Felix Nussbaum: Painting a Self Portrait of Death in the Holocaust

Felix Nussbaum painted multiple self-portraits during the Holocaust, giving us a unique artistic insight into the experience of one man, among the millions that were murdered.

fear, felix nussbaum

"Fear," by Felix Nussbaum, 1941. Self portrait with his niece Marianne. Oil on canvas. Image from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Imagine witnessing your fate unfolding before your eyes. Imagine having the ability to know what the future holds, to know how death will come and to know that there is no way for you to change that. What would you do with that knowledge in hand? For Felix Nussbaum the answer was obvious. He had dedicated his life to his art and spent his final years illustrating life as a Jew under the Nazi regime through his paintings, sharing his own journey and experiences as a target of persecution and the horrors that came along with being a Jew in the Holocaust, in the best way he knew how.

Felix Nussbaum was born on December 11, 1904, in Osnabrück, Germany into a well-respected and well-off Jewish family. His parents, Phillip and Rahel, recognized their son’s budding artistic talents at a young age. Phillip was also an amateur artist himself in addition to owning an ironworks firm. Felix’s parents decided to encourage their son to develop his natural skill and supported him as he attended different art schools across the country from Hamburg to Berlin. In 1927, Felix held his own art show and later participated in group shows and designed a series of covers for a Berlin-based art magazine.

"The Two Jews," by Felix Nussbaum, 1926. Oil on canvas. The painting features the inside of the synagogue of Osnabrück. Image from the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“The Two Jews,” by Felix Nussbaum, 1926. Oil on canvas. The painting features the inside of the synagogue of Osnabrück. Image from the digital collection of the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In 1932, Felix applied for and was accepted to the Berlin Academy’s Villa Massimo in Rome. In October of the same year, Felix left Berlin and moved to Rome together with his partner, Felka Platek, who was also a budding Jewish artist. Little did he know that he would never return to his home country.

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In December of 1932, Felix received news that a fire had started in his Berlin studio, a space he had rented out to fellow artists for the duration of his absence. He lost over 150 pieces to the flames and was understandably devastated. Just a few months later in the first half of 1933, the Nazi party rose to power and the political and cultural atmosphere took a sharp turn. Dr. Joseph Goebbels visited Rome and made a stop at the German Academy to meet the students. Goebbels gave a lecture on Nazi art doctrine and explained that the Aryan race and heroism were the main themes that the Nazi artist should develop. Felix quickly understood that his time in the Academy was limited as there was no space for him within the world of National-Socialist art.

Felix Nussbaum
“Destruction (1)”, Felix Nussbaum, around 1933. ink and brush on paper. Image from the digital collection of the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The Nazi regime, however, did have an immediate impact on Felix’s art as he began painting what he saw as the fall of civilization. His painting, “Destruction,” reflects his feeling of impending doom, showing a couple standing among the architectural ruins and destroyed artworks. Forced to leave Rome and the academy but unable to return to Germany, Nussbaum and Platek moved to Alassio, Italy where they lived comfortably with the support of Felix’s parents.

In 1935, Felix and Felka left Italy and moved to Belgium via Paris, in what became a nomadic existence of exile from their home country. Felix continued his painting at each destination, taking comfort in his work through his art from this period clearly reflects the growing discomfort and anxiety he felt at the ever-increasing danger to the Jewish community.

In 1940, German troops marched on Belgium. Felix Nussbaum was arrested, along with 7,000 others, and sent in a wagon to the internment camp at St. Cyprian. He managed to escape and returned to Brussels where he went into hiding with the help of a friend, an art dealer. Felix, ever the artist, drew the horrors of life in the internment camp. His painting, “Self-portrait in the Camp,” reflects the inhumane and humiliating conditions he experienced while in the camp.

Felix Nussbaum
“Self-Portrait in the Camp,” Felix Nussbaum, 1940. Oil on plywood. Image from the digital collection of the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Throughout his time in hiding, while living in constant fear for his life, he continued to express himself through his art, persistently chronicling the ever-worsening conditions and the perpetual dread that their hiding spot would be discovered by the authorities.

felix nussbaum
“The Damned,” Felix Nussbaum, 1944. Oil on canvas. Image from the digital collection of the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Felix recognized the inevitable and he resigned himself to his predestined fate at the hand of his Jewish identity. He painted his people, the poor and damned. He did not reflect hope or survival in his works, choosing instead to paint from reality.  He painted “Self Portrait with a Jewish Identity Card,” a self-portrait in which he shows himself wearing the identifying yellow star imposed on every Jew, holding his identity card – the card that erased all hope of escape, knowing there was no way to separate himself from that identity. He painted himself backed into a corner with the knowledge that there would be no escape.

Felix Nussbaum
“Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card,” Felix Nussbaum, likely in late 1943. Oil on canvas. Image from the digital collection of the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

His final major work, “The Skeletons Playing for the Dance,” reflected the hopelessness of the situation from his perspective. Skeletons play musical instruments from the ruins of modern society – a cultured society of science, technology, art, and music. Among the skeletons, behind the organ, sits one figure who, while gaunt and malnourished, appears to be alive, suggesting that Felix held some hope that he would count himself among the survivors – a hope that would never be realized.

"Death Triumphant (The Skeletons Playing for the Dance)," Felix Nussbaum, April 1944. Oil on canvas.
“Death Triumphant (The Skeletons Playing for the Dance),” Felix Nussbaum, 1944. Oil on canvas. Image from the digital collection of the Folklore Research Center, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In July 1944, the Gestapo discovered Felix Nussbaum and Felka Platek’s hiding place. The couple was arrested and sent to the Malines transit camp where they were put on the very last transport to Auschwitz on July 31, 1944. They met their untimely deaths on August 4 of that year.

For more on the life and art of Felix Nussbaum, read “Art and Exile – Felix Nussbaum 1904-1944, Exhibition” by Emily D. Bilski essays by Peter Junk, Sybil Milton, Wendelin Zimmer and “Felix Nussbaum: Art Defamed, Art in Exile, Art in Resistance – A Biography” by Eva Berger, Inge Jaehner, Peter Junk, Karl Georg Kaster, Manfred Meinz and Wendelin Zimmer.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

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Love on the Wings of a Paper Airplane

A timeless love story cut short by the horrors of the Holocaust. 

A photo from the wedding of Imre and Ilona Kinszki in 1925.

The following story was collected by Centropa in an interview with Judit Kinszki, the daughter of Ilona and Imre Kinszki. Judit’s full oral history interview can be read here.

Ilona Gardonyi was born in 1899 in Budapest, Hungary.  She came from a large Jewish and religiously observant family that was determined to secure good careers for their children. Though the family came from a modest economic background, two of Ilona’s brothers went on to become doctors.

Ilona graduated from middle school, then a one-year commercial trade school, before getting a job working as a shorthand typist in an office. She worked very hard, taking on overtime and extra projects. Working in the same office was a very skinny, shy young man named Imre Kinszki.

Imre was a highly educated young man who spoke five different languages.  Ilona caught Imre’s eye and he began teasing her, throwing little paper airplanes onto her desk. Ilona, who was a very serious worker, found this to be frustrating and told him off, calling Imre “a stupid little kid.”

Ilona Gardonyi in 1922.
Ilona Gardonyi in 1922. Image courtesy of Centropa.

For Imre, not only did this not deter him, it only encouraged him to continue. Being too shy to ask her face to face, he wrote a note, folded it into another paper airplane and flew it over to her desk. The note read, “Would you like to meet after work?”

The coworkers met outside of office hours in the Farkasret Cemetery. Imre, still working to overcome his shy nature, sat down on a bench and put his hat down next to him, so that Ilona couldn’t sit too close. The couple spent hours together, chatting about science. When he got home that night, Imre announced proudly to his family that he was going to marry Ilona Gardonyi.

Not everyone was pleased. The Kinszkis were upper-middle-class, highly educated, and did not observe many Jewish traditions – if at all. When Imre Kinszki announced that he wanted to marry Ilona, the family expressed their horror – how could their son marry a girl so far beneath his class?

IMRE KINSZKI
Imre Kinszki. Image courtesy of Centropa.

The Kinszki family gathered together to decide how to handle this new scandal. They determined that their best course of action was to use their connections and have Ilona fired from her job.

Ilona did not let this bring her down. As a talented typist, she was able to quickly find a new position. When Imre found out what his family had done, he went over to Ilona’s new place of employment and proposed marriage on the spot. After a bit of encouragement from her family, Ilona and Imre were married in 1925.

They had nearly 20 years together. In that time Imre and Ilona had two children–Gabor was born in 1926, Judit in 1934. Imre showed a true talent for photography and was quickly becoming one of Hungary’s great modern photographers.

GABOR AND IMRE KINSZKI 1930
Gabor and Imre Kinszki, 1930. Image courtesy of Centropa.

But history got in the way. Imre never came back from the war.

Like all Jewish families in Hungary at the time, the family suffered tremendously in the Holocaust. Imre was taken for forced labor, first in Hungary and then in Germany. Gabor, who had just turned 18, was deported to Buchenwald. Ilona and little Judit survived the horrors of the Budapest ghetto. Judit, who was just 10 years old, held on to her father’s photographs, keeping them safe for when he would return.

JUDIT KINSZKI
Judit Kinszki. Image courtesy of Centropa.

The Budapest ghetto was liberated on January 17, 1945. Immediately after the violence subsided, Ilona and Judit began visiting the train station every day where they would watch the trains come through, hoping and desperately waiting for the train that would bring Imre and Gabor back to them and dreaming of a reunion that would never come.

There was no news of Gabor for a long time until one day, Ilona found a young man who had known and worked with him. The friend reported that, when the group arrived in Buchenwald, they were was forced off the train and were asked what skills they had. Gabor answered honestly and said he was a student. The young man explained to the women that the Germans immediately tied him up, and, in the cold December morning, hosed him down with water just to watch him freeze to death along with all the unfortunate souls who did not have a practical trade.

A man who had known Imre found Ilona and gave her what little information he could about her husband’s fate.  He said that the train car he and Imre had been traveling in had been unhooked and that the train then left and continued on towards Germany without them. The group then got off the train car and was taken by their Nazi guards on foot towards Sachsenhausen. Imre’s acquaintance explained that the men were taken to spend the night in a barn. He had hidden by burying himself in the hay, unable to continue on due to the severity of his injuries. The Nazis didn’t find him and he managed to survive. The rest of the group, including Imre, marched on to what is now known to have been a death march – but the acquaintance was not aware of this and Ilona held on to her faith that her husband would return.

JUDIT KINSZKI’S MOTHER ILONA KINSZKI died in 83
Ilona Kinszki passed away in 1983. Image courtesy of Centropa.

Even with the later revelation of the facts of what happened on those marches, and despite everything showing otherwise, Ilona refused to declare Imre’s death and waited anxiously for his return, until the day she died in 1983.

Imre Kinszki’s pictures are now considered modernist masterpieces. His daughter, Judit, is an active member of the Cafe Centropa programs and she regularly meets student groups to talk to them about her experiences.

Judit
Judit Kinszki at a Cafe Centropa event. Image courtesy of Centropa. Photographer: Róbert Bácsi.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.




 

A Life Story in One Picture: The Photographer Who Fell in the War of Independence

The discovery of an obscure picture in a family photo-album led Adva Magal-Cohen to embark on a journey to piece together the life story of the mysterious Moshe Weizmann.

A picture of a young man wearing short trousers, with a brief caption scribbled on the back: “Moshe Weizmann. He came with the Youth Aliyah organization and lived with the Teuber family. He was killed in the War of Independence in the Battles of Jenin.” This one image discovered by Adva Magal-Cohen while leafing through a family photo album, is what set her on a journey to trace the life story of a man she had never heard of before, who was killed decades earlier when he was only 26 years old.

“A young man in three-quarter-length trousers. In the background is a tent. Cypress trees on a hilltop. An unknown relative. I turn the picture over and the backside reveals a short explanation in my grandmother’s handwriting.”

This is how Magal-Cohen describes the moment she discovered the picture, completely coincidentally, while going through the family’s notebooks and albums to research and document the story of her grandmother, Rachel Teuber.

The Hebrew caption on the back of the mysterious photograph: “Moshe Weizmann. He came with the Youth Aliyah organization and lived with the Teuber family. He was killed in the War of Independence in the Battles of Jenin.” Click to enlarge.

 

The photograph of Moshe Weizmann discovered in Rachel Teuber’s photograph collection. Click to enlarge.

Rachel, who fled the pogroms in Podolia, built her home in Balfouria, a Jewish farming community in Mandatory Palestine. There, she opened her home to the young Moshe Weizmann, who arrived in Israel without family through the Youth Aliyah organization. Adva’s older family members knew that Moshe was a photographer and that he had photographed Adva’s father when he was a little boy. It was a picture Adva knew well, but it had never occurred to her to search for the photographer’s identity. Now, the thought would not leave her. Adva continued to investigate, but apart from the limited details provided by her family, she did not know anything else about Moshe’s life.

Adva’s continued search took her to the memorial archives for fallen soldiers of Israel. There, she was able to locate the memorial page dedicated to Moshe Weizmann.

 

Moshe Weizmann. Click to enlarge.

The page tells that Moshe Weizmann was born on July 9, 1922, in Vienna. There, he learned the art of photography from his father who was a reputable professional. Moshe immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1939 and underwent agricultural training in Balfouria for two years. Later, he was assigned a post as a guard at the British base in Ramat David. Moshe’s father Zvi managed to reach Mandatory Palestine and open a photography shop in the northern city of Afula. After his father died, Moshe continued to run the store until he was drafted into the Golani brigade and mobilized to the Jenin front. On July 10, 1948, the day after his 26th birthday, he was hit by an enemy bullet and died. His body and the bodies of his comrades remained on the battlefield for ten days or more, until they were finally recovered. He was buried in the military cemetery in Afula.

Yet this was just the beginning of the story.

Try as she might, Adva could not stop thinking about Moshe and she continued to dig deeper into the story of the young man she had never known. Little by little, she discovered details in the archives and managed to document Weizmann’s life and the lives of some of his family members.

Her research first led her to the story of Moshe’s father, Zvi Weizmann, a Viennese photographer, who died in April 1941.

In Vienna in 1938, the Weizmann family suffered at the hands of Nazi abuse. In one markedly difficult event, Zvi was forced to lift a heavy motorcycle, an incident which seriously damaged his health.

In the Zionist archives, Avda was able to discover Moshe’s Youth Aliyah file. It revealed that he immigrated on board the ship “Galil” in April 1939, after bearing witness to the riots in Vienna. Four months later, he wrote a desperate letter (in German) to the Youth Aliyah offices at the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, asking for permission to travel to the town of Rishon LeZion. In the letter, he explained how his mother had died in Vienna a month earlier and that he was trying to enlist the help of a relative in Rishon LeZion to rescue his father from Austria (which was already under the control of Nazi Germany). And so he wrote: “Now it is in your hands, to grant me permission to save my father, therefore, I urgently request to give me permission to embark on this critical journey …” He signed the letter: “Maximilian Weitzmann, Moshe Weizmann, staying with the Teuber family, Balfouria”. The special leave was granted and Moshe successfully helped his father escape to the Land of Israel.

Zvi Weizmann boarded the illegal immigrant ship “Sakaria” in early February 1940. The ship was subsequently stopped by the British and Zvi was sent to the Atlit detention camp for six months. In August 1940 he was released, allowing him to join his son in the Jezreel Valley. He would spend less than a year in Afula, where he would reside until his death.

Aboard the “Sakaria”, the ship that brought Zvi Weizmann to Palestine, February 13th, 1940.

Later, Adva was able to locate people who knew the father and his son. They told her about the boy Moshe, who was the only Betar (a right-wing Jewish youth movement) supporter in a group of socialist youth. They told her of Moshe’s move to Afula with his father and that the two had established a photography shop. They worked there successfully for a few months. However, at the age of 55, only a short time after he arrived in Israel to begin a new life, Zvi passed away due to complications from the injury that had compromised his health years prior. Moshe was left alone and continued to run the photography shop without his father.

A friend of Moshe in Afula, related that he received a camera from him for his 18th birthday. Slowly, the story of the photography shop began to unravel. Magal-Cohen next discovered photographs taken by Zvi Weizmann. The photographs were taken in Vienna and were now being sold at auction. She also discovered photographs taken by Moshe Weizmann, on the back of which he stamped the words: “Photo-Weizmann, Afula.” The photographs are of Afula during the British Mandate, a demonstration against the White Paper, a pro-British rally during the war and a few pastoral photographs of palm trees in the city. Magal-Cohen also found photographs of a group of boys from the Youth Aliyah organization, with Moshe Weizmann appearing among them.

 

A photo of a Zionist march by Moshe Weizmann. Click to enlarge.

 

In the Afula municipal archives, Magal-Cohen found a handwritten letter by Moshe Weizmann. In July 1943, he requested a waiver for a fee required by the local council to maintain a signpost for his shop. Weizmann had been drafted by this time and was serving as a guard. His father had died two years earlier and it was difficult for him to pay the fee.

Adva also found a list of those who were called upon to be drafted from Afula. The name “Weizmann, Moshe” appears on the list as number 22. A document of those who reported for service was also published. Moshe Weizmann is number 36 on the recruitment list.

In December 1949, the secretary of the Afula Council wrote to the district officer and listed residents of the Afula area who had recently fallen in the war. Under the number 7 is written: “Weizmann, Moshe”. A note was added stating that the exact date of death was unknown. The location was listed as “near Zir’in.”

 

A letter in Hebrew by Moshe Weizmann to the Afula city council, requesting the waiving of a signpost fee. Click to enlarge.

The journey that began with one photograph revealed not only the image of Moshe Weizmann, a fallen soldier of the War of Independence, but also a complex family history and the story of a man whose family was shattered to pieces.

Finally, Magal-Cohen learned that Siegfried, Moshe’s brother, immigrated to London from Vienna around the same time Moshe arrived in Palestine. He was also a photographer and established a thriving event-filming business. He even photographed weddings of the British nobility and royal family. Siegfried and Moshe had planned to meet at the London Olympics after the war, but this reunion enver took place. Siegfried visited Israel once and went to see his brother Moshe’s grave. One of Moshe’s friends bestowed upon him two albums of photographs taken by Moshe during his years in Balfouria and Afula.

During her investigation, Magal-Cohen was able to contact Siegfried’s children – Moshe’s nephews. They told her that their father had continued to engage in photography and became the first importer of Japanese cameras to England. The family eventually shut down the photography business; today they run a successful real-estate agency. Siegfried’s children plan to travel to Israel soon and visit their uncle’s grave. They also hope to find more lost photo albums.

Thus, the story of the life and death of the late Moshe Weizmann, one Israel’s fallen heroes, was discovered in all its richness and history. Were it not for the persistent research that eventually became the book: “A Woman Sits and Writes – Rachel Teuber” (which can be found on the shelves of the National Library), Moshe Weizmann would be just another name, another number. A man killed at the age of 26, who today would be well over 90 years old.

For further reading (in Hebrew): “Memory on the Margins of Memory: Moshe Weizmann – An Oleh, a Photographer, a Casualty” from the bi-monthly periodical “Et-Mol,” Issue 243

"A Woman Sits and Writes - Rachel Teuber" by Adva Magal-Cohen
“A Woman Sits and Writes – Rachel Teuber” by Adva Magal-Cohen (Hebrew)

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Before and After the Holocaust: The Life of a Jewish Doctor in Niš

Rare documents shed light on the life of Isak Albahari, who served as a military doctor during the war that claimed the lives of his wife and children.

Nis

Image of the Niš tram. From the City of Niš.

Isak Albahari was born on Jun 19th, 1904 in a small town called Smederevo, to loving parents, Danilo and Eliza Nee Levi. Isak graduated from Medical school in Zagreb in 1931 and, after finishing his residency at the General State Hospital in Belgrade, he married Berta Pinto. In 1935, their first son, Danilo, was born and one year later Isak Albahari was moved with his family to Niš, the third largest city in Serbia, to open his medical practice. It was there that their second son, Benjamin, was born 1938.

The Jewish population in Niš at the time included 350 citizens with permanent residence, 51 with temporary residence and 155 immigrants for a total of 556 Jews.

Personal data of Doctor Isak Albahari in the Medical Chambers Register
The personal data of Doctor Isak Albahari in the Medical Chambers Registry. Image courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

With the start of World War II, life changed drastically for the Albahari family and for the entire Jewish population of Niš. The first Nazi concentration camp in the occupied Kingdom of Yugoslavia was set up in Niš. Most of the Jews in the city were killed in that camp or were transported to the Sajmište concentration camp that was intended specifically for Jewish women, children and old men.

In 1941, Isak was drafted into Yugoslav army as a military doctor and after Yugoslavia surrendered to the Axis forces, he was sent to a military camp in Germany. In early 1945 he returned to Belgrade to find that his wife and two sons had been killed in the Sajmište concentration camp in 1942. He appears in the records as having reported their deaths to the authorities.

ID residency card
Citizenship card indicating permanent residence for Isak Albahari. Image courtesy of the Historical Archives of Belgrade.

During his time in Belgrade after the war, Isak met a woman who shared a similar life story. Mara was from Zagreb, Croatia and had been married to an Ashkenazi Jew who was killed by the Nazis at the start of the war. She managed to survive along with her two sons by hiding in different Serbian villages for four years. With the conclusion of the war, she traveled to Belgrade together with her sons to start a new life. Unfortunately, along the way, both of her sons were killed in a train accident. It was soon after this horrible tragedy that she met Isak Albahari and began her healing process.

Dr Isak Albahari signed a form with details on the death of his son Benjamin Albahari, 3 ½ years old, killed in Sajmiste concen
The form signed by Dr. Isak Albahari with details on the death of his son Benjamin Albahari who was just 3 and a half years old when he was killed in the Sajmiste concentration camp.

In October 1945 they moved together to Peć, a small town in the South of Serbia, where Isak resumed his medical practice and together they started a family. They had two children, a son, and a daughter. Their son, David Albahari, was born in 1948 and grew up to become one of the best and most renowned Serbian writers alive today.

Doctor Isak Albahari died in 1981. He was buried in Sephardic cemetery in Belgrade.