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Reviewed by:
  • As Seen Through These Eyes
  • Donna Yarri
As Seen Through These Eyes (2008). Written, Produced, and Directed by Hilary Helstein. Distributed by Menemsha Films. 70 minutes

“I know why the caged bird sings.” This quote and title of the book by Maya Angelou, who narrates this engaging documentary on the art of the Holocaust, demonstrates the message of this film: that art was often viewed as an act of liberation by those who experienced the concentration camps of Hitler. The Holocaust continues to spark the interest of historians and other scholars, as well as ordinary citizens, as one of the worst genocides in modern history, ending with the systematic extermination of over six million people. The Holocaust clearly [End Page 91] demonstrates the perennial psychological problem of how humans can perpetrate these abuses on other humans; the religious problem of, if there is a God, how that God can allow such atrocities to happen; and the historical problem of how we can prevent history from repeating itself. While many aspects of the Holocaust have been researched over time, the art of the Holocaust seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, and one certainly worth garnering our attention. The film is comprised of various strands all woven together as one fabric, including black and white footage of the Nazi era, interviews with Holocaust survivors, and actual art of the Holocaust.

The documentary describes how art flourished in the Nazi era. Some of the artists were conscripted by the Nazis themselves for their own use – those who could draw were used in the creation of propaganda, and musicians were compelled to play for the guards’ enjoyment as well as to drown out the screams of prisoners as they died in gas chambers. But many others created art as prisoners, and those who survived the camps often continued with their Holocaust art.

On-camera interviews with some of the artists indicate that art functioned as a way to cope with the horror of their experiences: as a way for them to hold onto their own sanity, as a way to feel as if they had some control, and as way to purge their memories. If they survived the Holocaust, it was a way to communicate to the world the reality of what happened. Supplies were often hard to come by, and those who did manage to find opportunities to create art were in danger of death if discovered. In fact, much art never made it out of the prison camps. Many artists were children, and all of the now-living artists actually painted as children.

The most powerful part of this film is the pictures of the art itself. The art is at once sad, poignant, and beautiful. It not only provides us with a different snapshot of the Holocaust, but also does it in a very personal way. It demonstrates the power of the human spirit to create, even in such a devastatingly barren environment as the Holocaust, and the deep desire of humans to communicate. It provides evidence of a rarely seen side of the Holocaust, and though the backdrop is depressing, viewing the art is sometimes an uplifting experience because it shows how deep the resistance to inhumanity can and must be. This film is a must-see for anyone interested in the Holocaust. [End Page 92]

Donna Yarri
Alvernia University


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pp. 91-92
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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