Behind the Ghetto Walls
Erich Lichtblau-Leskly: Pictorial Diary
Theresienstadt Ghetto

 

Erich Lichtblau-Leskly was born in 1911 in what was then Austria Hungary, and what is presently the Czech Republic. Until Nazi Germany annexed Czech lands in 1939, he lived with his wife Else in his hometown of Ostrava, earning a living as a commercial decorator and sign maker in the town.

As with many other Jews from Czechoslovakia, Erich and Else were forced to leave their jobs and homes. They moved to Prague, then to a labor camp near Pisek, and from there the Nazis deported Erich and Else to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, an 18th century Austrian fortress and garrison town converted into a “model ghetto” for European Jews.

Despite the overcrowding, malnutrition and general deprivation of the ghetto, inmates of Theresienstadt were permitted to engage in cultural activities. Erich worked in the Technical Department and thus had access to art materials for painting and sign-making. He used these materials to make private pictorial narratives depicting ghetto life. Erich and Else perhaps were the only people immersed in this ghetto discourse.  The satirical nature of these works makes them highly unusual and extremely valuable documents of day-to-day ghetto life.  A Ghetto Pictorial Diary is a title that well reflects the content of this collection.

In the summer of 1944 the SS and German police arrested several well-known artists in the Theresienstadt ghetto and deported them to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Fearing that he would meet a similar fate if his works were discovered, Erich removed the incriminating captions, and divided every pictorial narrative into several fragments. Else managed to save the fragments of the pictorial narratives. She concealed the sketches, watercolors and graphics between the wooden boards in her barrack.

Erich and Else were liberated together by the Soviet Red Army on May 8th 1945 in Theresienstadt. Soon after the liberation they retrieved the hidden pictorial narratives. The couple restored a great number of them, while living in Czechoslovakia.  In 1949, Erich and Else Lichtblau-Leskly emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Israel. Later in Israel, Erich replicated his ghetto period artworks into images of larger size. He also added additional captions and details to the new pictorial narratives.

This exhibition displays the preserved fragments from Theresienstadt ghetto, juxtaposed with their later Israeli period replicas. When Erich Lichtblau-Leskly took out his pencils, charcoals and watercolors together with paper, he could not imagine that his pictorial diaries would become one of the chronicles of the Theresienstadt Ghetto. As a pictorial diarist, Erich Lichtblau-Leskly created a historic monument for posterity.