Art finally testifies to ordeal of Jew who escaped Auschwitz

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Sixty years ago today a Jewish teenager, Roman Halter, learned from a Russian soldier on a bicycle that the Second World War had ended. Having escaped Auschwitz, he was hiding with a family near Dresden as VE Day approached.

Sixty years ago today a Jewish teenager, Roman Halter, learned from a Russian soldier on a bicycle that the Second World War had ended. Having escaped Auschwitz, he was hiding with a family near Dresden as VE Day approached.

This week, the paintings he later produced to testify to his wartime experiences go on display at Tate Britain in London in a remarkable artistic contribution to this weekend's VE Day commemorations.

The four works include Man on the Electrified Barbed-Wire, which shows a man who took his own life in despair on the fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and another, Shlomo, in memory of Mr Halter's half-brother who was hanged in 1940 for trying to smuggle bread for fellow labourers.

They were not produced immediately after the war, when Mr Halter moved to Britain after realising that no one in his family had survived the Holocaust, but during the Seventies, when he decided he must bear testimony to his experiences.

Chris Stephens, a Tate curator, said the gallery decided to show the works after examining the art in their collections and discovering how little British art reflected the Holocaust experience.

"Roman approached us and I looked to see what British art we could show to mark the anniversary of the liberation of the camps," Dr Stephens said.

"It is alluded to in lots of ways but there wasn't anything that addressed the Holocaust directly which was amazing for arguably the biggest historical event of the 20th century. I don't know why that is, whether it was just too raw or too huge to tackle."

Mr Halter's works showed such power and intensity that the Tate decided they should be seen, Dr Stephens said. They will be shown until 12 June. For Mr Halter, now 77, it is an accolade he did not expect. "I'm really thrilled," he said.

Mr Halter was born in Chodecz, Poland, and was moved to the Lodz ghetto when war broke out. Later, instead of being killed in Auschwitz, he was put to work as a slave labourer, including in Dresden during the Allied bombing. He escaped from SS control during a march, and was in hiding when the war ended.

With his family dead and his home in Poland seized, Mr Halter moved to Britain where he renounced his ambitions as an artist for the more sensible career of architecture. But art remained a passion.

"When I came to England, I discovered the National Gallery. Seeing works of art was part of my rehabilitation. I carried all the works I loved in my mind and the past was pushed to the back of my mind," he said. "I felt to submerge oneself totally in the past was not healthy. I wanted to live, and enjoy music and skiing and life and children."

But eventually he had to confront his past. "A colleague of mine who was also at Auschwitz said to me something profound: 'Having been in Auschwitz, our duty is to testify'."

As a result, he embarked on his sequence of paintings. Other works on show are Starved Faces - images of Nazi victims; and Woman Wearing a Mantilla - as fashionable Jewish Polish women did at synagogue when he was a young boy.

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