A Candle for Dina; A Prayer in Honor of the Power of Art
As a Czech speaker myself, I really can’t resist the urge to approach people who are conversing in my native tongue. Its harsh consonants and lilting vowels put a spell on me, and before I know it, I’m introducing myself and making off-color jokes.
That day was no exception.
Although the couple in question was still enjoying a pair of chocolate croissants and sipping espresso, I interrupted their breakfast and chatted them up long enough to meet their son, whom they were visiting from Britain. By the end of our little coffee klatch, we had exchanged contact information and I’d invited them to come to our apartment for an authentic Czech meal of duck, sweet and sour cabbage and dumplings.
They did and we had a marvelous time.
As an added bonus, their son, a psychiatrist, painter, M.D., lover of opera and wearing costumes on any given day just for the fun of it, went on to become a friend. Our acquaintance with this true, British eccentric, along with great memories of good times had, also provided us with a unique opportunity to meet an extraordinary woman.
You see, our friend’s aunt, Dina Babbitt, was – and I don’t know how else to describe it – “famous” in holocaust circles. As a young art student, Dina, along with her mother, was deported first to Terezin, then Auschwitz. A lot of Czech Jews traveled this route during World War II. They would initially spend some months in the Nazi “showcase” camp featured in the German propaganda film Hitler Gives the Jews a Town, and would then be transferred to camps that had dropped the pretense of acting like anything other than death factories.
Ironically, it was Dina’s expulsion from the less barbarous Terezin that would save both her’s and her mother’s life.
Once installed in the section of Auschwitz called Birkenau, where most of the inmates were interned, Dina was asked by a friend to help make the family camp appear less depressing. It was for the children’s sake more than the adult’s – a way to buffer some of the harsh realities around them and allow a few simple moments of joy and play into their lives.
Her efforts did more than that.
A gifted painter, Dina recreated a scene from the Disney classic Snow White on the cheerless walls, providing the children with glimpses of their favorite fairy tale and giving their parents a reminder of their own God-given humanity. Perhaps even offering some hope. A smile, after all, is an expression of hope, and you couldn’t help but to smile at the sight of Dina’s mural.
The inmates, of course, were not the only ones watching.
Dina’s images caught the attention of Dr. Joseph Mengele – Auschwitz’s Angel of Death, as he was called. Mengele had begun medical experiments on at that time mostly gypsy inmates and was dissatisfied with photographs he’d had taken of his victims. He would later complain to Dina that photography was for peasants and could never be considered a real art form.
But he had much higher esteem for Dina’s talents and ordered her to come to his infirmary to draw and paint his macabre handy-work.
Dina agreed, but only on one condition. She told him that she would kill herself in the electric fence surrounding the camp if he didn’t save her mother’s life as well.
Mengele narrowed his eyes and grinned. “What’s her number?” he said.
Dina told me this story and many others on the day I got to spend with her at her rustic home in Bonny Doon, near the Santa Cruz mountains. She lived deep in the woods because even after all this time, she was still afraid that Mengele could hunt her down and kill her because she’d known him so well and could identify him. After the war, he had fled to Argentina and never been captured.
“It’s nonsense,” she said. “He’d be over a hundred years old by now, but I can’t put my fear to death.”
It was an interesting choice of words.
“So, why did you invite a stranger like me to your house?” I asked her. I had been told how wary she was not only of Mengele, but of people she didn’t know.
“I wanted to speak Czech, of course!” she told me with a wink.
And she did, to my great pleasure, tell me story after story in her elegant Czech throughout much of the day.
“I could never have survived without my mother, nor she without me.” Dina said.
She went on to explain how she and her mother had lived through a death march together. Dina, sick with dysentery, was trying to hide her condition from Nazi guards who would shoot anyone who was too tired or ill to continue. Anyone with visible signs of disease. In a moment both comic and tragic, Dina’s mother slinked out of her underwear in a sexy way and handed them to her daughter so that she could wipe the diarrhea off her legs. “Happy Birthday,” her mother said, and the two of them burst into fits of laughter right there during the march. That, in and of itself, nearly got them killed.
She also reminisced about her marriage to Art Babbitt, whom she had met in Paris after the war, when she was interviewing to work as an animator for Warner Bros. Babbitt, in one of those remarkable coincidences that somehow seem commonplace in wartime, had been an animator on Disney’s Snow White and the inspiration for the mural that would spare Dina’s life.
They married shortly after and went on to live what Dina described as a “very Hollywood” sort of life. She rolled her eyes when she said it, telling me about the end of their marriage as well.
“He had a woman,” she said. “And I discovered this. ‘She means nothing to me!’ He told me over and over again.”
I was struck at how there wasn’t a trace of self-pity in her voice as Dina recounted her husband’s betrayal.
“What a stupid thing to say,” she went on. “I told him, ‘If you had said – I’m sorry, Dina, my heart took me to her. I couldn’t stop myself. I love her – then maybe then I could have forgiven you. But you dishonored our marriage for someone who meant nothing to you? A passing pleasure? Tell me, I said to him. If they come for me again, will you show them where I’m hiding because our marriage means so little to you that you would risk it for a girl who means nothing?”
Dina left her husband and their glamorous life without looking back.
There was, however, one thing that Dina could not stop looking back on. In the early 1970s, she became aware that several of her paintings of Mengele’s medical experiments were still in existence. They had been confiscated by the Polish government after the war and were to be used as part of a permanent installation at the Auschwitz-Birkenau museum complex.
She was invited to view them, and, she thought, take them with her back to her home in California. But the Polish government had other plans. The paintings were part of Poland’s national historical heritage, they told her. Incredibly, they also explained to her at one point that if anyone had any real claim to the paintings, it would be Mengele’s heirs.
Dina would not stop fighting for her right to her paintings. They had been created with her soul’s blood in exchange for her mother’s life. Their subject’s eyes would haunt her dreams until the day she died.
But despite the help of numerous Jewish groups, national and international publications, illustrious intermediaries, and even the American government, it was not meant to be.
Dina Babbitt, survivor of Auschwitz and death marches, reluctant chronicler of the Angel of Death, died of cancer in 2009 without her paintings in her possession.
Tonight, in honor of you, Dina, in honor of how art can save lives and inspire hope under even the most dire circumstances, in reverence to mine and my husband’s one quarter heritage, we’ll light a candle and say a prayer on this first night of Hanukkah.