This painting dated August 14, 1985 is an example of Richard Sevigny departing – to a degree - from religious themes to depict deep, historical cruelty.
It was inspired by Jean-Francois Steiner’s controversial 1966 book Treblinka, an “inspiring story of 600 Jews who revolted against their murderers and burned a Nazi death camp to the ground,” according to the jacket notes of Richard’s copy.
Treblinka reads like a thriller. It begins with Jews being shipped to death camps in rural villages in occupied territories. One was Treblinka, where nearly a million were killed. It ends with a violent prisoner uprising in which only 40 men survive.
As the story progresses, with escape attempts, the constant arrival of trains full of prisoners bound for a thousand different kinds of deaths, and the revelation that the liquidation of the camp is drawing near, Steiner offers us a picture of a cruelty that became almost normal to the prisoners.
The episode that inspired this piece reportedly took place after a camp commander, fearing prisoners were conspiring in the cramped bathrooms or perhaps out of pure cruelty, decided to post a watchman in the latrines. Of course, the Nazi guards didn’t merely assign a prisoner to work as a guard. They turned it into a perverse game in which the guard would be called the Shit Master and wear an absurd costume.
Richard filled the background with passages taken directly from the book, starting with a mess-hall conversation between camp guards:
“He will be dressed like a rabbi,” said one.
“He will wear a Russian cap,” said another.
“No, a top hat,” outbid a third.
“Yes, yes, a hat,” shouted the listeners.
“And we’ll give him a whip.”
“And we’ll make him grow a goatee.”
“And we’ll tie an alarm clock around his neck.”
“Cantor or rabbi,” either way it is the same shit.”
The “shit master” had instructions to only let five prisoners enter at once and to make them leave after three minutes.
“Rabbi, how goes the shit?”
“Very well, sir, it stinks.”
Even the Jews could not help laughing at him. “I beg of you,” he would say. “Do it for me, come out!” The prisoners could not help laughing, but it was themselves they were laughing at, it was their religion they were mocking. For the shit master was one of them and his costume was part of their religion.