A many-layered work of historical reportage, Watercolours draws on the real life story of Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt (1923-2009), a Czech-American artist of Jewish ancestry, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz, and whose story came to light in the late nineties. It was at this time that Gottliebova attempted once more to recover the art she had created in the concentration camp, and which had become the property of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The dispute escalated into an international scandal, with the American Department of State and the Polish government becoming involved.
Here, journalist Lidia Ostalowska reconstructs Gottliebova’s time in the camp, while looking also at broader issues of historical memory, trauma, racism and the relationship between the torturer and the victim. In Gottliebova’s case, SS Doctor Josef Mengele took a special interest in her talent, commissioning her to paint portraits (the watercolours of the title) of Roma prisoners. Mengele himself is one of the many characters in this narrative.
Ostalowska draws on hundreds of studies and accounts of the hell of the camps, and tells the story of one woman’s incarceration and her battle for survival, bringing in many other supporting lives. Before she worked for Mengele, Gottliebova had decorated the children’s barracks at Auschwitz with of the Disney film, Snow White and The Seven Dwarves. After the war, she worked as an animator for Warner Brothers and married Walt Disney animator Art Babbitt, the man behind many of the world’s best-known cartoon characters including Goofy and Dumbo. Gottlibova (under the name Dina Babbitt) lived in the California until her death in 2009 at the age of 86.