The art of tragedy: reflections upon the life of Max van Dam

Daniel Adamson is a PhD student in the History Department of Durham University. His research explores educational portrayals of the British response to the Holocaust.

Twitter: @DanielEAdamson


In spite of Theodor Adorno’s contention, in 1949, that ‘poetry is impossible after Auschwitz’, the Sobibór on the Screen online exhibition has provided evidence of the ways in which the Holocaust has provided stimulus for subsequent artistic output.

However, Holocaust art is far from a retrospective phenomenon; the creative process was in fact in motion during the genocide itself. Within this conceptual framework falls the story of Max van Dam: the Dutch artist who lived, worked, and ultimately perished at the Sobibór death camp. Van Dam’s experiences are worth considering in depth. Through the exploration of this one life, there can be some humanisation of the statistical brutality with which Sobibór is often presented.

The life and work of Max van Dam

Max van Dam (1910-1943) was born in the town of Winterswijk in the eastern Netherlands. He was raised in a family that was both Jewish and socialist: characteristics that would later curtail his social liberties when living under Nazi rule. In the vibrant milieu of 1920s Europe, van Dam cultivated his passion for art, and drew inspiration from the rich vein of Dutch artists such as Vincent Van Gogh who had emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth-century.

After a stint as an art teacher in Amsterdam, van Dam attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp between 1933 and 1937. During this period, van Dam’s artistic output spanned several genres. The artist displayed the ability to produce political posters, stained-glass windows, and sketch portraiture with equal flair. Art also provided a vehicle through which van Dam could engage with his Jewish heritage. An interest in Zionism, for example, led to a commission to produce a portrait of Theodor Herzl (the de facto ‘father’ of the Zionist movement).

As in the case of most Dutch civilians, van Dam’s life suffered ineffable upheaval following the Nazi invasion of the territory in May 1940. As persecution against Jews heightened, van Dam went into hiding in the northern Dutch village of Blaricum. Following a botched attempt to flee to Switzerland via Vichy France, van Dam was captured and transported to the Drancy internment camp in the autumn of 1942. Despite his travails, van Dam continued to produce artwork between 1940 and 1942. The increasing desperation of his situation is reflected in the muted tones of van Dam’s pencil sketches from the period, which were at odds with the concentrated energy of his earlier works.

In March 1943, van Dam was deported to the Sobibór death camp. Classed as a ‘skilled worker’, van Dam was assigned to work as a painter in an atelier at the camp. He received portrait commissions from serving German officers and SS personnel. In some regards, van Dam’s skills were a lifeline, and allowed him to live a more comfortable existence than most other inmates. In a testimony recorded during his retrial in the early 1980s on counts murdering Jews, SS Officer Karl Frenzl claimed that van Dam ‘did not have to attend roll call, and his food was brought to him by other prisoners’ (Quoted., Sobibor Interviews, Max van Dam (2014), accessed at However, in return for certain privileges, van Dam was also took the challenging decision to offer his services to the very system which had orchestrated his imprisonment. This broader system of Funktionshäftling (prisoner functionaries) was to be found across most Nazi camps in Europe.

The precise details of van Dam’s death in the autumn of 1943 are hazy. Reports from some contemporaries suggest that the artist may have been killed during a revolt led by Dutch prisoners, or during its subsequent reprisals by camp authorities.

Symbolism and significance

The life and experience of Max van Dam was not typical of many prisoners who passed through the Sobibór camp. Regardless, there is something particularly symbolic of what van Dam represented: an artistic spirit robbed of freedom and life by the Nazi regime.

Close study of an individual life story is also a mechanism for the important process of ‘humanising’ the Holocaust. Given the scale of the genocide, it is understandable that cold statistics have dominated historical narratives. Inescapably, Sobibór was the site of hundreds of thousands of deaths. However, art – whether contemporaneous or retrospective – provides a gateway to the human tragedy that lay at the heart of the Holocaust. In the case of van Dam, his artwork provides a modern audience with a guided tour through the progressively desperate situation faced by Europe’s Jews. The shaded hues and contorted subjects of Despairing Figures (1941) reflect the uncertainty of the contemporary situation. Meanwhile, the hooded eyes and clenched jaw of Portrait of a Mature Woman (circa early 1942) convey the exhaustion that must have been felt by those seeking to escape the threat of persecution.

Although there are no remaining examples of the artwork produced by van Dam in Sobibór itself, his role as a ‘conscripted’ artist is nonetheless thought-provoking. Recent scholarship has increasingly shed light on the cultural landscapes of concentration camps. Most notably, the lives of ‘camp orchestras’ at sites including Sobibór have undergone historical reconstruction. As an imprisoned artist, van Dam was part of this paradoxical relationship between the barbarism of Nazi camps and the everyday activities which also occurred within. In several ways, inmates and their talents were treated as disposable commodities. Van Dam’s duties as an artist in Sobibór provide a stark reminder that the Holocaust was the direct result of human action. Concurrently, the same officials who oversaw systematic mass killing also cultivated sophisticated cultural interests. For some, this discrepancy has proved irreconcilable. For others, it has lent devastating authority to Hannah Arendt’s aphorism ‘the banality of evil’.

It might be observed that van Dam’s artistic output in Sobibór was of a different tenor to those produced in private by inmates such as Franciszek Jaźwiecki, a Polish political prisoner at Auschwitz (whose covert artwork reflected a personal expression of anguish). Conversely, Van Dam’s sketches of SS officers served as a function of subsistence. Nonetheless, it should not be forgotten that both forms of art were linked by an overarching desperation: either a will to survive, or a will to be heard.

Concluding thoughts

In summary, there are several layers of significance to the life of Max van Dam. His work offers modern audiences the opportunity to form a multimedia impression of the Holocaust, in a historical landscape that for many years was characterised by sweeping narratives of human destruction. Van Dam’s life story, and the portraits he produced, also allow the Holocaust partly to be humanised and placed in an emotional context.

The innovative focus of the Sobibór on the Screen exhibition has provided insights into how the Holocaust has been portrayed by those looking back on the past. Yet, engaging with the contemporary artistic landscape of the Holocaust can move modern society ‘closer to source’ in a variety of different ways. Ultimately, several of the cinematic depictions encountered in Sobibór on Screen are built upon the experiences of van Dam and fellow prisoners. It is vital, therefore, that sight of the individual stories of the Holocaust is not lost.

As a final thought, it is perhaps fitting to encourage readers to revisit van Dam’s pre-war work. To define van Dam solely by his wartime experiences is, to an extent, to indulge the Nazi condensation of Europe’s Jews into a homogenous group. Before their fate, Holocaust victims enjoyed full and productive existences. Arguably, therefore, it would be fitting to remember them as they lived, not as they died.

Images - Ghetto Fighters House Archives

Image credits: Ghetto Fighters House Archive (

Seated woman Wearing a Hat (c.1937), Catalog no. 2846

Portrait of a Mature Woman (c.1942), Catalog no. 2400

Despairing Figures (1941), Catalog no. 1196

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