Berthold and Rosalia Werther Wollheim. Heinrich was Jewish but converted to Protestantism in 1887. Gert’s mother Gertrud was born in 1867 to Arthur and Anna Schollkopf Gehlert. The Wollheim family was wealthy. Gert’s father Heinrich was a successful machine manufacturer. Gert’s older brother Hasso was a surgeon. From 1911 to 1913, Gert studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Weimar. He was drafted as a grenadier in the German Army in World War I (1914-1918) and was wounded twice. In 1919, Gert moved to Berlin, then to Remels with his friend and fellow artist, Otto Pankok. In 1920, Gert moved to Dusseldorf, where he worked with other artists, including Pankok, Max Ernst, Otto Dix, and Karl Schwesig. Gert wrote and designed for theater, and also painted, drew, and sculpted. He joined the Junge Rhineland and Mutter Ey art groups and was active in the Aktivistenbund (Activist League), a radical group of liberal intellectuals and artists. In 1921, Gert married Leni Stein. In 1925, Gert and Leni moved to Berlin. Gert met and fell in love with Tatjana Barbakoff (1899-1944), a dancer who posed for his paintings. In 1927, Gert’s father Heinrich died.

    In January 1933, Hitler came to power and, by summer, Germany was ruled by a Nazi dictatorship. Gert's friend Karl Schwesig was arrested by the Nazi regime. Gert left Leni and fled to Paris. He was reunited with Tatjana and the couple lived together. Gert was active in the Kollektive Deutscher Kunstler (Collective German Artists), which was formed in 1935. In 1937, the Nazis held the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibit in Munich, Germany, featuring three of Gert’s paintings. The Nazis saw modern art as a threat to Aryan culture and displayed confiscated modern art along with criticism intended to teach the German public to hate modern art. In the fall, Gert cofounded the Freien Deutschen Kunstlerbundes (Free German Artist’s Association) in Paris. As a protest of the Degenerate Art exhibit, they held an exhibit in November 1938, which featured Gert’s art.

    On September 3, 1939, France declared war on Germany, due to the German invasion of Poland on September 1. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded France. An armistice was signed on June 22. The northern and western regions, including Paris, were placed under the control of a German military administration, while the southern region was placed under the control of the Vichy Regime, which collaborated with the Germans. Gert was arrested and interned in a camp in Paris, then in Vierzon. While in the camp, Gert painted portraits of other inmates and the French guards. After several weeks, Gert was released and returned to Paris. In spring 1940, Gert was arrested and sent to Ruchard internment camp, in Avon-les-Roches. On November 1, Gert was transferred to Gurs internment camp, in Vichy France. Schwesig was also interned there from October 1940- February 1941. Gert worked as an artist in Gurs. On January 7, 1941, he was transferred to Septfonds internment camp, in southern France. In at least one camp, he worked as forced labor. Circa early 1943, Gert escaped to Nays in southern France, where he was reunited with Tatjana. The couple hid in the home of a peasant. Tatjana eventually fled to Nice on the coast, because it was occupied by the Italians and was known as a haven for Jews. Gert remained behind and stayed hidden in Nays until the region was liberated on August 1, 1944.

    Gert returned to Paris, which was liberated on August 24. Tatjana was arrested by the Germans in Nice in January 1944, following the German occupation of Nice in September 1943. She was sent to Drancy transit camp, then to Auschwitz concentration camp, where she was killed on February 6. Gert’s mother Gertrud died in 1944. On March 11, 1947, Gert sailed from Le Havre, France, on the SS Marine Falcon, arriving in New York on March 25. He settled in New York and married Mona Loeb. He continued working as an artist. Gert, age 79, died on April 22, 1974 in New York.

    Physical Details

    Physical Description
    Pencil portrait on paper with a medium close-up image of a large nosed, older woman in a head scarf, bent over and walking within a barbed wire enclosure. She carries a bag with a loaf of bread and her feet are sunk in the muddy ground. In her right hand is a large stick for a cane. Her left hand rests on the single story shack behind her where a woman with curly hair, dark eyes, and a small nose looks out a small window. Near the bottom right, a shoe with a partially drawn leg is stuck in the mud. It is signed by the artist in the lower right corner. There is handwritten text on the back. The women resemble those in 1988.4.1. The drawing has 2 indents on the side, possibly from the staples of a notebook.
    overall: Height: 10.625 inches (26.988 cm) | Width: 8.250 inches (20.955 cm)
    overall : paper, graphite, paper, graphite, adhesive
    : tape
    back, bottom edge, pencil : 0/8 F84 - MW5

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    No restrictions on access
    Conditions on Use
    Restrictions on use

    Keywords & Subjects

    Corporate Name
    Gurs (Concentration camp)

    Administrative Notes

    The drawing was acquired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1988.
    Funding Note
    The cataloging of this artifact has been supported by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
    Record last modified:
    2023-05-30 16:35:23
    This page:

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