The Artists’ Affair Part 2: Otto Ungar

Otto Ungar was another artist who along with Leo Haas, was interrogated, tortured and imprisoned in the Small Fortress for depicting the truth of Terezin. Far less is known about Ungar than Leo Haas, unfortunately. It is known that he lived for most of his life in the Czech city of Brno. Before the war, Ungar resided in Brno with his wife and daughter and was a teacher at a Jewish secondary school and an artist. He was described as a very reserved, sensitive and anxious man, which makes it all the more remarkable that he took tremendous risks by creating raw and brutally honest drawings of daily life in Terezin.

Ungar worked in the drafting office at Terezin, along with fellow artists Leo Haas and Bedrich Fritta. All three men were aware of the deception the Nazis were perpetrating at Terezin and sought to record the truth of what happened in the camp in sketches and paintings. Ungar secretly painted the arrival of transports (The Coming of a Transport), and the despair and suffering of elderly adults at Terezin, many of whom had been deceived and told they were being sent to a retirement community (Portrait of an Old Woman).

After being interrogated in July 1944, Otto Ungar was also imprisoned in the Small Fortress, where he endured daily beatings and torture by the prison guards. His right hand, the hand he drew with, was savagely broken by the guards. Two of his fingers had to be amputated as a result, and he lost the use of his hand.

Later that summer, Ungar was sent to Auschwitz, where he managed to survive the selection, despite his injuries. He remained there until January 1945, where he was forced on a death march across the frozen Polish countryside to the camp Buchenwald. Incredibly, Ungar survived the march despite being severely malnourished and ill with tuberculosis. He and the 14,000 other survivors were crammed into Buchenwald’s “Little Camp”, where a typhus epidemic raged. In these final terrible months of the war, in unspeakably horrific conditions, Otto Ungar did something remarkable. He scavenged scraps of paper and small pieces of coal, gripped the coal in his broken and mutilated right hand and slowly, painstakingly began to sketch his surroundings. Even after all the suffering and tortures he endured, despite his sensitive and anxious nature, he never lost his will to create, to reveal the truth. The Nazis could not break his resilient spirit, even though they broke so many others.

Otto Ungar survived the war and was liberated from Buchenwald in May 1945, but died a few months later in a hospital in Germany from complications of tuberculosis and typhus. His wife and daughter both survived the war in Terezin and returned to Brno.

The images that Ungar created in Buchenwald were lost, but many of the works he created in Terezin have survived. They remain today to show us the truth of Terezin and are the legacy of a gentle and sensitive soul that the Nazis could never break.

Further Reading

The Artists of Terezin by Gerald Green

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