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Ben Shahn

Ben Shahn (1898-1969) was born in Kaunus, Lithuania in 1898. He immigrated to New York with his family in 1906.

From 1933 to 1938 he worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, producing masterful images of impoverished rural areas and their inhabitants. Shahn used photographs throughout his career for both composition and content.

During World War II, Shahn worked for theOffice of War Information(OWI) between 1942-1943. In 1943 he created the famous poster "This is Nazi Brutality,” which refers to the aftermath of the destruction of the Czech town of Lidice, destroyed as retaliation for the murder of SS Leader Reinhardt Heydrich by Czech partisans.

He worked for sometime as a commercial artist and was also a distinguished lecturer, teacher, and writer. Shahn saw himself as a communicative artist whose style was described as social realism.  His work explored themes of modern urban life, organized labor, immigration and injustice that he portrayed with compassion toward his subjects.

Artwork:Absence/Presence

Warsaw 1943

Warsaw, 1943. Seriagraph with black and brown calligraphy in Hebrew. 33 1/2" x 23 1/2". 1963.

Translation of the Hebrew text, Martyology service on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement:

These I remember, and my soul melts with sorrow, for strangers have devoured us like unturned cakes, for in the days of the tyrant there was no reprieve for the martyrs murdered by the government.

 

The Warsaw ghetto was created by the Nazis in 1940 to confine the local Jewish population and deportees from other countries. Its population soon increased from 300,000 to half a million people. In July, 1942, the Nazis began their systematic liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto Jews, and thousands were deported daily for uncertain destinations. By fall of 1942, only some 40,000 people remained.

In the meantime, an underground movement had prepared the people for resistance, and when the Nazi forces arrived in April 1943, to remove the remaining Jews, they met with armed resistance. After the Nazis had leveled the ghetto with tanks and flame throwers, only a few dozen survived.

It was this tragedy- the incredible courage of the Warsaw Jews and the futility of their resistance-that Shahn commemorated with this print in 1963. The Nazis could announce, as they did in 1943, that Warsaw was at last free of Jews. But the tortured hands in Shahn's print remain to remind us of these acts of Barbarism.

Kenneth W. Prescott. The Complete Graphic Works of Ben Shahn. (NY, Quadrangle. 1973) pg. 56

Page updated 2013