More than 60 years ago, Dina Babbitt came face to face with the ‘Angel of Death.’ How she remained alive during the Holocaust is another story.
Dina Babbitt is a striking 82-year-old woman. She stands on the porch of her Felton home, which is set in a picturesque landscape, complete with big trees and a garden. Babbitt is ready for lunch—ready to break bread together.
Once inside, a mutual friend, Judy Bouley, and myself, watch Babbitt’s little dachshund, Penny, hop around our feet, hoping for a pat on the head. On the way to the kitchen we pass an art studio where an easel holds Babbitt’s work-in-progress: the gypsy woman, Celine, staring out from her painted face. She looks sad. Celine’s baby just died, Babbitt later explains.
The kitchen is stocked with food. Babbitt isn’t hungry anymore, but 60 years ago she was starving. Her inviting home, the food-filled kitchen, the chicken salad lunch, her dog, and the Felton hills, create a bucolic refuge. Here, Babbitt remains far away from the past; from war-torn Europe; from Nazi Germany; from Auschwitz; from the Holocaust; from the ovens; from the gas chambers where Jews and other people were sent to their deaths. Here, Babbitt is free from the corpses; from Dr. Josef Mengele—the “Angel of Death,” who is one of the main topics during our lunch together. Today, Dina will tell her story again, a story she doesn’t tell much anymore: how she survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Holocaust by painting portraits of inmates for Mengele.
In exchange for her life, Babbitt dipped her brush in watercolors and created the images of gypsies for Mengele, who was studying them for medical and genetic reasons. There’s no argument that Mengele was a horrible man, infamous for his “medical” experiments: amputations without anesthesia; blood transfusions between twins; killing people to have them dissected and studied.
The man made the history books. Dina did not. Although her paintings did—they are featured in a museum book. Seven of her original paintings are being secured by the Panstwove Museum in Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland. Copies hang for the public to view, but the museum will not release the originals to her, because they say she was an employee of Mengele. Hardly. She was a starving 20-year-old Jewish woman from Czechoslovakia, locked up in one of the most horrific concentration camps history has ever seen.
Dina says she wants her paintings back. She has lived many years without them, a reminder which was marked on Jan. 27 with the 60th anniversary of the liberation of her camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In 1998, Katie Couric’s Today Show followed Dina and her daughter Karin to Poland where they asked for the paintings to be returned. They came home empty handed. But Dina hasn’t given up. She continues to move forward in her desire to acquire the paintings, but now with the aid of Judy, a Hollywood casting director who is writing Dina’s memoir.
The pair have a rich history, a story that begins 20 years ago. It is because of Judy that Dina is willing to share her story again in this article.
“I’m working on the book with Judy,” Dina says. “I have to be back [in Auschwitz] anyway.”
When she used to do interviews, the emotional consequences were high. It’s as if she were sent back to camp. At times, the feeling lasted for weeks. Dina would think about things—about the time her life was spared out of her transport of 5,000 people; how most everyone else was gassed; about the time her mom stripped off her own underwear and gifted it to Dina for her 22nd birthday; about the gypsies, like Celine, whom she would paint, only to later discover that, like Celine, many of the subjects of her paintings would die. Dina would also think about her father, stepmother and two half-siblings who were killed at the camp. She would even think about the humor—for in the midst of this horror, she was sometimes able to laugh.
“She said… the only way I’ll agree to (writing the book) is if you tell the whole story, including the love, the humor and the friendship that went on inside the death camps,” Bouley says. “So I thought, ‘humor in the death camp, hmmm, how am I going to pull that off?’ And then I realized all I had to do was go and listen to Dina’s story.”
Dina Gottliebova was born Jan. 21, 1923. Raised in Czechoslovakia by Johanna Schawl, a single mother who had left Dina’s father when she was only 4 months old, she had no other siblings by her mother. The two were close.
In 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was released in theaters. Dina saw it—how apropos—seven times. It was both the artistic design and the romantic story that reeled young Dina into becoming a fan. By 1942 she was attending a graphic arts school in Prague and her mother was living in Brno. As Hitler rose to power, Dina’s mother received a summons that the Jews were being gathered. Dina promptly left school and volunteered to be shipped out with her mother to the Jewish ghetto camp, Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia.
“I dropped everything and went home to Brno,” Dina says. “We just had to be together. I wouldn’t let her go by herself.”
They were allowed to bring one suitcase and one carry-on to a high school where they awaited the next horrific leg of their journey, to Theresienstadt. The school, in a vision of sad irony, was the same place where Dina attended high school. Now a prisoner, she was forced to empty her pockets of any money, jewelry or watches.
Not long after, they were taken to a railroad station, and, in a long column, walking through vacant streets, they boarded a train. This was one of the earlier trains, before the cattle trains where hordes of bodies were jammed on top of each other and carted to the camps.
This happened on Jan. 21, 1942, her 19th birthday. She was then taken to Theresienstadt. Dina and her mother stayed there until Sept. 7, 1943 when they were among 5,000 people transferred to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
The trip to Auschwitz took three days by train. Half the transport was sent one day, the other 2,500 the next day. This time, Dina and her mother were separated. Dina remembers spending the entire train ride crying, hoping her mother was still alive. Upon arrival she soon found her mother. But the little that they had back in Theresienstadt was taken away. They were stripped of all their belongings—including their clothes.
“We were shaved… under the arm pits and the pubic hair, which was done by men,” Dina says.
Dina and her mother were holed up in the family camp barracks. About a month after being in Auschwitz-Birkenau a capo—the head of the camp—brought her some paints to create a mural in the children’s barracks. A Swiss landscape poured out: mountains, meadows, cartoon-looking flowers, anything to perk up the kids. There were about 60 of them, ages 6 to 16. They would later go on to meet their deaths in the gas chambers. Perhaps the painting would be a dash of joy in their living hell. A crowd of small ones gathered behind her. The children were transfixed. She asked if they wanted cows or horses on the mural. They said to paint Snow White and her dwarves. Right away she started creating: the fair princess with her raven locks, dancing with the small bearded men. The children loved it, but Dina was worried what the SS guards might think. She would soon find out. A few days later she was called out and a Dr. Lukas was waiting for her. This was long before her own camp was gassed, but Dina was sure that day was her last.
“Immediately my heart was in my pants,” she says. “He asked me, ‘Did you paint that?’”
She admitted that she was the artist behind the beloved Snow White and the Seven Dwarves mural. He told her to come with him and then opened the door of the jeep for her—a gesture she found odd.
“I thought it was one of the usual SS ploys, that it was sarcastic,” Dina says. “I thought, for absolutely sure, he’s taking me to the gas chamber, or I’m going to be shot.”
On her drive to her possible death, Dina scoured the camp, looking for her mother. She never found her.
Instead of driving to a gas chamber, the young artist was taken to a gypsy camp. There, a man was bent over a camera with a black cloth covering his head. Dr. Lukas announced that he had brought “her.” Dr. Josef Mengele, the legendary Angel of Death, took off the black cloth and swirled around.
“Can you do portraits?” he asked the young Dina.
Dina told him yes, she thought she could do portraits. He then asked if she could replicate colors like that of real skin tone. She said she could try. And that was that. Back in the jeep. Back to family camp. About six more months passed.
On March 7, 1943, Dina’s transport had dwindled to about 4,400. Many had died from starvation and disease by this point. They were taken to the quarantine camp. This was their last stop before death. The final “resting place” so to speak. But it was hardly a restful place. The entire night Dina, her mother, and a girl from Vienna sat on the top of a three-story bunk bed.
“We were all shaking, we were afraid,” Dina says, remembering the last night she would see her transport of nearly 5,000 people alive. “We could hear the trucks. We were waiting for them to stop, waiting to be taken away to die.”
The girl from Vienna began singing a song. It comforted Dina.
Sixty years later, at her kitchen table in Felton, Dina hums the song; the melody flows out in German. She translates it into English: “If the good Lord doesn’t want, then there is nothing. So don’t be nervous, don’t be angry, say it was nothing, don’t run around crazy, nervous and desperate. Once up and once down. Once over and once around.”
And then it was morning. A woman with a baby blue scarf over her head looked at Dina and said, “You see, we’re still alive.” She, like many others, believed the lie that they were being transferred to a work camp. Dina knew the truth. Death was approaching.
A lower rank SS officer, whom the inmates called “Bulldog,” came to their camp. He was a big guy, burly, with a bulldog-looking face and a list in his hands. He started rattling off names, including Dina’ mother. These were the people to stay alive. Dina’s was the last name called.
“My mom says at that point I fell for a second or so—I fainted,” Dina recalls.
She and 26 others returned to their camp. Ten of them were twins, to be used by Mengele. Those who weren’t called were gassed.
Two days later an elderly SS officer, about 60 years old with a potbelly, rode up on a bicycle. Dina was instructed to follow him to the gypsy camp. What transpired was a series of portrait assignments for Mengele.
“He said, ‘Go out and get yourself a subject,’” Dina says.
With her second portrait she picked out a gypsy girl and began painting—both capturing history and keeping herself alive.
“She was an absolute beauty… Celine was a refined face,” Dina says of painting her muse back in 1944.
“[Celine] was very sad and I said, ‘Are you sick?’” Dina says. “She said, ‘My baby just died.’ It was a 2-month-old baby and she couldn’t get anything to feed the baby and didn’t have any milk. And [Celine] couldn’t eat anything. We had black bread with something in it—too much bran or something that made people sick—and I said, ‘Well, can I help with something?’ She said, ‘You can get some white bread.’”
Dina asked Mengele for some white bread. He delivered and Dina sneaked it to Celine, who in the end did not survive the death camp.
For six weeks, Dina was enlisted to paint for Mengele. She created nine paintings. She also privately drew the portraits of two inmates in her camp.
Mengele rarely commented on her work. But Dina recalls that he’d occasionally stop and explain something about the gypsies and how their race was different than the Aryans: “An Aryan mouth is like an ‘m’ shape, a gypsy mouth is differently shaped,” Dina says he would tell her. “…Gypsies have a different hairline than the Aryans… pointing out the differences as if it was of any interest to me.”
It wasn’t. But it kept her alive.
Somewhere during Dina’s story, she graciously offers her guests coffee, with sugar and cream, and homemade chocolate brownies. Delicious snacks, although it’s hard not to feel guilty for downing dessert while listening to the firsthand account of a Holocaust survivor.
Surprisingly, Dina is not filled with hate. Disdain, sure, but hate, no. Anyone would excuse her if she did hate. They’d give her carte blanche. And yet she doesn’t indulge. She never has.
“I never felt anything except this is the way things are,” Dina says. “I don’t think I ever hated anything or anybody.” Although she admits she doesn’t like the German language and avoids all things German.
When Dina continues her story, she mentions Karel Klinger, the love of her life. He died of typhoid fever two days before the liberation of his camp—Dachau—in Germany.
“They cheated me out of it, I just feel cheated because he died,” she says. However, even bringing up the man she loved doesn’t elicit any tears. Dina remains calm. She’s been this way with Judy as well. The pair has spent practically five months together, living in both the past and the present. Three days a week Judy has made the trek up the winding roads and into the Felton hills to visit Dina. With tape recorder in hand, Judy listens and Dina shares. She discloses it all. The smells. The sights. The memories. The deaths. The humor. The liberation at the end.
“Dina nourishes me on many levels,” Judy says. “In the literal sense, our sessions begin by sharing a good meal that Dina has cooked. She also feeds my soul by trusting me with her most intimate stories.”
The pair, acting more like sisters than interviewer and interviewee, met 20 years ago when Bouley was working two jobs: one as a social worker for Santa Cruz’s Child Protective Services, the other as a waitress at a restaurant on the wharf. They met during the original Santa Cruz Film Festival, where Judy was volunteering. They struck up a fast friendship and Judy surmises that she learned Dina’s story over a marinated cracked crab dinner and some ice cold Chardonnay.
“I was stunned because Dina’s story includes living through so much hate and despair and fear and starvation and freezing cold, but the hate more than anything and the constant death,” Judy says. “Sometimes awakening next to a corpse crammed onto the pallet that’s big enough for four people but 10 bodies are crammed there. Or the corpses that would lay out in the morning where she’d have to stand at attention for three hours while they were counted.”
Although the women remained fond of each other, their lives took separate paths. Judy would go on to become a Hollywood casting director, on the road for 15 years, casting films like the 2004 hit Master and Commander, The Road to Perdition and many others. Dina would continue to do animation work and maintain her home and garden in Felton, while also being a mother to her two daughters and grandmother to three.
Twenty years later, in the spring of 2004 they would meet again in a burrito shop in downtown Santa Cruz. Dina would tell Judy to give her a jingle. Judy would do so. The old friendship, which never really disappeared, would bloom again.
“I had come to a place in my life where I was feeling a need to take a break from being on the road full time making movies,” Judy says. “… I went to Dina in July (of 2004) and told her I was committed to taking some time off from film to write.”
They decided to write a book—together. While Judy will be the scribe, it is Dina’s story that she will tell. The two have grown close since last spring when they bumped into each other.
“As far as I’m concerned, Dina is a part of my family now and always will be,” Judy says. “Her daughters and grandchildren have really embraced me and made me feel very welcome.”
It’s this welcoming nature that Dina possesses. She wants her guests to feel “tsoops,” a made up word meaning “groovy” or “comforted.” It’s easy. Just sit at her table. Break bread. Listen.
Beginning of the End
After spending three-and-a-half years surrounded by death and starvation in concentration camps, liberation came. On Jan. 18, 1945, Dina and her camp were marched out of Auschwitz-Birkenau and walked for three days to reach the cattle cars. During the entire walk she sustained herself by eating snow. It was necessary. If anyone lagged they were shot immediately. There were corpses that lined the road. All she could think of was walk, walk, walk.
“I got sick from the snow and had terrible diarrhea or dysentery … and when we were being loaded on the trains, I had to go badly,” Dina says. “My mom shielded me next to the train so nobody could see and then I had to toss my underpants away, much to my chagrin. That’s when my mom took off her [underpants] and gave them to me and said, ‘Happy Birthday.’” That’s one of those dark, humorous moments that Dina talks about.
It was Dina’s 22nd birthday: Jan. 21, 1945. Six days later and Auschwitz-Birkenau would be officially liberated by the Soviet army. It is estimated that 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Dina was first taken to Ravensbruck, a women’s camp in Germany, where she stayed for three weeks. Following that she was delivered to another camp, Neustadt-Glewe, in Germany, to work in an airplane factory, painting numbers on the dashboards where instruments are placed. On May 5 she was liberated by “Battle fatigued Russians and four dapper GIs,” she says, remembering that day of being set free. For about six weeks she wandered around Germany, trying to get home. Finally, she arrived in Prague on June 17, on a bus full of repatriates. Everyone was met by someone, except Dina, her mom, and her “camp sister,” Lexia.
“I saw a man walk by and that man wore a hat and a coat and I suddenly thought, ‘how in the world do you get these things?’” Dina says. “I went to my mom and said, ‘I want to go back,’ and my mom said, ‘Me too.’ The only way I can explain it to myself now is that somehow I needed the familiar more than I need freedom. …That’s what happened to us somehow. We were there for three years and five months.”
Dina was able to start her life over eventually and after the war she went to Paris and landed a job as an assistant to an animator named Art Babbitt, who had, ironically, worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. They fell in love and were married six months later. In 1948 they moved to America and settled in Hollywood, where she continued working as an animation assistant for MGM, Warner Bros and other studios, with projects including Wiley Coyote from the Road Runner cartoon. Art and Dina had two daughters and their marriage lasted 14 years, ending in divorce.
She moved to the Santa Cruz area in 1979 but continued to work for Hollywood until she retired, sending her work down south by mail. And about 20 years ago, she met a woman named Judy Bouley who could help bring Dina’s tale to a larger audience. The rest, as they say, is history. Or rather, her story.