Leadership talk with Yusuf Tolga Ünker

A Jewish boy surrenders in Warsaw, color by Yusuf Tolga Ünker (2020), Original, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photograph #26543 (1943.) 

As an artist, I often reflect on the words of Elie Wiesel: “We must not see any person as an abstraction. Instead, we must see in every person a universe with its own secrets, with its own treasures, with its own sources of anguish, and with some measure of triumph.”

Turkish artist Yusuf Tolga Ünker gives profound relevance to the Holocaust by vividly revitalizing historic photos.   

Warning: This article contains graphic images.

Original: Jews captured by SS and SD troops during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are forced to leave their shelter and march to the Umschlagplatz for deportation. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo 26543. (Forcibly pulled out of bunkers, 1943).

Is it unique to be a Turkish artist dedicated to the Holocaust? 

As far as I know, I am the only artist in Turkey who is focused on the Holocaust and makes art about it.  There may be people making documentaries, but I have not heard of anyone working with photography or painting about the Holocaust.

How do you describe your art?

Generally,  I work in several different mediums such as acrylic, oil, watercolor, pastels, and charcoal.  I have also done the colorization of old and iconic black and white photos. I do this with either printout or digitally. My latest project was the colorization of photographs from the Holocaust. I used my own technique where I digitally paint on top of the photographs. 

Original: Jews captured during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are led away from the burning ghetto by SS guards, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo #26536 (1943).

Why do you add color to these photos?

Some relatives of survivors or victims themselves believe that these photographs should remain untouched and in the original black and white. I chose to add color to these precious photos so as to reflect the truth of the scene in a more intimate, realistic and relatable way.

My intent is to speak to the younger generations in order to expose them to the horrors of the past. My sense is that they will relate more to a color photograph than an old black and white photo from many years ago of people whom they never met or knew, in places that look far away.

Stroop Report color by Yusuf Tolga Ünker (2018), Original, Jews captured during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising are led away from the burning ghetto by SS guards. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photograph #26536 (1943.)

How does color transform the scenes?

With black and white photographs, it is clear to the viewer that these pictures had been taken a very long time ago. A precise and detailed colorization of these images transforms them into modern and relatable scenes that give the feeling of having been photographed more recently. 

Original: Starved prisoners, nearly dead from hunger, pose in concentration camp in Ebensee, Austria. The camp was reputedly used for “scientific” experiments. It was liberated by the 80th Division. (Lt. Arnold E. Samuelson,
May 1945, National Archives and Records Administration #531271,).

I believe that by colorizing these photos I have made it possible for the people in them to speak to us. This gives us the opportunity to create a connection between the past and the present.  Above all, the main point is to provide the viewer with a realistic and accurate photo of those terrible times.  We look back at photos from then, so as to keep their memory alive and their sacrifice meaningful. 

The reality is that people usually take a quick look at these black and white pictures, say “how sad”, and then look away without thinking much about them; but, when the images are colorized the viewer can feel the pain of the people in the pictures. This may induce fear or anxiety and many people may tend to look away. This is the exact reason why I do colorize photographs.  To be more accurate, I paint them rather than colorize them. What I do goes beyond a photoshop type approach to colorization. 

Ebensee concentration camp prisoners, Color by Yusuf Tolga Ünker (2018), original (1945, National Archives #531271)

What do you hope people see in these photos?

My objective is to show what people may not want to see.  The Holocaust was a vivid and gruesome experience for so many people. We in the present find safety in those black and white photos of “then”.   If they appear to be of “now”, then the reality of the terror and horror of those times, can speak directly to us in these times.

I want to shake people out of their comfort zone regarding the terror and inhumanity of the Holocaust.  These color photos present the truth, as the victims themselves saw it in the 1930s and 40s. The cruel truth of the inhumanity wrought upon the Jews of Europe in the mid 20th century can be more accurately experienced when they are in color and the photos look more up-to-date.  The nightmare becomes more real when we are not viewing them as old pictures from a bygone era.  

What inspired you to start your art?

I watched several documentaries of the Second World War on TRT when I was in secondary school. My interest in the events of the war started at that time. I read Mein Kampf and it affected me deeply. It was around that time when I decided to portray this terror and hatred through art.  

When I was in high school, I colorized prints and printouts of old photos with pencils and watercolor. I still continue to color a variety of photos. Shortly thereafter,  I started to paint scenes from the Second World War. As these precious and iconic photographs were colorized, they became more realistic and vibrant. The scenes were more scary and threatening.  

After some time, I decided to turn the colorization of Holocaust-era photos into a personal project. The main thing I thought about while doing the project was that this painful event should never occur again.

Exhibition Poster for Facing The Holocaust.

My main objective was to raise consciousness and awareness among people, especially younger generations, on the events of the Holocaust.

My intent was to have people in modern times develop a sense of relationship, compassion, and connection to those unfortunate victims of Nazi terror.    

I was approached by a family member of Holocaust survivors to color an old family photo from that period.

The surviving 90-year-old man and his family were moved with great emotion and upon seeing this photograph in color. 

For a brief moment, his slaughtered family members were alive and speaking to him from the distant past. This truly inspired me and my work.  I have been affected deeply by the terrible events of the Nazi era.

As an artist, I believe that we should use the power of art to break the ignorance and silence surrounding the Nazi Holocaust.  

What was the exhibition with the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, and the German Ambassador like? 

It took place in the Quincentennial Foundation Jewish Museum of Turkey.  At the opening ceremony of the exhibition, The Chief Rabbi of Turkey,  Rav İsak Haleva and the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany, based in Istanbul,  Michael Reiffenstuel made opening statements. Pianist Renan Koen provided a musical background by playing her piece “Holocaust Remembrance & Before Sleep”.  

From the exhibition head of the Jewish community Rabbi İsak Haleva.

What did Chief Rabbi Rav İsak Haleva say at the ceremony?

Chief Rabbi Rav İsak Haleva said: “Seeing and hearing are not the same things; though many things are the same, we experience different feelings when we see them with our eyes.”

“That is why I am also looking at you right in the eye; there is sorrow in everyone’s eyes. When a person sees the photographs exhibited here, he or she is unavoidably influenced by them”.

“I would like to extend my thanks to the Consul General of Germany, based here in Istanbul, for his tough stance in facing this pitch-black era of human history presented here at the exhibition of “Visions of the Holocaust”.

“I would also like to thank Tolga Ünker and the Quincentennial Foundation for their work. I hope God won’t give humanity such great sorrows again.”

Ambassador of Germany Michael Reiffenstuel (left) with the artist (center) and his father (right) at The Quincentennial Foundation Jewish Museum of Turkey.

What did the Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany in İstanbul Michael Reiffenstuel say?

“The support given to this museum is very heartfelt support because I believe that the sorrows which people go through have to be remembered and, that is why I am of the conviction that everything that needs to be done has to be done.”

Referring to the statement of Minister of Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas, “Germany bears the responsibility for the most barbarous crime in the history of humanity. The Shoah remains a warning and duty to us to campaign for human rights and tolerance worldwide,” Reiffenstuel continued..”By coloring these black-white photographs, artist Tolga Ünker wanted to make the happenings of the past more concrete and vivid. “The coloring of these photographs gives us the feeling that what was lived in the past did not remain in the past, but can also be experienced in the present. The aim of the artist here is to help us feel the historical realities more strongly and, in the meanwhile, to contribute to the prevention of such a terror from recurring in the future.”

Rabbi Isak Haleva said to me: “May your hands be blessed”.

The Ambassador said: “Congratulations” he then turned to my father and said, “you must be proud”.

Nova Southeastern University Exhibition in Davie, Florida.

Your images were also exhibited in Florida.  What was that like?

At the Nova Southeastern University Exhibition in Davie, Florida, the printed images were duplicated onto 90x120cm. canvases.  The exhibition held in the Jewish Museum in Istanbul exhibited photos that were 60x80cm. We hung the images in chronological order in both exhibitions. This helped the viewers to follow the historical events in order. 

How is your wife involved in your art?

Fikriye Ünker and with Yusuf Tolga Ünker at Ankara University (Courtesy).

She always supports my art and projects.  She says that my project lets her think about WWII and the crimes that happened in that era.  She is pleased to produce artistic works by doing research with me on this great human crime.

And, she is happy to support this project that will make people look again because everyone needs to learn and learn the Holocaust.  She also made some watercolor works that were shown at the exhibition.

Never Again by Fikriye Ünker, watercolor, 2018 (Courtesy).

What are you working on now?

I am developing exhibitions such in many different countries. I have already received invitations to display my work in Israel, South Africa, and Australia. A third exhibition was recently held in Ulus Jewish School. The photographs displayed at the 500th Anniversary Foundation Turkish-Jewish Museum were viewed by the students from the Ulus Private Jewish School. After an interview with high school students, I stated to them that “The Holocaust is not well known because it is not included in the educational system in many countries.” 

Due to this very disturbing fact, it is a valuable experience to raise awareness and talk with young people about these issues. They need detailed discussion and guidance in order to have a fruitful and meaningful conversation about difficult issues, such as the Holocaust. 

The aim was to ensure that all those who did or did not know about the Holocaust would be able to have familiarity with the people who had experienced this great tragedy as well as to create awareness and sensitivity to the events of the past.

Some people may have thought that my work was done for a religious group or organization. This is not so. The main purpose of my work is to educate young people about this great tragedy and to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again. My sincere hope is that this project will help new generations to understand the Holocaust more.”

One student said to me that they were used to seeing these photographs like these.  I answered him by stating “We shouldn’t get used to it, In order for these images not to be repeated, we should share the images that remind us of past events and try to avoid them from happening again. Therefore, young people have a duty to do so.”

Presently, I am working on photographs from a private collection. My hope is to have an exhibition of them in Israel, South Africa, Australia,  and Poland. I am also writing a book as well as a script for a documentary about Irene Folger Weiss, a survivor of Auschwitz. I have already made some painted photos for her and her daughter Lessly Weiss.  Lessly said the following to me: “My mother had questioned why I was bothering with colorization and then she saw what you did with her little sister and she was so happy to “see” her again”.

Which Righteous Among the Nations are you interested in depicting through your art?  

Irena Sendler, Selahattin Ülkümen, Wilhelm (Wilm) Hosenfeld and Janusz Korczak.

What interests you about them?

Irena Sendler was a woman who saved the lives of thousands of children in Poland.

Selahattin Ülkümen was the Turkish consul-general on the island of  Rhodes. He saved several people during the Holocaust who were residing in German Occupied Rhodes.  Ülkümen is a wonderful example of someone who did the right thing, and who also was Turkish.  On December 12, 1989, Yad Vashem recognized Selahattin Ülkümen as Righteous Among the Nations. Some researchers say that there were other Turkish diplomats who did similar good deeds and saved Jewish lives. 

Wilhelm (Wilm) Hosenfeld. was the “Pianist” rescuer:  This incident is a good example of a soldier in the German Army who chose to save a Jewish life. He is the reason why Wladyslaw Szpilmanin survived the Holocaust.

Janusz Korczak. He was a teacher who helped children.

What would you like to do in the future?

One day I would like to make oil paintings of the Holocaust era and display them in a Holocaust museum.   And I want to go on. especially the short movie which I want to shoot is for that reason. I want to show what the Holocaust was in reality.

About the Author
Sherman holds an MBA from The Kedge Business School, a Grande Ecole de Commerce et de management in France, which included time as an executive exchange scholar at Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.
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