How Lenin’s Great-Grandfather, a Convert, Informed on the Jews

“I had already recognized their stupidity thirty years ago” - Secret police files reveal how the Russian leader's ancestor betrayed his brethren.

Lenin and his great-grandfather's letter

Lenin and his great-grandfather's letter.

By Hadassah Assouline


The letter below was sent to Tsar Nicholas I on January 5, 1845 by Moshe Itzkovich Blank, a Jewish convert from Zhitomir who had taken the name Dmitry Ivanovich Blank after his conversion (converts were not permitted to change their family name). Written in Yiddish, the letter along with a Russian translation, reached the head of the “Third Section”—which functioned as a secret police—at the Tsar’s private office. It remained unknown to researchers until the 1990s when the Russian translation appeared in newspapers in Russia.

The letter aroused great interest due to the identity of the writer’s great-grandson—Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov—who was none other than Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. However, the real significance of this letter lies not in the relationship of its author to Lenin, but in the information it reveals about the world of many Russian Jews who had converted to Christianity over the course of the nineteenth century.

Vladimir Illyich Lenin, great-grandson of Moshe Blank. The father of the communist revolution apparently was not aware of his Jewish roots. Photo: LOC

After the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening up of the archives in former Soviet Union countries, a wealth of evidence was discovered about the conversion of Jews. The material was located in the files of the Russian Orthodox and Catholic churches and in the files of various police institutions, including the Third Section, where an additional category of converts was uncovered. It seems that among the converts were informants who informed on members of their community because of personal disputes, as well as others who quarreled with their communities or community leaders as a result of informing on another community member. Their appearance in the police files was usually related to the information the informants provided and the follow-up investigation.


The Quarrels that Bred an Informer

We know of at least two episodes in which Moshe Blank, the author of the letter presented here, quarreled with a fellow townsman and members of the community of Starokostiantyniv (Alt Konstantin) in Volhynia province. In 1809, after a string of earlier disagreements, the Jewish community accused him of setting fire to the town. A trial acquitted Blank but he left the community and moved to Zhitomir, also in Volhynia province, from where he continued his retaliation against members of his former community in a letter of complaint which he sent to Tsar Alexander I. This letter, which predates the one below, never reached the Tsar but remained with the local authorities in Zhitomir.

Blank also became embroiled in disputes with the local Jews of Zhitomir and following legal proceedings he lost most of his vast property, including a local brick factory. The episode stretched from 1838 to 1844, and immediately after it Moshe Blank converted, changing his name to Dmitry Ivanovich.

Unlike other letters from informants in the Third Section files, Blank’s does not inform on a particular person or on members or leaders of a particular community, but on the Jews of Russia in general, and his missive had consequences for Russian Jewry for years to come.


The Letter’s Contents: The Jews “are not worthy of the grace bestowed upon them by the Emperor”

To our Lord the Emperor, His Merciful Excellency, Father of us all, May God grant him Life, Peace, Blessings and Fortune at Every Turn for His Longevity, Nikolai Pavelovich.

Our Lord Emperor, His Mercy rewards many favors to the Jews [Note: This is the tsar who conscripted young Jewish boys into twenty years of army service!] with his royal decrees that Jews must educate their children in government schools. It is clear to people of intelligent that in his mercy the Emperor wishes for the Jews to be educated and to dress as decent people.

The boors among the Jews do not understand this benevolence. They call these munificent decrees edicts. They are not worthy of the goodness the Emperor bestows upon them. I am now close to ninety and I was baptized in the Christian faith on the first of January 1845, and I attend church and see how every day the prayer is recited for the welfare of his Excellency the Emperor, for the welfare of the heir to the throne and for the welfare of his family. And this is right, because it is written in the Talmud “Oh pray for the welfare of the Kingdom” etc. And the Jews, even on the Day of Atonement, when they sit in the synagogue for the entire day … they do not say even one prayer for the welfare of the kingdom, despite that the prayer for the welfare of the Emperor His Excellency himself, not his family, is found in the prayer book, though the Jews never recite this prayer. It is there for the sake of appearances only … I had already recognized their stupidity thirty years ago, and distanced myself from them. And I placed my two sons in [government] schools, and twenty years ago I sent them to Petersburg to the university and there they completed their medical studies and were baptized. One, a military physician, died in Petersburg from cholera, and the other [Lenin’s grandfather] serves the Emperor in the city of Perm. I could not be baptized as long as my wife was alive, and after her death I was baptized so that I might end my life in the true faith. I know that not a few Jews would like to sway the Jews from their silly ways … but they must remain silent because there are some that hope to gain from their parents’ inheritance and there are some who fear their wives.  

… For the Jews receive many benefits from Christians both in terms of religion and in life. First, if the Christian will not buy the non-kosher meat [from the Jews] they will have to throw the meat away; and if the Christian will not buy the leavened bread on Passover, they will have to forfeit it. And second, the Christian serves the Jews on the Sabbath and the Day of Atonement by lighting the lamps in the synagogue and he [the Jew] profits from the Christian. The Jew should not despise the Christian, it is only that the Jew waits his entire life for the coming of the Messiah and a few times a day says in his prayers “I believe in the coming of the Messiah,” etc., and asks daily to be liberated from [Russian] citizenship and to be free. 

My Lord the Emperor, His Excellency, it is my wish that the Jews will be pressed so that they will not be permitted to benefit from Christians as I have written and that their prayers which they pray about the Messiah be erased so that they will no longer be remembered anywhere. First, because they cannot be educated while they look forward to happiness [the coming of the Messiah]. And second, it is outrageous that they have sworn to be true citizens at the same time as they are praying for “liberation.” They must also be ordered not to travel to the rabbis and the rabbis must be forbidden to travel to them, because the rabbis sway them from the right path. And may they be instructed to pray for the welfare of the Emperor, [for the welfare] of the heir to the throne and [for the welfare of] his family. And if this is true in the eyes of the Emperor, certainly the Jews will be educated and will thank him greatly for the good things he wishes to do for them.   

Dmitry Ivanovich Blank

January 5, 1845

סבא רבה של לנין
The letter, click to enlarge.


Response to the Letter: Edicts

Two days after the head of the Third Section read the letter, he presented Tsar Nicholas I with a report about the letter of the “convert from among the Jews.” In the report, the head of the department noted all of Blank’s accusations against the Jews and he suggested adopting a series of measures in the spirit of Blank’s letter.


ניקוליי הראשון
Nicholas I, the Tsar to whom Blank wrote, was also called the “Iron Tsar” for his belief in the absolutist regime. His lust for power was to a great extent turned toward the Jews through the “Jewish Reforms”—hundreds of harsh edicts, the cruelest of which was the Cantonist edict.

At the end of the report is a note by the governor of Zhitomir who wrote/had this to say about Blank: “A convert from the Jews, whose character suggests he is a troublemaker with a tendency to snitch, and who is not at all well-behaved.” Yet this negative characterization did not prevent further contact between the Russian authorities and Blank. In August 1846, Blank wrote another document, again in Yiddish, “about various methods of converting the Jews.” This document was sent to the Ministry of the Interior, which passed it on, by order of the Tsar, to the “Committee for Jewish Affairs.” In addition to his earlier recommendations, Blank suggested to forbid gatherings of Hasidim, whom he called “known zealots.”

Based on this document, on December 4, 1846, the committee concluded that conversion of the Jews was not on the agenda but their reluctance to recite the prayer for the welfare of the Tsar was intolerable. The committee noted that information on this failure was received from other sources, and therefore ordered—through the Ministry of the Interior—to monitor the attitude of the Jews to this prayer and punish those who did not recite it.

Over the course of a decade, central and local committees continued their activities throughout Russia regarding the prayer for the tsar and his family. It was only in May 1855 that the text of the prayer was agreed upon and approved by the tsar. Blank’s other proposals were submitted to the rabbinical committee but yielded no practical results. Indeed, “your ruiners and destroyers will come from amongst you.”


This article originally appeared in Hebrew in issue #16 of Segula – The Jewish History Magazine.


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Caught in the Rain? This Yiddish Umbrella Service Is Precisely What You Need!

Meet the first Jewish start-up for umbrella rentals!


As a Jewish history buff, I spend a lot of time on JPress (the Historical Jewish Press website), and every day I stumble upon another pearl.

A few days ago, I found in the December 31, 1916 issue of the New York Yiddish newspaper Die Wahrheit, what seemed like one of the craziest start-ups I had ever come across in my life: the National Umbrella Service Inc. Not only did the service look innovative, the advertisement was also pretty creative.




Let’s begin with the comic strip at the top. A Jew leaves his house in the morning (you can see that he’s Jewish, right?) holding a weather report that says “Rain Today,” while outside the sun is shining! “Hah. Another prophet!” says the Jews to himself holding up his umbrella. In the next frame, the smiling sun beats down on the fellow, who says: “Good God! How can I get rid of this umbrella!”



In the next picture, it’s pouring outside, and the forlorn Jew says, “I left my umbrella at home!” And in the last illustration, he cries, “Gevalt! Someone stole my umbrella!”

So, how did this start-up work? For those Yiddish-challenged readers among us, the ad says that: across Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn over 1000 umbrella rental stations have been opened. All one had to do was pay the two dollar per year subscription fee and you could borrow, return, fix or exchange a broken umbrella on the spot at no extra cost!

What a concept! This surely promised an end to shmutzicke umbrellas! (The proper Yiddish word for umbrella, by the way is shirem.) While we’re at it, here’s a funny little Yiddish curse: Zol er aropshlingen a shirem un s’zol zikh im efenen in boykh! – “May he swallow an umbrella and have it open up in his belly!”

So what became of this revolutionary idea? To find out, I consulted the American historical newspaper website Chronicling America, where I found more ads for the National Umbrella Service, such as this rather dry one (for such a wet business, and without even a bit of Jewish humor) in the New York Tribune from December 14, 1916.



The fact that the ads ran for just two weeks—from mid-December until the beginning of January—is more than enough proof that the business never really took off. Indeed, the “Business Troubles” section of the June 14, 1917 issue of The Sun, includes an item about the National Umbrella Service filing for bankruptcy.

But why did this umbrella business collapse? Did others succeed where it failed? If a bike-sharing service can make it, why not an umbrella-sharing one? It seems that the people of China don’t read the Yiddish press, and perhaps that’s why a recent venture of theirs failed in similar fashion: In 2017, the Chinese entrepreneur Zhou Shu Ping from the city of Shenzhen launched an umbrella sharing service in Shenzhen and 11 other cities, but within a few months almost all of the project’s 300,000 umbrellas had been stolen.



Another, more modest, umbrella-sharing service called UMBRACITY, is operating for the time being in Vancouver, Canada, with dozens of smart umbrella rental stations scattered in stores across the city. How does it work? There’s an app: push a button on your smartphone and the umbrella is yours.



There are more—in the city of Aarhus in Denmark, the DripDrop service has over 25 umbrella stations throughout the city. The rather unimaginative slogan is: “Happiness is having an umbrella when it rains”



And there are some somewhat less sophisticated services like this one which opened up a few days ago in the Pasir Ris neighborhood in Singapore, dedicated to the memory of Grandma Sylvia.


In any case, whether you’re renting or you’ve decided to buy, we urge you to always have an umbrella at hand during this rainy season. As they say: Men antloyft fun regn, bagegnt men hogl! – “Run away from rain and you get hail!”





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In the Shadow of Death: The Revival of the Jerusalem of Lithuania

Rare photographs newly revealed by the National Library of Israel document the cultural life of the Vilna Ghetto in the years 1942-1943.

Wolf Durmashkin with the Ghetto Symphonic Orchestra, Vilna Ghetto, September 5th, 1942 (photo: Vilna Ghetto collection, the National Library of Israel).

The wanderings of the Jewish People, especially during the last century, have brought some incredible life stories to the National Library in Jerusalem packaged in very unusual ways. One example is this suitcase, donated to the National Library of Israel in May 1994, by the famous Yiddish poet, Avraham Sutzkever.

Avraham Sutzkever's unique suitcase
Avraham Sutzkever’s unique suitcase (photo: Vilna Ghetto Collection, the National Library of Israel). Click to enlarge.

A closer look at this suitcase reveals that it is not a typical piece of luggage. It was not manufactured in a factory or even a proper workshop and it certainly wasn’t purchased in a fancy department store. The suitcase has a rather crude appearance, but the story behind it makes up for it all.

This suitcase was made in the Naroch forest in Belarus, not far from the border of Lithuania, exactly 50 years before it was deposited in the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. It was made of tin fragments from the wings of a crashed airplane and contained, among other archival materials, a small but astonishing collection of photographs saved from the Vilna Ghetto.

Parts of the collection compiled by Avraham Sutzkever have been digitized at the National Library of Israel

The failure of the German “Blitzkrieg” against the Soviet Union and the creation of a permanent state of war created a serious problem for the Nazi economy, including a deficit in manpower. The thousands of Jews who lived in the Vilna Ghetto and in other ghettos in Lithuania, were an important source of labor for the German occupiers. The Nazi regime elected not to murder the remaining Jews in the area and to instead use them as slaves to bolster the dwindling work force. This is how the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto gained some semblance of stability and peace from the start of 1942 into the spring of 1943. During this time there were no mass killings, though numerous murders did take place. Most of the Jews worked in various factories and workshops in and around the ghetto. The internal organization of the ghetto became very developed as cultural, educational, health, and welfare institutions were established.

Avraham Sutzkever, then a 28-year-old poet, had an important role in the cultural activity of the ghetto. “As long as I live a poet’s life in this valley of death,” he wrote later, “I shall be redeemed from my misery.”

Sutzkever became the artistic director of the ghetto theater, translating and adapting various pieces for the stage, and his poetry, written in the ghetto, was a central part of the popular reading evenings which took place there. Cultural activity flourished among the residents of the Vilna Ghetto, with the establishment of schools, a theatre, Yiddish and Hebrew choirs, an orchestra, opera, ballet, a children’s puppet theatre, an active library, a newspaper, and even sports competitions. Lectures and literary events were also a common occurrence. “The Jerusalem of Lithuania,” one of the most important Jewish communities in Europe, was revived under the shadow of death.

A handwritten poster advertising the Vilna Ghetto Theatre line up for the last week of October 1942. It included symphonic concerts and a jazz performance of “The Six” (Vilna Ghetto collection, The National Library of Israel).
A handwritten poster advertising the Vilna Ghetto Theatre line up for the last week of October 1942. It included symphonic concerts and a jazz performance of “The Six”(Vilna Ghetto Collection, the National Library of Israel). Click to enlarge.

Sutzkever wasn’t just creating culture in the Ghetto; he was actively saving significant cultural treasures from the Nazis. Along with his close friend, the poet Shmerke Kachergionski, he joined the “Paper Brigade,” headed by Zelig Kalmanowitz, Dr. Hermann Kruk and the famous librarian Chaikel Lunski. The story of this group dedicated to the preservation of local Jewish culture was wonderfully described by David Fishman in his research, “The Book Smugglers.”

Avraham Sutzkever (right) and Shmerke Kaczerginski in the Vilna Ghetto. Berl Kacherginsky photographed the two friends on the balcony of their apartment on Strashun Street, on the 20th of July, 1943. They look as if they were just a group of friends, not inmates of the Ghetto, starving laborers under a cruel regime, condemned to death. (Photo: Avraham Sutzkever Archive, the National Library of Israel)
Avraham Sutzkever (right) and Shmerke Kaczerginski in the Vilna Ghetto.
Berl Kacherginsky photographed the two friends on the balcony of their apartment on Strashun Street, on the 20th of July, 1943. They look as if they were just a group of friends, not inmates of the Ghetto, starving laborers under a cruel regime, condemned to death (photo: Avraham Sutzkever Archive, the National Library of Israel). Click to enlarge.

Within the various materials Sutzkever managed to gather, the photographs are especially interesting. Only a few dozen survived and reached us at the Library, but they all wonderfully reflect the spirit of the Jews in the Vilna Ghetto during that time. Surprisingly, some of the residents of the Vilna Ghetto managed to dabble in photography. Based on the photographs, we can assume that none of them were professional photographers and that these images were likely developed in difficult conditions.

There are not many known photographs of the Vilna Ghetto. Holding a camera or dealing with photography was, of course, strictly forbidden by the Nazis. The photographs from the Sutzkever Collection are, therefore, a rare documentation of everyday life in the ghetto as shown by some of its inmates, who were likely amateur photographers.  Most of these pictures are anonymous. We have found Sutzkever’s inscription, with the photographer’s name – B. Kaczerginsky – on the back of only one of the photos. The inscription likely referred to Berl Kaczerginsky, one of the Jewish policemen of the ghetto, who owned a camera. Many of the pictures were likely taken by the same policemen, as a relatively large number of photos feature the Ghetto Police and the Head of the Ghetto, Jacob Gens.

Jacob Gens (in the center), Head of the Vilna Ghetto, 1943 (photo: Vilna Ghetto collection, The National Library of Israel).
Jacob Gens (center), head of the Vilna Ghetto, 1943 (photo: Vilna Ghetto Collection, the National Library of Israel). Click to enlarge.

Some of those photographs were staged, and it is quite clear that the subjects of the photos were very much aware of the camera in front of them. In some pictures, they even look directly into the camera lens. A parade of the Ghetto Gate Guard, a group photograph of the guards and photographs of their commander, Moishe Levas, give us a glimpse of one of the most hated institutions among the ghetto inmates. On the other hand, the ghetto guards were those who enabled Sutzkever and his colleagues in the “Paper Brigade” to smuggle books, archival materials and various works of art into the ghetto. Moishe Levas was very much aware of the activity of Sutzkever and his friends, and he assisted them in smuggling those materials into the ghetto in various ways.

Parade of the Ghetto Gate Guard with Moishe Levas in the center of the image (photo: Vilna Ghetto collection, The National Library of Israel).
Parade of the Ghetto Gate Guard with Moishe Levas in the center of the image (photo: Vilna Ghetto collection, the National Library of Israel). Click to enlarge.

Sutzkever managed to collect photographs which reflected the daily life in the ghetto from various aspects: simple street scenes, various advertisements on the walls, and pictures of cultural and educational institutions.

Without knowing the circumstances in which the photographs were taken, one could think they were created in a typical European city during peaceful, normal times. The clock on the ghetto’s main street, the morning advertisements hung up on the ghetto walls, and of course, the cultural activities of the Jewish community, all stir up a feeling of amazement at the simplicity and banality of the images, considering all that is happening around them.

Opening Ceremony of the Sports Yard in the Ghetto, July 10th, 1942 (photo: Vilna Ghetto collection, the National Library of Israel).
Opening Ceremony of the Sports Yard in the Ghetto, July 10th, 1942 (photo: Vilna Ghetto collection, the National Library of Israel). 
“If in years from now, someone will look for the traces of our life in the ghetto, and won’t find a single document, this sports yard will be the most truthful testimony to our endless vitality and to our desire to live.” -Gregori Gochman, Vilna, 10.07.1942. Click to enlarge.

The most incredible photograph in the bunch is that of the Ghetto Orchestra with its conductor, Wolf Durmashkin. This renowned musician, who before the War was the conductor of the Vilna Symphonic Orchestra, is seen standing strong and dignified wearing tuxedo tails, as the other musicians around him smile for the camera. The shining shoes of the first violinist leave no doubt as to the mood  these people were in. This photograph proves the strength of the human spirit, even in the most difficult of times. The orchestra’s piano, though not included in the photographs, was smuggled into the Ghetto piece by piece and then rebuilt by a specialist.  It is important to recognize that, just as Sutzkever never stopped writing poetry, Durmashkin and his musicians always continued playing and creating music, dedicated to preserving their art and their human dignity.

Wolf Durmashkin with the Ghetto Symphonic Orchestra, Vilna Ghetto, September 5th, 1942 (photo: Vilna Ghetto collection, the National Library of Israel).
Wolf Durmashkin with the Ghetto Symphonic Orchestra,
Vilna Ghetto, September 5th, 1942 (photo: Vilna Ghetto Collection, the National Library of Israel). Click to enlarge.

To paraphrase Hanna Arendt’s controversial concept, “the banality of evil,” these photographs reflect how the ghetto inmates desperately tried to hold on to the “banality of life under evil,” and to pretend they could keep living normally despite the death and misery that surrounded them. The photographers were full partners in creating this illusion. Since there was a need for cooperation between the photographer and the subjects, it can be assumed that the maker of the images also sought to transmit a banal and normal picture of life, by creating a visual image using the most ordinary of methods.

Unlike photographs from other ghettos, and even from ghettos in Lithuania itself, none of the true horrors that were experienced are captured in the photographs in the Sutzkever Collection from Vilna. There are no photographs of children dying in the streets, starving people or the many other miseries faced by the ghetto inmates. The terrible reality of the ghetto, as Sutzkever described in detail in his testimonial book, was not reflected at all in the photographs he had collected during his stay there. It seems that, in real time, the ghetto inmates wanted to stay as far as possible from the abnormal circumstances in which they lived, and tried to reflect a stabilized, ordinary way of life, which was, of course, just an illusion. Sutzkever’s photographs therefore, do not document the life of the ghetto as it really was, but rather life as its inmates wanted it to be. By the power of their spirit, these Lithuanian Jews miraculously escaped from reality and created an alternate universe for themselves.


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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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