Lidia Ostałowska



Lidia Ostałowska is a journalist for the daily Gazeta Wyborcza. Her areas of special interest include those who are disadvantaged – members of ethnic minorities, women, youth sub-cultures and people who are socially excluded for some reason. She wrote the acclaimed book Cygan to cygan – “A Gypsy is a Gypsy”.


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Farby wodne  (Water Colours)




Water Colours is a many-layered work of historical reportage based on a biographical tale whose heroine is Dina Gottliebova-Babbitt (1923-2009). The world learned of this Czech-American artist of Jewish ancestry, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz, in the late ’90’s. That was when Gottliebova undertook her latest attempt to get back the art she had done in the concentration camp, which had since become the property of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. The dispute with the Museum became an international scandal, with the American Department of State and the Polish government getting involved.

This central issue branches off in many directions. On the one hand, Ostałowska reconstructs the fate of her heroine (particularly focusing on Gottliebova’s time in the camp), while on the other she strives to grasp more general problems concerning history, memory, trauma, racism, and the relationship between the torturer and the victim. In this case, S.S. Doctor Josef Mengele took an interest in the little painter’s talent. He commissioned her to paint the portraits (using the water colours of the title) of Roma prisoners at Auschwitz, and because she performed these duties so well, this war criminal often showed her special kindnesses. Mengele himself is, in fact, one of the many supporting characters of Water Colours – the overriding biographical narrative subsumes other life stories, too. This ends up creating a dense network of events and trajectories encompassing almost 60 years.

Ostałowska draws on hundreds of studies on and accounts of the hell of the camps, frequently weaving citations and summaries into her own text. It is worth asking, then, what Water Colours has to add to the conversation, what sets it apart. And the answer seems to be all the efforts that tend toward metaphor and parable – in other words, toward the territory of literature. Such, for example, is the function of the Disney story. Before she started working for Mengele, Gottliebova had decorated the children’s barracks with the image of Snow White, and years later she would marry Art Babbitt, the man behind many of the best-known cartoon characters in America, and she herself wound up working for the biggest animation studios in the United States, where she eventually settled.

Dariusz Nowacki


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One Comment

  1. This reads to me like a history lecture, the kind of reading that might be written to “do me good”; and well it might inasmuch as its content, but I like to read my fiction through more literary voices and through less distancing eyes. I can go to find a textbook if I feel the need to know more, but the best of history reading can be written into a novel.

    I find myself unsatisfied, and wouldn’t read on just for a reason which I can lift from the text: “It brought about real political change, aesthetics were secondary.”


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