When Dr. Sigmund Rascher of the Schutzstaffel (SS), a paramilitary organization of Nazi Germany, started conducting his merciless medical experiments at the Dachau concentration camp using prisoners as guinea pigs, he sent for a prisoner, an artist, to document his work. His assistant Walter Neff, a former camp inmate himself, approached Georg Tauber, a Bavarian advertising illustrator. Lured by the prospect of a reduced prison term, Tauber took the offer in 1942. However, unable to stomach the barbarity on display, he showed up at these sessions not more than two times.
One day, he told Neff that he had had enough. As Tauber recalled later in a 1946 letter to the Munich Public Prosecution Office, “Neff said to me, ‘Don’t be so stupid, he can get you released in a few months and you’re free.’ ‘Walter,’ I said, ‘even if I have to stay here for another ten years, it’s alright. I can’t watch that again, I just can’t.’”
Today, almost 70 years after Tauber’s death from tuberculosis in 1950, his heartrending sketches and paintings of the medical experiments and the horrors of the camp have become the subject of an exhibition at the very site where he was held as an “asocial” prisoner between 1940 and 1945.
Dachau was one of the first concentration camps ever built by the Nazis, weeks after Adolf Hitler seized power in 1933. There were about 41,500 documented deaths at the camp and its subcamps, and thousands more undocumented. (Numbers here, and in the rest of this article, have been provided by the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site.) It set the template for others that followed.
Apart from the Jews, the Nazi regime also imprisoned those who did not fit its ideal of Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community). In the eyes of the Nazis, this included those who repeatedly broke the law as well as members of the LGBTQ community. Another category of persecuted people was the “asocial prisoners.” These were mainly the homeless, drug addicts, people with mental illnesses, beggars, sex workers, as well as the Sinti and Roma.
Tauber fell into the latter category, the turbulent arc of his life mirroring the choppy trajectory of the early 20th century. As a 17-year-old, Tauber volunteered for military service in World War I. One year later, as he lay injured in bed after a street fight in Berlin, he was given morphine as a pain reliever. This was the beginning of his addiction.
Over the following years, his life was interjected with brief stays in psychiatric hospitals, as well as prisons for minor theft charges, fraud, and forgery. In 1929, he joined the Nazi party but left it a year after Hitler got elected. That same year, in 1934, he separated from his wife, the mother of his twins, and began an itinerant lifestyle. Three years later, he was arrested by the Gestapo for a letter he wrote in which he threatened to murder Benito Mussolini. Then, in 1940, because of his morphine addiction, he found himself at Dachau amid 10,000 other asocial prisoners.
Engaging in any artistic activity was prohibited at Dachau, unless commissioned by the SS. And yet, poetry, music, and painting found their way out of these confines as acts of resistance, self-expression, and documentation. Art also worked as a form of currency in exchange for cigarettes or food.
Tauber initially found an ally in Rudi Felsner, who worked as an employee at an SS porcelain manufacturing company. Starting in 1941, Felsner discreetly provided Tauber with watercolors and other paints in exchange for Tauber’s drawings. The barter system was busted by the SS not long after; Felsner got conscripted as a soldier and was sent to the Eastern Front, while Tauber was detained in a bunker in 1944.
Tauber’s paintings vividly capture the brutality and inhumanity of the medical experiments conducted at Dachau. In one image, he depicts a hypothermia experiment, 300-400 of which were conducted at the Dachau concentration camp, killing about 90 people total. Subjects were made to endure freezing cold water until they reached life-threatening body temperatures. Meanwhile, doctors stood by and recorded physical changes.
“As they were then pulled out of the tank, with a pulley, dead or having collapsed, it needs to be kept in mind that the water in the tank was 8-10 degrees [Celsius] below zero. But that didn’t stop them from ridiculing the subjects,” Tauber wrote in the 1946 letter.
In another of his paintings, American soldiers are seen vaccinating and disinfecting former inmates after the camp was liberated.
Tauber recorded not only his own experiences, but those of his fellow prisoners. Through his renderings, a viewer sees what happens when humans plunge to the very depths of inhumanness: men march to their deaths as skeletons, they are stripped and crushed, corpses are stuffed in ovens when there is no coal.
For decades after his death, Tauber was forgotten. His art had been in the possession of Anton Hofer, another Dachau prisoner. Employees at Dachau, which is now a memorial site and museum, presume Tauber gave Hofer the artwork himself. It was about six years ago that Hofer’s granddaughters chanced upon the drawings in his estate and approached staff at the memorial site with their discovery.
“What was striking about Tauber’s work was that not only did it throw a light on asocial prisoners, of which very little is known, but also about life at the camp after the liberation led by American troops,” says Andrea Riedle, head of the research department at the Dachau memorial site, who curated the exhibition with her colleague Stefanie Pilzweger-Steiner.
“After the liberation, Tauber and many other prisoners spent more than a month at the camp,” says Riedle. “Due to terrible hygiene conditions and overcrowding, infectious diseases like typhus and spotted fever began to spread. The camp was quarantined. Tauber depicted this period in his work.”
At the end of World War II, the asocial prisoners faced stigma. According to Riedle, they were denied the status of victims of the Nazi regime, and thus received no compensation. A few months after leaving the camp, together with fellow prisoner Karl Jochheim, Tauber cofounded “K.Z.-Arbeitsgemeinschaft ‘Die Vergessenen,’” an association that campaigned for these “forgotten” concentration camp victims.
While Tauber was inclined to make postcards of his drawings and sell them, other survivors dismissed the idea as unashamedly mercenary. One of them published an article in a newspaper condemning Tauber. Bringing perspective, Riedle says, “Even though he did want to make money, he also wanted to make the drawings public so the people could know about the Nazi crimes.”
During his lifetime, Tauber didn’t see his work being recognized or appreciated. What he did see was two of his pieces being used as evidence at the Dachau and Nuremberg trials. Today, Tauber’s art serves as yet another reminder of the extraordinary cruelty of the Nazi regime.
*Update 7/25: This post has been updated to clarify figures, including the number of deaths at Dachau.