"If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete. The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity —even under the most difficult circumstances— to add a deeper meaning to his life."
—Viktor Frankl, "Man's Search For Meaning"
During the Second World War, Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was captured and sent to the concentration camps of Theresiendstadt and Auschwitz. During his stay at the first camp, he witnessed the horrors of starvation, dehumanization, and even the death of his loving spouse. Surrounded by darkness, torture, and the worst conditions a person can undergo, he did not succumb to despair. Instead, he analyzed the conditions in which he was living and came to realize that, in order to survive, he had to cling to a purpose and live in the present. By reflecting upon his own condition, he helped the other inmates surpass the temptation of committing suicide and get a glimmer of hope amidst the dark shadows that circled them. Under the shrouds of suffering and pain, he found that a sense of hope and purpose —be it work, love, or courage— kept people alive against the harshness of living under the worst conditions a person can be subjected to. In his book Man and His Search For Meaning, which he sought to print anonymously, he recounted the most terrible and flinching experiences a person could go through. Yet, he still faced his horrific circumstances and rose above them. Through his work, we can learn that even in times of sorrow, there's always a place for hope. It's the only thing that can keep us moving. Even when sorrow feels as dark and thick as oil, it can always be pierced by the light of determination and the power of spirit. We can always overcome the circumstances by claiming our own liberty, no matter how pitch black it is.
Felix Nussbaum, The Refugee (1939) Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem
Even though Nussbaum's sorrowful picture wasn't meant to be a self-portrait, it clearly coincides with his own life experience. With the purpose of painting the suffering of the German Jews, the distance between the globe and the refugee crouching in despair at the end of the table suggests that there is nowhere in the world for him to go. Nussbaum himself had to migrate to Belgium during the Third Reich, and after the nazis invaded the country, he was held prisoner and taken to Auschwitz, where he was eventually assassinated. It's the dark portrayal of a man whose circumstances overpass him to the point that he has lost all freedom.
Leslie Cole, One of the Death Pits, Belsen. SS guards collecting bodies (1945) Imperial War Museums
In Cole's desolate picture, a group of S.S. guards tosses the bodies of starved people into a common grave. In this horrific landscape, all of the characters have been ridden of their dignity and spirit. Between the dead bodies and the guards that throw them into the pit there's no real difference. All of them are in a state of decay.
Leo Haas, Transport Arrival (1942) Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem
Painted during Haas' confinement in the Theresienstadt ghetto, his snowy and stark landscape portrays a procession of soldiers transporting Jews across the country. Predatory birds fly over the marching soldiers, as if announcing the near death of those walking behind them. However, amongst the hazy grays of the picture, a letter "V" stands out on a chimney at the lefthand lower corner. It's a symbol of resistance, stating that even though a terrible fate is certain, we must revolt against it.
Doris Zinkeisen, Human Laundry, Belsen, April 1945 (1945) Imperial War Museums
In the final month before the end of the war, the Scottish artist and designer captured the famished bodies of those who managed to survive the harshness of the camps and how their lives were put to the test by surviving physical and psychological torment. It's the haunting portrait of those who dared to resist.
Shmuel Dresner, Benjamin (1982) Imperial War Museums
Even though Dresner was only a boy during the time of the war, he also faced it as a test to his spirit. His work Benjamin, which is composed out of burnt newspapers, is a homage to his childhood friend, who taught him how to keep the best of spirits and face life optimistically, even when they were both deprived from their physical liberty. Through his help, Dresner managed to face and overcome his father's untimely death. One day in the camp, they were both called to be deported. Benjamin went, but Dresner decided not to. Later, he found out that his friend had been shot during the travel. Yet his burning smile has been forever remembered through this work.
Josef Kowner, A Street in Lodz Ghetto (1941) Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem
During the German occupation of Poland, Josef Kowner was confined at the Lodz Ghetto. However, living in poverty and isolation wasn't enough to break his artistic vision and thrust him down the bleak spiral of darkness. Instead, he kept his spirits high, portraying the life at the ghetto in vivid colors and full of life, despite all odds. This isn't just shown in his paintings, for he also refused to live being downsized by the Nazis. He even held secret exhibitions as well as concerts within his cell. He was a man who put his sense of free will over the most unfavorable of circumstances.
Karl Bodek and Kurt Conrad Löw, One Spring (1941) Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem
Bodek and Löw composed this painting in collaboration while they were both being held at the Gurs Camp in Southern France. The hopeful image depicts how beyond the wired world where they were both being held, the world was always out there. It's a reflection on how the affairs of man are irrelevant against the beauty of nature, and how, even when if we're caged, we can still have fluttering butterflies in our spirit.
War is one of the most horrible conditions a person can experience, but the bravery with which artists face it is something history shouldn't forget. It also has inspired some of the most breathtaking works of art in history, which shows us that in the darkest of hours, the best we can do is to find sense in chaos, light amidst the shadows.
Yad Vashem Collection
Imperial War Museums