My grandfather in Auschwitz

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Interpreting the artwork

Two uniforms are visible in this painting, the uniform of the Nazi soldiers and the ‘uniform’ of the Jewish prisoners. On arrival at the camps, the personal clothing of the prisoners was removed and male prisoners were made to wear striped ‘pyjamas’. This made prisoners recognisable if they tried to escape but also dehumanised the prisoners by removing any representation of personal identity. There were also other methods of prisoner identification used by the Nazis in the camps.

Do you know what these were?

How else does Holzhandler identify her Grandfather as Jewish in this painting?


The painting also seems to suggest that despite what was happening, the artist’s grandfather maintained his faith in Judaism.

He holds a Holy book with Hebrew text. Despite the practice of Judaism being prohibited, the grandfather sits out in the open, reading from the book.

He wears a Kippah which denotes his faith in Judaism.

Despite the atrocities that surround him, he has expression of calm and peace.

This depiction of the grandfather suggests that his faith cannot be taken away from him.

The artist has depicted her grandfather as an old man with white hair. He sits in the centre of the composition. He wears a Kippah and striped pyjamas embroidered with the compulsory Star of David. In his hand he holds a Holy book with Hebrew text on it.

The old man stares straight out at the viewer with large, mournful eyes. Two corpses are strewn behind him, and a larger pile of bodies are situated to the left in the background. There are some other people in the composition including a young boy and girl and baby, and two marching Nazi officers.

The bleak and sombre scene and colours reflect the setting. A jagged barbed wire fence sits against the horizon. This is a common symbol of the Holocaust for many artists, and serves as a reminder of the horrors that occurred within their perimeters. The sky in the distance is scarred red, echoing the blood of the murdered victims of the Holocaust.

The painting was made in 1962, seventeen years after the end of World War Two. It is therefore a reflective, retrospective and commemorative work.

This painting can be seen as a Memorial. Perhaps, for Holzhandler, the painting was a way of mourning the loss of her grandfather. Similarly this allows and encourages the viewer to mourn themselves for the countless lives lost in the Holocaust. It recognises the individual human-beings that were affected, rather than reducing the lives of the millions of victims to a statistic. 

Dora Holzhandler

Dora Holzhandler was born in Paris in 1928. She moved around a great deal as a child, settling in London in 1948. She considers herself both Jewish and Buddhist, as is often evident in her work and style. She has exhibited her work in London, Bath, Paris and New York.

This is Holzhandler’s only painting which depicts the Holocaust, but Judaism is a reoccurring theme in her work. Although she herself escaped the atrocities of the Holocaust, many members of her extended family, including her grandfather, did not. In this sense she was directly affected by the Holocaust.

This painting conjures up a deeply personal and imaginative recollection of her grandfather in the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps, Auschwitz.

For more information about the art resources of the Ben Uri gallery in collaboration with the London Grid for Learning click here.