(Tarnopol 1904 – Vienna 1986): Artist in the Resistance
“Nevertheless, I remained the final victor”
Heinrich Sussmann was born Henryk Sussmann into an Orthodox Jewish family in Tarnopol (today Ternopil, Ukraine), a Jewish town in the then Imperial and Royal Kingdom of Galicia, on 20 November 1904. He spent his first school years in the traditional Jewish cheder. After his family fled to Vienna during the First World War, his schooling took a different path. From 1914 he attended grammar school, then went on to study interior design and stage design in Paris in 1925/26 and at the School of Applied Arts in Vienna (now the University of Applied Arts) in 1927/28. He was also politically active in the Social Democratic Workers’ Party and later for the Communist Party. From 1929 onwards, he worked as a set designer for Universum Film in Berlin and as a graphic designer and caricaturist for the Berlin Uhlstein publishing house.
In 1933 Heinrich Sussmann fled via Vienna to Paris, where he married his long-time friend Anna Goldscheider in 1937. The couple lived in Paris until 1939, and Heinrich Sussmann was able to continue working as a stage designer, commercial artist and interior designer. At the same time, he was involved in the foreign branch of the Communist Party, like Alfred Klahr, for whose work Nationale Frage (“National Question”), published in Paris in 1937, Sussmann designed the cover. After the “Anschluss” of Austria to the German Reich, Sussmann and a number of other Austrian exiles founded the Cercle Culturel Autrichien, which carried out cultural work for Austrian exiles. In 1939 he was interned as an “enemy alien”, first in the Stade de Colombes assembly camp in Paris, then in the camp in Meslay-du-Maine.
At the end of April, Sussmann reported for military labour service. Following France’s surrender he fled with his wife to the unoccupied zone. In southern France, the couple were active together in the Résistance. In 1942, despite the great risk, they moved to Paris, where they were arrested on 1 June 1944. At the end of July 1944, both were finally deported from Drancy to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In some ways, Heinrich Sussmann was lucky at Auschwitz: not only did he encounter old political allies but also influential figures in the camp in the form of Hermann Langbein and Heinrich Dürmayer. To them he owed his survival. Instead of being sent to Birkenau, Sussmann remained in Block 18 of the main camp for his entire time in the camp. Following Dürmayer’s intervention, he was assigned to the typing pool, where he had to illustrate greeting cards for the SS. Sussmann also joined the camp resistance at Auschwitz and helped smuggle information about the atrocities in the camp to the outside world.
Heinrich Sussmann was hiding in a coal cellar of the main camp when Auschwitz was liberated on 27 January 1945. Fellow prisoners had hidden him there with other inmates who were too weak to make the death march out of the camp to await the arrival of the Red Army. Sussmann remained at the camp until February 1945 and helped collect and preserve documents relating to the crimes. He then returned to Vienna.
In the post-war period, together with his wife Anni, he dedicated himself to raising awareness of the crimes of the Nazis. In 1946, for example, Heinrich Sussmann participated in the exhibition Niemals Vergessen (“Never Forget”), which was shown at the Vienna Künstlerhaus and for which he also designed the poster. In 1978 he created the glass windows for the first Austrian exhibition at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial, which are also displayed in the new exhibition in the memorial area. Heinrich Sussmann died in Vienna on 12 December 1986. In 1989, the Anni and Heinrich Sussmann Foundation was established to continue Sussmann’s political and artistic legacy.
Literature and sources
Radio Ö1, Im Journal zu Gast: Auschwitz-Überlebende Ehepaar Sussmann (09.02.1985), österreichische Mediathek, jm-850209_k02.
Heinrich Sussmann, Ich erinnere mich wieder an Auschwitz, Vienna 1963.
Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance: estate of Heinrich Sussmann (DÖW 21349/1-189).
Jewish Museum Vienna: Sussmann Collection, partial artistic estate.
Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance, Heinrich Sussmann: Meslay 1940: https://www.doew.at/erinnern/fotos-und-dokumente/1938-1945/frankreich-1940-zwei-fotoalben/heinrich-sussmann-meslay-1940 (17.12.2021).
Sophie Lillie, Arye Wachsmuth, Im Schatten der Veränderung. In: Dispossession. Exhibition catalogue, Künstlerhaus Vienna 2021, p. 104-115, here p. 108-110.
Peter Michel, Ankunft in der Freiheit. Essays gegen den Werteverlust der Zeit, Berlin 2011, p. 129 ff.