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Sketches of a fellow concentration camp inmate by Esther Lurie

Object | Accession Number: 1995.A.0989.8

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    Sketches of a fellow concentration camp inmate by Esther Lurie


    Brief Narrative
    Three sketches of Masha Rolnikaite (Rolnik) drawn by Esther Lurie, ca. 1965, for the cover of Masha's memoir, Ikh muz dertseyin [I have to tell]. They reproduce the drawing of Masha that Esther made when both were prisoners in Leibitsch slave labor camp. It was published in Esther's book, Jewesses in Slavery, in 1945. Masha, 17, was a deportee from Vilna, Poland (Vilnius, Lithuania), and returned there after liberation. Esther, originally from Liepaja, Latvia, settled in Palestine in 1934. She was visiting her sister in Kovno (Kaunas, Lithuania] in summer 1941, when it was occupied by Germany. She was confined to the ghetto and had to create portraits and paintings for the Germans. She also, at the request of the Jewish Council, dedicated herself to recording the daily life of the residents. In July 1944, the ghetto was liquidated. Esther was sent to Stutthof concentration camp, where she continued to draw. Her family members were sent to Auschwitz and murdered. In August 1944, Esther was deported to Leibitsch, and liberated by the Soviet Army on January 21, 1945. During the journey back to Palestine, she lived in a displaced persons camp in Italy, where her drawings of Leibitsch were exhibited.
    Artwork Title
    Portrait of Masha Rolnik, Leibisch concentration camp, 1944
    Series Title
    Jewesses in Slavery
    creation:  approximately 1965
    depiction:  1944
    creation: Tel Aviv (Israel)
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Esther Lurie
    Artist: Esther Lurie
    Subject: Esther Lurie
    Subject: Masha Rolniḳaiṭe
    Esther Lurie (1913-1998) was born in Liepaja (formerly Libau), Latvia, to a religious, intellectual Jewish family. Her parents were Josef and Bluma and she had five older sisters and an older brother. The family was forced to move to Riga during World War I (1914-1918), when Liepāja, a Baltic seaport which was then part of the Russian Empire, was taken over as a military port. Esther’s artistic gifts were nurtured from an early age. From 1931 -1934, she studied theatrical set design at the Instituts des Arts Decoratifs in Brussels, Belgium; in early 1934, she went to Antwerp, Belgium, to study drawing and painting at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts. Most of her family emigrated to Palestine in 1934 and Esther joined them there. She worked with the Hebrew Theater, producing set decorations, and by 1938, had her first one women art show, winning the Dizengoff Prize.

    In 1939, Esther went on a study-exhibition tour throughout Europe. She was visiting her sister, Muta, in Kovno (Kaunus), Lithuania, when World War II broke out and she was trapped in the area. In 1940, the Soviet Army invaded and occupied Lithuania and the persecution of Jews became widespread. In June-July 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and soon occupied Lithuania. Almost immediately, German Einsatzgruppe (mobile killing units) and their Lithuanian auxiliaries began systematic massacres of Jews throughout the country. By November 1941, the surviving Jews of Kovno were imprisoned in a sealed ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. It was extreme overcrowded and there weresevere food shortages and frequent outbreaks of disease.

    Esther immediately began to record her experiences with sketches and written testimony on whatever little scraps of paper she could find. This was not easy and it could be dangerous – they were always under observation from guards. But other ghetto residents who saw her drawings thought it was important that someone should show ‘how it was’ and make a permanent record of their sufferings. Strangers would let her sketch the scenes from the windows of their rooms. When she was sent to do forced labor, the Judenrat [Jewish Council of Elders] made arrangements for her to be relieved, so that she could continue to record the life of the ghetto. As Esther noted later in her ife: “Pictures are both eye-witness documents and a memorial for the lost souls.”

    As deportations from the ghettos to the concentration camps increased, Esther became concerned about the survival of her work. She asked the craftsmen in the pottery workshop to make her large jars in which she would hide her work. In the autumn of 1943, the ghetto was converted to the Kauen concentration camp. In July 1944, they began to liquidate the ghetto, deporting the remaining inhabitants and burning the buildings. At this time, Esther was separated from her sister, Muta Zarchin (Zarhin). Esther was deported to Stutthof concentration camp; Muta, age 35, her young son, and her family were sent to Auschwitz, where they were killed on arrival. In August 1944, Esther was sent to the Leibisch forced labor camp, where she continued to document the people and scenes of her daily life. She drew on scraps of paper backing from cotton rolls from the camp infirmary and hid the sketches in her clothing. Occasionally, she was able to barter a drawing for a piece of bread.

    On January 21, 1945, the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army. She worked briefly as an interpreter for the Russians in Italy. Because she was a citizen of Palestine, a British protectorate, she was placed with a group of liberated British prisoners of war. She also met some Jewish soldiers from Palestine, including the artist, Menachem Shemi. They organized an exhibit of her sketches and published them as a booklet, Jewesses in Slavery: 15 drawing from a Labour Camp. In July, she was repatriated to Palestine and reunited with her family. She and her sisters participated in the Haganah, a defense organization active in the struggle for the establishment of the independent state of Israel. She married Joseph Shapiro and they had two children. She resumed her career as a professional artist, and, in 1946, was awarded her 2nd Dizengoff Prize. Some of her drawings of the Kovno ghetto were recovered by a friend, Avraham Golub Tory, who had been secretary to the Council of Elders, kept safe in the pottery jars in the secret, buried ghetto archives. Her artwork would be presented as evidence of the Holocaust during the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961. Lurie lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, until her death.
    Masha Rolnikaite (1927-2016) [alternately known as Mascha Rolnik, Mashe Rolniḳayṭe, M. (Marii︠a︡), Rolʹnikaĭte, Marii︠a︡ Grigorʹevna Rolʹnikaĭte, ראלניקייטע, מ], was born as Marii︠a︡ Grigorʹevna Rolʹnikaĭte on 21 July 1927 in Memel, present-day Klaipeda, Lithuania. Her father, Hirsch Rolnik (1898-1973), was an attorney who earned his law degree with a thesis about constitutional law in the Baltic states, and she grew up in Plunge, Lithuania. When Vilnius was transferred to Lithuanian control, however, the family opted to move there, and it was there they were living when World War II broke out, and the city was first occupied by Soviet troops in June 1940, and following the invasion of the Soviet Union by Germany in June 1941, by the Germans.

    During this latter period, Rolnikaite and other members of her family were forced into the Vilnius Ghetto, and it was there that she began keeping the diary that she would ultimately publish. Due to the danger of keeping a written diary, she was forced to memorize her entries for a time, and some entries that she later was able to write down were either destroyed in the camps where she was interned, or she destroyed the remaining originals herself, after they were published in the post-war years.

    During the occupation, her father, endangered both due to his Jewish background but also because of his work as an attorney defending Communists, fled ahead of the German forces, and survived the Holocaust, as did her older sister, Mira. Her mother, Taiba, and younger siblings, Rajele and Ruwele, as well as over 40 other relatives, perished during the Holocaust. Rolnikaite, following her internment in the Vilnius ghetto, was transferred to Strasdenhof, a camp affiliated with the Kaiserwald concentration camp in Riga, Latvia. She was later transferred to the Stutthof concentration camp near Danzig, where she was liberated by Soviet troops in early 1945.

    Following the war, she reconstructed her wartime diaries from memory and surviving fragments, compiling them in Yiddish into three volumes. She studied as a long-distance student at the Maxim Gorki Institute of Literature, earning a degree in 1955. In the early 1960s, she translated her diaries into Russian and Lithuanian, and censored versions were then published, under the title of Ia dolzhna rasskazat,’ (I Must Tell), first in Lithuanian (1963), and then Russian (1965), and then other languages, including French and German. In the early 2000s complete, uncensored, versions of this work were published, as was a sequel of autobiographical essays.

    Rolnikaite married a Russian, Semyon Savelyevich Tsukernik (born 1922), in 1959, and the couple settled in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), where she lived the remainder of her life. She died in St. Petersburg on 7 April 2016.

    Physical Details

    English Hebrew
    Physical Description
    Three sketches in ink on paper of 3 portrait studies of the same young woman in three-quarters profile. She has large, dark eyes and dark curly hair, and a thick scarf wrapped around her head. The bottom left sketch shows her from the knees up, wearing a buttoned, double breasted overcoat with a big collar and a tied belt. In the top center sketch, her face is almost obscured by the scarf, the coat collar is pulled up, and upper body is faintly outlined. The center right sketch portrays only her head, with less expressive detail. There are scribbles on the right and it is inscribed and signed by the artist on the front and back. The top edge is perforated where it was removed from a sketchbook.
    overall: Height: 12.875 inches (32.703 cm) | Width: 9.500 inches (24.13 cm)
    overall : ink, paper
    front, ink : Hebrew text [Image from the series "Jewish women in slavery." sketch for a cover for the book "I have to tell" by Masha Rolnik. Published by "Ahiever", Jerusalem.]
    back, pencil : Hebrew text
    back, pencil : Image of a woman in LC

    Rights & Restrictions

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

    Keywords & Subjects

    Personal Name
    Lurie, Esther.

    Administrative Notes

    The drawing was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1995 by Esther Lurie.
    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:
    2024-03-11 09:47:45
    This page:

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