University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


The Buchenwald Series

garden gate

1. "We do not want Jehovah God's Kingdom. We have our church and our Fuehrer!"

The artist Johannes Steyer stands mute and faceless at the center of the composition, the garden gate crosses and circles the center of his body. He is targeted because of his ministry. Over his head hangs a swastika flag. The family vehemently rejects the message, releasing a dog and a huge, snakelike echo of the Nazi salute. Ominously, the figure of a brown-shirted Nazi storm trooper stands down the road. Storm clouds roll on the horizon.

Arrested by police Nazi 2. "I'll have you arrested!" Steyer is denounced to the police by a Nazi and is arrested on March 5, 1935. The storm clouds are now fully overhead, and the darkness of the composition is interrupted by the spotlighted Nazi flag, now taken up by a stiff breeze.
Arrested by the Gestapo 3.  "'He will return at about noon, so it is said." Steyer is arrested by the Gestapo and locked in a tall gated van that drives into pale uncertainty. He is bound for Sachsenburg concentration camp. A clock stands in dramatic shadows that lengthen on the table, marking the agony of the passing hours for Steyer's wife as he fails to return. He will be in custody for the next ten years.
Arrival at the concentration camp 4. "Deported to a concentration camp." Arrival at the concentration camp is the beginning of abuses, being forced to do the so-called Saxon Salute for hours within the shadow of the walls. A red stain now marks the clouded sky. The dark shadow of the walls are repeated in each depiction of camp violence.
New concentration camp arises in woods 5. "Under construction—behind this, the first barracks are being built in the woods." A new concentration camp arises in the middle of a great forest. Jehovah's Witnesses are among the first arrivals of prisoners at Buchenwald. For the first time, the alien darkness of the forest is depicted. Buchenwald means "beech-tree forest," and the thick forest is a profound and recurring image in Steyer's paintings. The foreground is dominated by the deep and broad roots of beeches, which must be dug out by hand and with hoes. These roots will emerge in many of the forest paintings. The forest frequently contains glimpses of a soft glow, the concept of freedom beyond its confines.
forced to build barracks 6. "Foundations are ready." The prisoners, including Jehovah's Witnesses, are forced to build barracks that they will live in when complete. The foreground is considered in Steyer's characteristic palette of pale earth tones and pastels, which contrast with the dark background of the ever-present forest. In the shadows, guards are stationed regularly, only their faces and hands discernable.
Search for a missing inmate 7. "An inmate was often missing during role call: after a long search, the prisoner was finally found, sometimes only the next morning." Huge indefinite masses of figures are standing for role call—an ordeal that could last 18 hours or more until an escapee could be captured. A figure staggers forward for punishment by another prisoner and stalking SS guards.
25 lashes for laziness 8. "Strapped to the block, 25 strokes for laziness at work." Two SS men administer brutal punishment to a half-naked prisoner before the block-like ranks of other prisoners, who are forced to watch. Guards encircle the gatehouse and all its windows. Another prisoner lies in the shadows nearby, apparently beaten unconscious or dead.
'Punishment Battalion' does 'suicide work' 9. The scene is of forced labor designed to kill. The "punishment battalion" does "suicide work" in the quarry. Arriving Jehovah's Witness inmates are always assigned to this battalion. Prisoners are hunched over at work in a quarry, forced to carve chunks of stone that they load a cart nearby; they dig holes that look like graves. On the ledges above, the guards and their guns form grave markers, symbolic of death. Steyer here has evidently paused to look up from his work. He views mistreatment, but he also sees a patch of lightly colored flowers. Flowers and a beautiful sky remind him that God is still with him, giving Steyer endurance, strength, and hope.
Carry stones form quarry 10. "Jehovah's Witnesses (Bible Students) before them, a group of Jews struggling to carry stones from a quarry." Figures march along a low path, creating an impression of crawling underground. The first set of figures bears the yellow star, identifying them as Jewish prisoners. One figure has collapsed, and he holds his hands up in futile defense against the guard who aims his rifle at him. Behind this is another group of prisoners, Jehovah's Witnesses, or Bible Students. All are forced to carry huge stones. The line is fluid and uniform in the bearing of their burdens. Above the path, amid the dark trees, stand guards armed with rifles and dogs. Barely visible beyond the claustrophobic forest are pale houses recollecting the dream of freedom.
prisoner's corpse hanging from an electric fence 11. "The first flowers awaken the craving for freedom. A hopeless one in the electric fence was shot from the tower." The corpse of a prisoner hangs suspended across the electrified fence. A harsh juxtaposition is formed between the grim realities of the camp, the jagged barbed-wire fence, the looming shadows, the squat towers that march into the distance, and the pale unreality of the dawn of spring.
Assistant to the SS=the Kapos 12. "Assistants to the SS = the Kapos." The SS appointed prisoners as Kapos to control other inmates. The prisoners march along ant-like, carrying huge round stones balanced on their shoulders, while the weight seemingly crushes their heads. The prisoners march into an indefinite distance, seeming to come from a great subterranean cavern. The distances involved are  illusionistic: the dimensions of the quarry are seemingly modest, but the work involved is titanic. The Kapo is darker and larger than his fellow prisoners, at once less and more. In the foreground a crude figure lays sprawled and contorted, bleeding from the head, probably dead, a victim of Kapo violence. But the march goes on unendingly and no one is allowed to aid him. The SS officers look on with approval.
Roll Call 13. "Get out for roll call!!" Additional Kapo abuse is depicted. Two Kapos flank the door, brandishing symbols of official and personal violence. Both wear a green triangle, marking them as "professional criminals." The prisoners are disgorged chaotically through the doorframe, flinching and falling.
Dead prisoner lies in shadow from gaurdhouse 14. Guards armed with guns and the commandant complacently gaze at their handiwork as the prisoners stand for roll call. Dark figures of the SS stride through the ranks of compressed prisoners. A dead prisoner lies in the shadow of the  guardhouse.
Returning to camp after a long exhausting day of work 15. Returning to concentration camp after a long day, exhausted prisoners in a work detail are watched by a guard. Elongated evening shadows delineate their path. Two figures support a third, their eyes downcast. The figure groupings of the prisoners stand in contrast with the isolated guard and his rifle.
Carrying injured or dying back to camp 16. "Between life and death." In the midst of the dark forest, a group of prisoners carrying an injured or dying figure walk along a branching path on their way back to concentration camp. One branch leads to the indistinct light of sunset, perhaps a symbol of life or freedom; the other terminating abruptly at the margin of the painting, the return to the darkness of imprisonment, which could mean death.
injured comrade in wheelbarrow 17. "Done for the day." In the moonlit forest, almost obscured by the trees, a late labor detail walks back to concentration camp, following a fellow prisoner pushing an injured comrade along in a wheelbarrow. The ever-present guards seem inhuman in the night.
arranged in anamorphic ranks for work 18. "After morning roll call, moving out to work …" At dawn, the prisoners had begun their day. Now, arranged in anamorphic ranks, punctuated by the dark figures of guards and SS officers, they pass below the looming guardhouse into the dim forest. The clock tower shows 6 o'clock.
Gaurd house and barbed wire 19. Against the sky is a studied examination of the fortress-like camp enclosure, which denies freedom and discourages escape. The camp is patrolled from within by dark soldiers and machine guns. The guardhouse and barbed wire create contrast with the pastel sky.
No work today, taking about the coming interrogation by SS or Gestapo 20. "I won't come out to work today … got an interrogation." In contrast with the geometrically reduced prisoners in the background, an intimate group of prisoners face one another during roll call, their eyes appear bruised as they secretly discuss in innocuous terms the unexpected event" of being interrogated by SS or Gestapo in the Political Department. It means no outside labor for this day, but could also mean torture or death during interrogation.
Calling prisoner's ID number over loudspeaker 21. "Loudspeaker: 'Prisoner No. …000, report to the camp commandant immediately'!" The call likely strikes terror in the heart of the prisoners. But to the scowling guard, it is all in a day's business. The guard sits hunched at his desk, taking the prisoner's number from the log book for the day and announcing it to the camp population. Visible from his window:the dusty roll call square; long lines of prisoner barracks; the guard towers; and the great forest – the microcosm of the concentration camp. In this painting the camp is depicted from the perspective of the guard in the main tower. The room is dark purple, the color denoting the prisoner group to which Steyer belongs – Jehovah's Witnesses.
Attempt to induct prisoners into Nazi army 22. Prisoners stand facing a long desk. Behind the desk are the clerks, who are attempting to induct the prisoners into the Nazi army. The repeat of prisoner, desk, clerk, and papers stretches the full length of the long room. Massed like corded wood, more prisoners await their turn. The central figure, Steyer himself, stands before a throng of German military officials and SS who intently observe his refusal to be inducted for military service. Only this clerk points to a purple form, perhaps the infamous "Declaration," giving Steyer a chance to renounce his faith and leave the camp.
Hitler attacks 23. "As sword of the Church, Hitler attacked Jehovah's Witnesses, Jews, political [dissidents], and criminals. The intention was a disguised persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, i.e., not as Christians, but because they were considered criminals." A huge, ranting caricature wreathed in a halo towers over a German town, his finger pointed in accusation towards the objects of his hatred. The town bristles with jagged church spires topped with crosses, and from the windows fly Nazi flags, in turn emblazoned with the Aryan cross, symbolic of the Nazi party. This iconography references the root of Steyer's persecution as one of Jehovah's Witnesses, the   exclusion of the Bible Students from the sanctioned Christian religions.
Hitler reacts to protest telegrams 24. "This brood will be exterminated in Germany!" Hitler reacts hysterically to the flood of protest telegrams sent on October 7, 1934, by Jehovah's Witnesses from around the world. A  claustrophobic atmosphere is created by color fields of black and red, the Nazi colors, that heavily frame a manic Hitler. The Fuehrer stands pounding an SS podium with reddened hands, memorializing the moment of Hitler's raving boast.
aerial view of barracks 25. "The gladsome news." From an aerial view looking down at the barracks, a great mass of prisoners surge into the dusty alleys  of the camp, seen rambunctiously gamboling, dancing, embracing one another, and running, arms outstretched towards freedom, as the camp is liberated. Two prisoners in the center join hands. A group of prisoners stage a revolt shortly before the camp's official liberation.
Celebration of liberation 26. "Thanks to God, the power of the evil ones is broken!. The SS have fled … we are free!" The central figure, possibly Steyer himself, looks up at heaven, arms outstretched as he thanks God for freedom. In the background, liberated prisoners continue to dance, talk, and celebrate their liberation. In the center, again, two prisoners join hands. While the shadows indicate sunlight off to the right, from the forest the symbolic glow of freedom beckons, now seemingly extending into the camp.
hour of liberation 27. "Free!" The familiar scene of the oppressive gatehouse, now free of guards, and the dark forest are radically changed as the figures joyously gesticulate, one haloed by the light of the now-open gate. The clock tower shows  almost 4 o'clock - the hour of liberation.