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November 2, 2011 By:
Camp Portraits Emerge From a Local Closet to Yad Vashem
Felix Cytrin carried 43 portraits he drew of fellow concentration camp inmates when he came to New York in the late 1940s. It took another 63 years to bring them to the public.
The portraits will be displayed at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum, starting early next year. They were recently donated to the museum by Marci Friday, who lives in Bucks County and uncovered them 25 years ago in a closet.
Cytrin was one of about 140 prisoners at the Sachsenhausen, a camp north of Berlin, conscripted into the elaborate Nazi counterfeiting ring dramatized in the 2007 Oscar-winning Austrian film, The Counterfeiters. His drawings, most dated 1944 and 1945, depict the craftsmen he labored beside.
Named "Operation Bernhard" after Bernhard Krueger, the SS officer who ran it, the Nazi plan was to use millions of fake British pounds to undermine England's economy and bankroll Nazi espionage. Toward the end, they were producing fake American dollars as well.
Cytrin was chief of the engraving division. He and the other counterfeiters were sectioned off in Block 19, an isolated barracks where their work could be kept secret, until they were sent to another camp to be killed in 1945. They were liberated first.
Before the war, Cytrin, who was born in what is now Warsaw, Poland, in 1894, was an anatomy professor and artist, said Marci Friday.
Twenty-five years ago, Friday, at the time married to Cytrin's grandson, was helping her in-laws clean out a closet in their home in Pennsylvania when she came across a small cardboard portfolio.
"I had heard of the portraits but I had never seen them. I realized that's what I was looking at," she said. "The fascinating thing was how well done they were. The eyes, the expressions -- you could see the fear that the prisoners were feeling."
"As odd as it sounds, they really spoke to me. It was almost as though each prisoner's personality was coming through," said Friday, who is not Jewish.
Friday took it upon herself to preserve the portraits, which were done in pencil, charcoal and chalk on newsprint. The prisoners' names and occupations were written on the backs, so she placed them in double-sided protective glass frames to let the viewer see both sides.
The next step was to find somewhere they could be viewed.
"There was no Internet at that time, so I started looking into local galleries and museums, to find anyone who might be interested in exhibiting them. But there was no interest," Friday said. She even met with a curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to no avail.
The problem, she thinks, is that the portraits aren't "sensational."
"These prisoners were segregated because of what the Nazis perceived as their value, and in one respect they were treated better; they're not emaciated and they're not in prisoner garb," explained Mark Harris, an attorney in Blue Bell who negotiated the Yad Vashem donation.
"On the other hand," he added, "they were always under the threat of death. If they succeeded in creating a good counterfeit bill, they might be killed. And if they didn't succeed, they might be killed."
Cytrin, who died in 1971, was known in his family for being paranoid, convinced that the U.S. government had an eye on him. As it turns out, it did.
Lawrence Malkin, author of Krueger's Men: The Secret Nazi Counterfeit Plot and the Prisoners of Block 19, found CIA records that show Cytrin was a person of interest, because he could counterfeit again, said Friday.
"Talking to Lawrence Malkin gave me the impetus to continue trying to get the portraits shown. I felt I had to get the story out," she said.
Earlier this year Friday tried once again: She emailed the curators at Yad Vashem, who, as luck would have it, had decided to put together an exhibit for 2012 showing the Holocaust from an individual's perspective. Cytrin's portraits were a perfect fit.
With Harris' help, Friday became the legal owner of the portraits and decided to donate them, rather than lend them just for the exhibit, which is slated to open Jan. 23 in Jerusalem.
"After all this time," she said, "I feel like they found a good home."