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The Holocaust

George Segal (American, 1924-2000)

The Holocaust, 1982

  • Plaster, wood, and wire
  • Dimensions variable
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Dorot Foundation Gift, 1985-176a-l
  • Art © The George and Helen Segal Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

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The Holocaust

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The Holocaust

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George Segal created The Holocaust as a memorial to the horrific events of World War II. Using his signature technique, he posed live models and cast them in plaster. Segal based the installation on photographs of the concentration camps that were taken immediately after liberation. But he added a degree of order and organization to the piles of corpses seen in those pictures because he found the Nazi disregard for the dead so offensive. Segal once said, "In any culture, if a human being dies, there's an elaborate, orderly ritual that accompanies the burial. The body is laid out in a straight line. Hands are crossed. There's a burial case and a prescribed, almost immoveable succession of events that involve the expression of grief of the family, the expression of love, the expression of the religious beliefs in whatever civilization. It's a prescribed order, and if a modern state turns that order topsy-turvy and introduces this kind of chaos, it is an unthinkable obscenity."

Segal also includes a variety of literary and personal symbols in the scene. One of the figures, for example, holds a half-eaten apple in her hand, representing Eve in the Garden of Eden. Elsewhere, a man cradles the head of a young boy in a reference to an earlier work by Segal titled Abraham and Isaac, while another man lies with arms outstretched like Jesus on the cross, a symbol of suffering. In the foreground, Segal inserts a standing figure clutching the barbed-wire fence. This figure, cast from a Holocaust survivor living in Israel, is a witness to the atrocities and may provide even a glimmer of hope. He also serves as a mediator for viewers, creating a necessary emotional distance.