MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
I'm Robert Siegel.
And we're going to hear now from 83-year-old Dina Babbitt, who was born in what was then Czechoslovakia, where she went to art school. Many years later in Hollywood she was an assistant animator whose hand contributed to some very familiar cartoons.
Ms. DINA BABBITT (Animator): For the past 17 years, I was doing Cap'n Crunch. Before that I was at Warner Brothers and I was doing Wiley Coyote, which I didn't like very much because of all the little things that had to be very carefully animated and Tweety Bird and all these things, you know. Everything that Warner Brothers had in their cartoon department.
SIEGEL: Well, now flash back several decades to 1944, and what Dina Babbitt was drawing was anything but comical. It was life saving. Her name was Dina Gottliebova, and like thousands of her fellow Czech Jews, she was an inmate at the Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp.
The notorious Dr. Josef Mengele wanted portraits of gypsies to document what the Nazis saw as their degenerate racial characteristics. His photographs, he said, lacked the proper colors.
He learned about the young Jewish artist, who had painted a mural in the children's barracks at Birkenau. So Dina was summoned and told the paint, and by doing so survived.
Ms. BABBITT: I was called to the sick bay. I was standing in a small room behind a desk. And one of our Jewish doctors who was in there, too, said to me Dr. Mengele is going to keep you here. You don't have to go on the transport. At which point I said, what about my mother? And Dr. Helman got very flustered and he said, well, you can't possibly. And then Dr. Mengele interrupted him and said, what is her number? You know, we had tattoos -
SIEGEL: Yeah. Tattoos on your arms.
Ms. BABBITT: And I didn't know it. I forgot. So he sent somebody to fetch my mom and she came. And this is how my mother and I got on the list.
SIEGEL: Dina made nine watercolors for Mengele - nine portraits of gypsy prisoners. Nowadays we would call them Roma. In 1973, she learned that seven of the portraits are in the Auschwitz museum, and she's been trying to gain ownership of them ever since.
You can see what these watercolors look like at our Web site, NPR.org.
The museum says they are an integral part of the collection. Dina Babbitt says they are an integral part of her life. She vividly remembers the day in 1944 when Dr. Mengele, notorious for conducting experiments on inmates, set her up with a makeshift studio.
Ms. BABBITT: And Mengele sent for two more chairs. So one chair was my easel and the other chair was for the subject I was supposed to paint, and one chair for me to sit on. And I got a pad and paints, watercolors. And then he said to me to go and pick a subject outside.
So I went out and there was a group of girls standing nearby. And I asked one if she would please come and sit for me. I'm going to paint her. And she came in and I painted her. That's the girl with the red scarf. And I finished her a few days later.
To my surprise, he said aren't you going to sign it when he took it. And at first I asked him what do you mean my name or my number? And he said your name. And so anyhow -
SIEGEL: And this was the first of nine portraits, I gather, that you did in watercolors.
Ms. BABBITT: Yeah. Nine portraits and two I did in our own camp on my own of two people. And they were never found, at least I don't know.
SIEGEL: Now you discovered decades ago, in 1973, that seven of these watercolor portraits had been acquired by or for the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum, which has them. I've seen reproductions of them. They're very striking. I've seen them online. You say those are your drawings and you want them back.
Ms. BABBITT: I want the originals back because those that I held in my hands since '73 when I came there for the first time, I actually held them. They brought them to me. You know, so I'm all for them being reproduced as much as possible. I want the world to know that the gypsies had the Holocaust just like we did.
SIEGEL: Did you remember what it felt like back in 1944 to be sitting across from a gypsy prisoner at Birkenau?
Ms. BABBITT: Well, the one I was closest to was Celine. That's the second one, the one with the blue scarf. She had just lost her baby. It was two months old and it starved to death. She had no milk. There was no way she could feed it. I got white bread for her because she said she couldn't swallow, she couldn't hold down the bread. And that was crucial, of course, because we had such tiny rations that if you couldn't eat what was given to you, that was a death sentence right there.
So luckily Mengele sent his orderly, who was bringing in my soup everyday, to bring my white bread, which I could share. I gave it to Celine of course. And therefore I painted her slowly because I wanted to be with her as long as possible. So I think it took about a week to do Celine.
SIEGEL: How did you sit across from these people and under the - doing a task for Josef Mengele, one of the truly criminal characters of the 20th century - try to make something beautiful out of that watercolor?
Ms. BABBITT: Well, it was a little bit of an escape for me, too, you know? I've been always painting and sculpting. And the fact that I had a chance to do it in Birkenau, in Auschwitz, was a bit of an escape, although the starvation was still rampant. I mean you don't know what it feels like to be hungry without any chance of appeasing it. You know, it's a different thing than being hungry for lunch or for dinner.
There is a pain, it's a physical pain in your stomach. And so I was sitting there painting and for a moment I could forget about all that. And also, I mean, if you look into somebody's face doing a portrait, you look into the person, you look inside of the person. And for a moment you become involved with, you know, you're almost one. You can see what the person's thinking about or what his past was or so on.
Anyway, but Celine it was an instant friendship and it came out in the painting. So I am attached to these paintings. And I don't understand anybody who can possibly try to keep them from me. Can you?
SIEGEL: Dina Babbitt's request for the originals of her watercolors has been supported over the years by a sense of the Congress resolution and a petition signed by hundreds of cartoonists and animators. The Auschwitz Birkenau Museum states its position on it Web site. It says in part, both death certificates and prisoner cards that were produced in large numbers by the Nazi camp bureaucracy and works of art created in the camp, either made by prisoners on orders of the SS or illegally, are unique documents and pieces of evidence, having the greatest meaning significance and impact in the place of their creation.