Zinovii Tolkachov

Zinovii Tolkachov (1903–1977) was a painter, monumental artist, and the master of easel and book graphics.

Zinovii Tolkachov was born in 1903. The future artist spent his childhood in the Belarusian town of Shchedrin, a Jewish agricultural colony. Tolkachov graduated from the artisan department of Kyiv State Jewish College. Later he studied at the art school, yet the studies lasted for only 6 months since he had to leave the school due to financial struggles. Tolkachov earned his living by painting street signs and film posters. In 1920, he studied at the Higher Art and Technical Studios (Vkhutemas) in Moscow (under the supervision of Piotr Konchalovsky), and in 1928–1929, at Kyiv Art Institute (under the supervision of Fedir Krychevsky). Later he became a lecturer at this institute and was offered the Dean’s position right before World War II.   

In the interwar period, Zinovii Tolkachov became a famous artist, whose works were exhibited in the museums of many Ukrainian cities as well as Prague, Moscow, Leningrad, Warsaw, Venice, Philadelphia, Copenhagen, and Amsterdam. However, after the war, the artist would suffer from oppression for alleged “cosmopolitanism”.

During World War II, Zinovii Tolkachov was a front painter and took part in the liberation of Auschwitz and Majdanek. He entered the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp immediately after it was liberated by the soldiers of the First Ukrainian Front. Overwhelmed by the discovery, Tolkachov started to make sketches right in the camp. In the absence of paper, he was drawing on the camp blanks. Tolkachov was one of the first artists who depicted the horrors of the Nazi camps and the Holocaust.

Zinovii Tolkachov is the author of the portraits of the Soviet state officials as well as Ukrainian writers. His legacy also includes multiple posters, satirical paintings in the magazine Perets (Pepper), and illustrations for the works of Sholom Aleichem and other writers. Yet the most famous of Zinovii Tolkachov’s creations are the series of lithographies on anti-fascist topics (Majdanek; Oświęcim; and The Flowers of Oświęcim).

The painter died in Kyiv in 1977. 


The archive of the Center contains unique materials related to the life and creations of Zinovii Tolkachov (more than 220 units), which can be useful for art and cultural historians, researchers of World War II and the Holocaust and historians of Jewish shtetls.

There are 16 Zinovii Tolkachov’s auto lithographies in the archive:

  • six auto lithographies from The Shtetl series (1945, based on the writings of Sholom Aleichem). Apparently, these artworks were inspired not only by reading the Jewish classic but also by memories of Zinovii Tolkachov’s own childhood he spent in a Jewish town in Belarus;
  • an auto lithography (The Girls Are Singing, 1962) from the famous Oświęcim series;
  • nine auto lithographies which are the portraits of Sholom Aleichem created in 1964–1965.

The correspondence of Zinovii Tolkachov is of great importance for historians and researchers of his art. The collection includes copies of 102 letters from the period between 1942 and 1976. Wartime “triangle” letters with the stamps of military censorship (such stamps are present even on the letters written in Yiddish) are worth particular attention. Tolkachov’s correspondence circle consisted of family members, colleagues, painters, friends, and acquaintances, representatives of Soviet creative intelligencia (in particular, the writers Viktor Nekrasov and Yelena Halperina and the art historian Ksenia Bezmenova). 

The archive also holds publications (exhibition catalogues and work albums), exhibition posters, and materials about the artist’s creative legacy. Extremely valuable are the printed copies of the notebooks with the visitors’ feedback on the exhibitions “Occupants” (1943), “Majdanek. The Flowers of Oświęcim” (1945), “Christ at Majdanek” (1945) and the photo album of the exhibition “Majdanek” at the National Museum in Krakow in 1945. It is known that Tolkachov created his paintings Majdanek, Oświęcim, and The Flowers of Oświęcim in the first hours of the liberation of those camps. His friend, the writer and war veteran Viktor Nekrasov said, “I do not know any documents – exactly, documents! – more powerful than the sketches of Zinovii Tolkachov.”

Other significant exhibits of the collection are the printed copies of Zinovii Tolkachov’s personal documents of the period from 1942 to 1973: a Red Army military card, an identity card, an Artists Union member card, references and recommendations (the originals are at the Kyiv History Museum and the Museum of the History of Ukraine in World War II, as well as in the private archive of Tolkachov’s family).

Those who are interested in the daily life of Soviet citizens in the early post-World War II years and the psychology of an “ordinary Soviet person” are encouraged to get familiar with the copies of the diary, letters, and documents (1946–1947) of the painter’s brother M. Tolkachov.