How Art Helped a Concentration Camp Survivor Heal

Women prisoners in the Ravensbrück, Germany, concentration camp. The crosses on their backs indicate that they are prisoners, to prevent escape.
April 24, 2014

While processing the files of AAUW fellows from 1917 to 1976, I have encountered an astounding number of women who actively participated in resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries during World War II. Educated and brave, they came from many nations, including Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Norway, and even tiny Luxembourg. After the war, AAUW granted these women International Study Grants in order to resume interrupted educations or to pursue new endeavors that would help them rebuild their devastated homelands. These women risked their lives and sometimes suffered unspeakable horrors in order to stand up to Nazi brutality.

Lily Unden

Lily Unden

One of these fellows, Lily Unden, particularly caught my attention. Unden was a well-known painter in her native Luxembourg, where she was admitted to the exclusive artists’ association Cercle Artistique in 1935. The outbreak of the war and the German occupation of Luxembourg put her artistic career on hold, however; in her application for her AAUW fellowship, she noted that “the Germans, for political reasons, forbade me to work.”

As the secretary of the Luxembourg Federation of University Women wrote in her recommendation letter for Unden, “During the war, she had proved to be one of our most courageous women, whose work in the underground finally led her to Ravensbruck,” a concentration camp in Germany whose inmates were mostly women. Unden spent almost three years in the camp before being released in 1945.

After the war, Unden applied for and received an AAUW fellowship to study at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. The fellowship allowed her to broaden her artistic horizons but more important to her, it was “a great revelation of the American mind, the power of a great nation, and the vitality visual [sic]in all ways.” After three years of war, living in an atmosphere of constant death, Unden’s year in New York brought a profound change: “new people, young, healthy, progressif [sic].” AAUW International Study Grants in the postwar years were intended to promote peace and heal the wounds of war, and in Unden’s case, this goal was almost certainly realized. She returned to Luxembourg after her fellowship year and taught in a number of secondary schools, helping to educate a new generation of Luxembourgish citizens.

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Unden was an accomplished poet as well as a painter. She modestly wrote to Ruth Roettinger, AAUW’s fellowships director, “I surely am not a poet, but sometimes I feel to express my thoughts in verses [sic].”  For Unden, poetry was a way to express emotions that were too profound for any other outlet. Her poem Fraternité, originally written in French like the rest of her poetry, was a particularly poignant homage to the power of human connections even in the face of annihilation, as the French museum dedicated to the resistance movement notes.

Unden’s dedication to art survived and triumphed over one of the darkest chapters in human history, and her courageous story is just one of many we have found in our archives.

This post was written by AAUW archives intern Elizabeth Beckman.



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