With some house paints salvaged from a section of the Auschwitz death camp, Dina Gottliebova just hoped to bring a little color to the lives of Nazi Germany’s youngest victims.


On a wall of the children’s barracks, the prisoner painted a mural of Snow White in a Swiss mountain landscape.


It was the first of a series of paintings she believes saved her life.


The mural brought her to the attention of Josef Mengele, the brutal Nazi doctor later reviled as “the Angel of Death.” Mengele took the 20-year-old Jewish woman under his wing.


Believing she could portray Gypsies better than any camera, he put her to work as an artist.


Some six decades later, seven of Gottliebova’s watercolor portraits are still in Poland, in what is now the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. Officials of the state-run museum, located on the site of the camp, will not give them up, calling them essential evidence of Nazi atrocities.


Gottliebova insists they belong to her and she will never be entirely free without them.


“It’s a piece of me that’s in Auschwitz,” said the 83-year-old Felton, Calif., woman, who goes by her married name, Babbitt. “As long as the paintings are still there, part of me is still there. That’s the way I feel.”


Some 450 creators of cartoons, comic books and graphic novels have signed a petition demanding the paintings’ return.

The drive was led by renowned cartoonist Joe Kubert along with his sons Adam and Andy – who draw Superman and Batman, respectively – and the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies.


“What Dina has done does have historical value, of course, but it is her work,” Joe Kubert said. “She has every right to those originals.”


The effort has attracted support from such prominent figures as pioneering Marvel Comics editor Stan Lee and Art Spiegelman, whose works include the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale.”


Spiegelman spent 13 years researching his parents’ struggles during the Holocaust and made two trips to the Auschwitz museum for his book.


The museum does crucial work, he says, but it can do so without Babbitt’s watercolors.


“I can’t imagine why I would have needed to see Dina Babbitt’s originals rather than a reproduction,” Spiegelman said. “She lost her family and she lost everything she owns, and now the only thing that came through the maelstrom is being held hostage. It just seems very unjust.”


In most cases, artists – even in prisons – own their work, said Patrick Boylan, chair of the International Council of Museums’ legal affairs committee. “Normally the artist would have the copyright and any other rights unless they actually sold it or unless they were state employees,” he said.


It’s not so simple, the museum contends. The paintings bear witness to Nazi atrocities against Gypsies – also known as Roma or Sinti – and cannot be turned over to any individual, according to the museum.


If such a precedent were set, even the death camp’s notorious iron gate, with its arch reading “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Makes One Free”), could be reclaimed, argued Jonathan Webber, a founding member of the International Auschwitz Council, which advises the Polish government.


Original artifacts are necessary to counter Holocaust deniers, Webber said.


Besides, museum director Piotr Cywinski said, the paintings do not truly belong to Babbitt. The museum respects her copyright, Cywinski wrote by e-mail, but the paintings “have never been her property. They were made on the order and for the use of … Mengele.”


The museum acquired most of them from private hands in 1963.


Gottliebova was a 19-year-old art student in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia when her mother, Johanna, was ordered to report to the Terezin concentration camp in January 1942.


The teen – an only child with an estranged father – could not let her mother go alone.


In September 1943, her mother was transferred to Auschwitz. Again, the young woman elected to join her.


Not long after they arrived, a prisoner asked commanders to permit a “day barracks” for children. Gottliebova was assigned to create a mural.


At the youngsters’ request, she painted Snow White dancing with Dopey – a scene from “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” one of the last films the Nazis would allow Jewish children to see.

Camp commanders were so impressed, they took the terrified young artist to Mengele, notorious for his brutal experiments on prisoners and his role in determining who would be forced into labor and who would be killed.


A camera could not capture the Gypsies’ skin color, Mengele said.


“Do you think you can get the colors very accurate?” she recalled him asking.


“I said I would try. That’s all I could say.”
She later told Mengele she would kill herself unless her mother was spared the gas chamber.


“That’s how I survived, and that’s how my mother survived,” she said, “and that’s why I have to have my paintings back.”


The subjects of her paintings were to be killed, though she didn’t know it then.


One of her first subjects was Celine, a young woman whose baby had just starved. Gottliebova said she painted slowly, so she could share bread with the bereaved mother.


“That’s what I tried to get into her face, that anguish,” she said.


Then she was assigned to a medical ward, where she painted a heart that had just been removed from a friend who had been shot.


“I was numb,” she said.


On Jan. 19, 1945, the mother and daughter left Auschwitz on a death march. They survived two more concentration camps.


After the war, Gottliebova married, had two children and worked as an animator, drawing such characters as Tweety Bird, Wile E. Coyote and Cap’N Crunch.


Then one day in 1973, a letter arrived at her home, on Auschwitz stationery.


Museum officials thought the watercolor portraits in its collection might be hers, and they invited her to examine the glass-framed works.


“I held them in my hands and I broke down,” she said.


She reached for her briefcase, but museum officials took them back.


“It was still under the Communist regime and I was very intimidated by that,” she said. “I just had to leave.”


Since then, she has never given up hope of recovering the paintings.


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