David Olère was born in 1902 into a Jewish family in Warsaw from a father doctor and a mother midwife. He shows an early talent for painting and enters at the age of 13 at the School of Fine Arts in Warsaw, despite his young age and the numerus clausus against the Jews. He obtains a scholarship and left Poland for Berlin three years later. He is hired by Ernst Lubitsch at the Europäische Film Allianz as a painter, model maker and studio decorator.
In 1923, he emigrates to Paris, settles in Montparnasse, frequents many artists, works as a poster designer at Paramount and teaches at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. In 1930 he marries Juliette Ventura, of whom he has a son, Alexandre. He is naturalized French in 1937, under the name of David Olère.
David Olère is mobilized in 1939 to the 134th infantry regiment. After his demobilization, he lose his job, Paramount closes its doors, and he is subject to the status of Jews established by the Vichy regime.
On February 20, 1943, he is arrested by French police during a home raid. On March 2, he is deported from Drancy to Auschwitz with a thousand Jews, by convoy No. 49, service number 106144. He is chosen to be part of the Sonderkommando, the "special commando" whose main role is to get the bodies out of the rooms gas and recover any valuables from corpses before loading them into crematorium ovens. The members of the Sonderkommandos, although relatively better treated than the other prisoners in the camp, are regularly gassed themselves to avoid embarrassing revelations and testimonies about the extermination process at work at Auschwitz-Birkenau. His drawing talent attracting the interest of the SS, David Olère escapes programmed death by calligraphing and decorating with drawings the letters sent by the SS to their families. It retains many places, moments and experiences of the camp, confirmed by the various testimonies which will be found later (photos of SS, buried manuscripts of other members of Sonderkommando, testimonies of survivors). Speaking Polish, French, English and German, he also serves as an interpreter for the Germans who, feeling defeat dawning, do not hesitate to pick up the news from London broadcast by the BBC. There he learns of the liberation of Paris and Strasbourg.
David Olère succeeds, like other members of the last group from Sonderkommando, to mingle with the other prisoners of the camp during the evacuation of Birkenau and Auschwitz on January 25, 1945. He then takes part in the death march until the Austrian camp at Mauthausen. He is not released by the United States military until May 6.
Returning to Noisy-le-Grand, Olère no longer feeds his art (drawings, paintings and sculptures) except in a perspective of witness. It is his only way to endure the horror experienced and his only motivation to survive. His works are considered to be a visual testimony of primary importance.
He dies, according to his son Alexandre, terrified by the birth of the negationist theses, which do not hesitate to question his own testimony.
Olère draws from 1945 to 1962. His drawings are sometimes his only remaining visual documents. When period photos made by SS or plans were later found, for example of the oven room or the buildings of the crematorium, it turned out that they were superimposed on his drawings, which were an architect's precision. Olère provides for example cross-sections of these installations, destroyed shortly before the evacuation of the camp, in order to explain how the Nazi death factories worked. Although called to draw for SS (he shows himself in one of his drawings making a navy on a skin lampshade), he obviously could not make sketches on the spot.
Olère also drew "Les Inaptes au travail" which is very famous because it really shows the horror of the Nazi camps.
Olère often represents herself in her drawings, identifiable by her registration number. Besides scenes of selection and gassing, concerning groups or individuals, he shows in his work the mines after the evacuation of Birkenau, or scenes of prayer, having quickly sketched a star of David and a figure of Jesus on wrapping paper for his fellow barracks during the last winter spent in Auschwitz. A drawing represents Jews and Christians praying while a prisoner is on the lookout, this activity being prohibited like many others.
In 1952, Olère produced The Foods of the Dead for the Living. This oil on cardboard measuring 102 × 76 cm is on display at the Holocaust Museum in New York. This painting produced shortly after the Second World War describes an expressionist movement. This artistic movement of the XXth century seeks to express emotions, feelings.
David Olère, The Eye of the Witness, Beate Klarsfeld Foundation, Paris 1989
David Olère and Alexandre Olère, A genocide in inheritance, Wern editions (ISBN 2-912487-35-8)
Serge Klarsfeld, Le Mémorial de la Déportation des Juifs de France, Paris, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, 1978; new edition, updated, with an alphabetical list of names, FFDJF, 2012
(en) Bella Shomer-Zaichik, Out of the Depths: David Olere, an Artist in Auschwitz, Yad Vashem, 84 p.