This Dachau Survivor’s Harrowing Art Is on Display for the First Time

Georg Tauber’s paintings detail medical experiments, beatings and eventual liberation

Dachau Sign
Dachau's gate had a chilling message for its inmates. Gary Blakeley - Wikimedia Commons

Dachau, the Nazis’ first official concentration camp, held more than 188,000 prisoners during its 12 years of operation. In addition to its Jewish inmates, Dachau housed political offenders, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay men, Roma and those deemed asocial: nonconformists, vagrants and, in Bavarian artist Georg Tauber’s case, addicts.

Sukhada Tatke of Atlas Obscura reports that Tauber, an advertising illustrator who suffered from a morphine addiction, had drifted between psychiatric hospitals and prisons before he was imprisoned in Dachau in 1940. Faced with the inhumane conditions of the camp, Tauber turned to art, and his brutal testament to camp life is now on view at the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site for the first time.

The special exhibition, on display until February 2018, features 60-plus works, many of which depict Dachau's vivid horrors: beatings given in retribution for minor infractions, prisoners standing for roll call before departing on a death march and ovens filled with corpses.

While unsanctioned artistic activity was forbidden in the camp, Rudi Felsner, who worked at a nearby SS porcelain manufacturing company, started providing Tauber with supplies in exchange for drawings. Anna-Sophia Lang of Süddeutsche Zeitung reports that five of the works now on display were pieces that Felsner smuggled out. While their arrangement was eventually discovered and stopped, in 1942, SS doctor Sigmund Rascher commissioned Tauber to officially open up his sketchbook to document medical experiments in exchange for a lesser sentence.

The Nazis’ “experiments” were sadistic exercises designed to push the human body beyond its limits. A painting in the Dachau exhibition depicts a hypothermia experiment where subjects were submerged in freezing water for prolonged periods of time. An estimated 300 to 400 hypothermia experiments were conducted at Dachau, and about 90 victims died as a result of the torture.

Tauber attended three of Rascher’s sessions but could not force himself to continue recording the experiments. In a 1946 letter to the Munich Public Prosecution Office, he explained: “Even if I have to stay here for another ten years, it’s alright. I can’t watch that again, I just can’t."

Tauber lived to see Dachau's liberation, but he was denied the official designation of Nazi victim. Instead, Tauber and the 10,000 Dachau prisoners labeled as “asocials” were largely forgotten, and they received no financial remuneration.

Tauber also faced criticism from fellow survivors in the aftermath of the Holocaust when he tried to sell his works. While many viewed his attempts to publicize drawings of camp life as profiteering, Andrea Riedle, head of the Dachau memorial site research department, tells Tatke that though Tauber was looking to make money, he also wanted to publicize the brutality of Dachau.

Tauber died of tuberculosis in 1950, and his art faded into obscurity until it was discovered in the home of fellow Dachau inmate Anton Hofer five years ago. Since then, his body of work, which offers a new understanding of asocial prisoners and life in Dachau after the camp’s April 1945 liberation, has experienced a resurgence of interest.

In one painting now on display, emaciated prisoners line up to receive vaccinations, a reflection of the harrowing conditions that persisted post-liberation. As Riedle explains, many inmates remained at Dachau while recovering from imprisonment, but a lack of hygiene furthered the spread of disease.

It's these kinds of details—camp life after liberation, asocial prisoners' struggle to assimilate back into society—that are often obscured in accounts of the Holocaust. But now, 70 years after his death, Tauber is posthumously fulfilling his mission: to publicize the atrocities he once so viscerally documented.

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