Whose Paintings Are They?

updated 02/19/2007 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/2007 01:00AM

Dina Gottliebova Babbitt was a 21-year-old inmate at the Auschwitz concentration camp, in 1944, when she came face-to-face with one of the 20th-century's most notorious figures, Nazi physician Josef Mengele. Learning that Babbitt, a Czech-born Jew, was an artist, Mengele ordered her to create portraits of Gypsy prisoners to bolster Nazi racial-superiority theories. When she proved useful, he spared her—and her mother—from the gas chambers. "If it weren't for those paintings, I wouldn't be alive," says Babbitt. "They are what saved us."

More than 60 years later, Babbitt, 84, who now lives in rural Felton, Calif., is locked in a battle to reclaim seven paintings from the museum at Auschwitz, whose officials maintain that the portraits are a vital part of the historical record. Despite the efforts of a U.S. congresswoman, the State Department and hundreds of international artists who have petitioned the museum on Babbitt's behalf, the institution hasn't budged. "They took so much from me," says Babbitt, who lost her father, maternal grandmother and two half siblings to the Nazi camps. "This is a piece of myself."

Babbitt—raised by her divorced mother, Johanna—was an art student, aged 19, in Prague in January 1942, when Johanna was ordered to Terezinstadt concentration camp outside the city. Dina volunteered to join her. "I couldn't let her go alone," she says. Eighteen months later mother and daughter were sent to Auschwitz, in Poland, where at the request of a Jewish kapo—or foreman—Babbitt used smuggled materials to paint a scene from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the wall of a children's barracks. A week later a Nazi guard came to find her. "I thought any minute I would be dead," she says.

Instead he drove her to a studio where Mengele—who infamously conducted medical experiments on camp prisoners—was photographing Gypsy inmates. "He asked, 'Can you get the colors right?'" recalls Babbitt, who spent six weeks painting 11 Gypsy men, women and children, sharing intimate conversations with each and stretching out the process to give herself and her subjects respite from the horrors outside. "He told me to paint exactly what I saw," she says. "But I also painted what was going on inside them."

When a Nazi officer told Babbitt he could save her from the gas chambers, the young artist begged Mengele to spare her mother as well. "In Yiddish you would call it big chutzpah," she says. Within months the Nazis sent all Babbitt's Gypsy subjects to their deaths in the gas chambers, along with nearly all the thousands of Jews who had arrived in Babbitt's transport. Together with her mother, she survived a death march and endured two more camps before living to see liberation in May 1945. (Johanna died in 1978 at age 82.)

After the war Babbitt moved to Paris, where she met her future husband, Art Babbitt, a Disney animator who had worked on Snow White. The newlyweds relocated to Los Angeles, where Babbitt worked in animation for Warner Bros. and other studios. (The couple divorced in 1962.) While raising her two daughters, now in their 50s, Babbitt received a letter from a Polish curator who had spotted her signature in a book and matched it with the portraits. Babbitt flew to Poland, experiencing a rush of emotion on seeing the pictures. "When I held them in my hands," she says, "I broke down."

Museum officials insist the portraits—four of which are displayed in an exhibit about Gypsies on the second floor of what was once a prisoners' barracks—belong at Auschwitz as authentic evidence of what happened there. "Hurting any of the survivors' feelings is the last thing we want to do," says museum director Piotr Cywinski; but he adds that in the face of Holocaust deniers, "authenticity is a weapon against human insensitivity." U.S. Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.)—who sponsored a congressional resolution supporting Babbitt and pushed for the State Department to take up the matter with the Polish government—says that doesn't override Babbitt's claim. "Who better to own this art," she says, "than the artist who created it?"

That question preoccupies Babbitt, who lives in a rustic mountain cabin a world and a lifetime from Auschwitz—and does crossword puzzles to help keep the gruesome memories at bay. Now she is awaiting the museum's response to her December offer to compromise and accept just three of the works. "I want my great-grandchildren to see them and say, 'This is what our great-grandmother made with her own hands,'" she says. "'And this is why we are alive.'"

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