Fred Zeckendorf was not a trained artist. He was an amateur; in the words of his son, “a very good one.”
It showcases the paintings created by Fred in the Theresienstadt ghetto from 1942 to 1944. Fred captured scenes of the ghetto’s landscape, the people and daily life, leaving a legacy of art that depicted the Holocaust experience of those incarcerated in Theresienstadt.
The Nazis’ treatment of the prisoners left them with feelings of degradation, humiliation and powerlessness but, as artists, they expressed their agency and their ability to assert control over their environment. Artistic activity sustained the spirit, restored a sense of humanity and strengthened the will to survive. Breaking through the misery and the dark reality of everyday life was a form of resistance.
In September 1944, Fred and his 19-year-old son Otto were deported to Auschwitz. Fred, aged 51, was murdered upon arrival. Otto survived as a slave labourer in an ammunitions factory until liberation in April 1945. Anna survived the war in Theresienstadt, working in ‘essential services’ such as growing vegetables for the SS, and planting flowers in preparation for the Red Cross visit of June 1944.
In December 1949, Otto migrated with his mother to Australia, with only his father’s artworks and four pounds sterling in his pocket.
The scenes Fred painted show his keen eye for detail and a sensitive, delicate handling of materials and subject matter. His colourful artworks invoke an escape from the hell of the ghetto into a serene, peaceful, almost idyllic landscape.
We are grateful to Otto Zeckendorf for generously donating more than 30 of his father’s artworks to the Sydney Jewish Museum.