Culture Report: Remembering a forgotten artist - Nathalie Kraemer

“We knew very little about her other than the date of her birth and year of death,” Dr. Rachel Perry tells The Jerusalem Report.

Death, 1940-43, 55 x 46 cm, oil on canvas / The Card Player, undated, 61 x 46 cm, oil on canvas (photo credit: GHEZ COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
Death, 1940-43, 55 x 46 cm, oil on canvas / The Card Player, undated, 61 x 46 cm, oil on canvas
The painter and poet Nathalie Kraemer (1891-1943) was sucked into the maelstrom that beset the Jewish people with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. She was the only child of a mixed family, born to a Jewish father, Isidore, and a non-Jewish mother also named Nathalie, both of whom were French-born.
The young painter married a Jewish man, Nathan Marcel Levy, whom she portrayed in the one portrait to which she gave the name of the sitter.
Moreover, she flourished among the mainly Jewish group of artists in Paris known as the  École  de Paris. Many of this group, including Kraemer, were killed in Auschwitz. Among them were artists from religious backgrounds as well as highly assimilated individuals who preferred to convert and to marry out.
These artists would all have been forgotten had it not been for the persistence of individuals who cherished these artists’ work and strove to bring their work to the wider public. In particular, Dr. Oscar Ghez, who brought them back from the dead when he donated their works, paintings, prints and sculptures to the Hecht Museum of the University of Haifa in 1978 on condition that they be exhibited.
Among these artists, Kraemer stuck out partly because she was the only female among the 17 others on display, and was represented by the largest number of works of art. This idiosyncrasy was sufficient reason for the art historian and lecturer, Dr. Rachel Perry, to research the background of this particular artist with her students.
“We knew very little about her other than the date of her birth and year of death,” she tells The Jerusalem Report. “We didn’t even have a photograph of her, and could not be certain that there was a self-portrait among her many paintings.”
With the backing of her department, Perry was able to undertake the research that involved crossing Europe in pursuit of the elusive history of this artist. In the course of this research, Perry was able to shed light on the group of artists who were a part of the  École  de Paris that flourished between the world wars. Kraemer was part of this group, although not because of her background. Most of these artists were Jewish refugees or immigrants from Eastern Europe, whereas Kraemer was born and bred in Paris.
Perry and her students compiled a catalog: “The Ghez Collection: Memorial in Honor of Jewish Artists, Victims of Nazism” to commemorate this group. Perry’s students were all part of the Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa, a unique program that fosters a young generation of Holocaust researchers and educators.
“In a way,” explains Perry, “Nathalie Kraemer was not really a Holocaust artist in that she did not directly paint any works about that period. Neither was she really part of the École de Paris, although she was in Paris when the group was flourishing. Nevertheless, there is something about her work which can be readily identified with this group. Although she moved to Vichy in central France when she married, she didn’t stay there. She moved back to Paris where she set up a studio and began exhibiting and selling her work in some very respectable galleries. Among these were the Salon de Tuileries, the Salon des Independents and the Galerie Carmine, where one critic wrote of her exhibit: “This artist promises the most wonderful things.” Unfortunately, as Perry notes, “this promise would never be realized.”
She exhibited for the last time in March 1940, at the Société des Artistes Indépendents, near the Eiffel Tower.
Perry adds a note that summarizes the precarious situation of all these artists at the time: “Three months later, Hitler stood on the same spot during his triumphant tour of Paris, which his army had just overrun.”
In July 1940, the town of Vichy – to where Kraemer had returned in the face of the Nazis’ victory – became the seat of Philippe Petain’s collaborating French state government, and Kraemer was banned from exhibiting or selling her work.
In April 1942 the Jews in Vichy were given 48 hours to leave. The Levy family fled to the Loire Valley, where they were hidden by the non-Jewish Toquant family (which was later accorded the status of Righteous Among the Gentiles).
But Nathalie Kraemer was not with the family. She had fled to Nice in March 1942, seeking a place where she might create her paintings in relative peace. However, though Nice was then known as a haven for exiles, it was increasingly hazardous as can be deduced from Kraemer having to change her place of residence three times before September 1943, when she was finally arrested. As one journalist observed, “France, once a haven of exiles, had become a Gestapo man trap.”
Kraemer’s transport left Nice for Drancy on November 30, and 16 days later she was deported to Auschwitz. On December 20, she arrived at the camp and was immediately gassed to death, among 76,000 French Jews who were deported from France during this period, of which only some 2,500 survived.
Though a plaque commemorates Kraemer’s name in the Vichy synagogue, no other trace survived her death in Auschwitz. Indeed, her husband spent the next 10 years trying to piece together her final days and hours. Marcel Levy had at least retained as many of his wife’s paintings as was possible, but possibly because of their meaning for him, he never exhibited them, nor did he offer them to a museum.
After he died in 1960, his brother Roger took over the collection and held on to them like his brother had for another 10 years. However, in 1971 he organized two exhibitions, one in Paris and one in the south of France. It was at the latter exhibition that a local art dealer, André Graziani, offered to buy all 43 works plus some prints. In 1973, these paintings were bought by Dr. Oscar Ghez, who had already shown an interest in Holocaust-related artists.
Born in Tunisia in 1905, Ghez founded a rubber plant in Rome with his brother Henry, which they operated until 1939 when the racial laws became too stringent, and they fled to the US.
Returning to France after the war, they re-established the rubber plant, which they sold to the Firestone Group in 1960. At that point Ghez began his collection of Holocaust-related paintings. This passion resulted in his donating 138 works of art to the University of Haifa in 1978.
The Ghez Collection catalog was compiled by Perry in 2017, a year before the exhibition opened at the Hecht Museum. The exhibition was called “Arrivals, Departures: Salvaged Works by Persecuted Jewish Artists in Paris,” and the catalog included the 18 painters in the Ghez collection, among them Nathalie Kraemer.
Kraemer’s paintings are generally single portraits, mainly of friends and family. Her palette tends toward somber, dark colors, and the people themselves give off a distant air, as if the portraits were something they had to do rather than something they enjoyed doing. The people she portrays are dressed soberly and generally in one color, with the background giving off no hint of any special environment. The one or two portraits of women at prayer hints at her Christian background.
Some of the later paintings of anxious, even blind, individuals do suggest something of the coming catastrophe. One called “Death” indeed suggests an image of the Pietà. Where she does break out of this mold, and introduces more than one figure, such as in “The Lawyers” or the “The Married Couple,” there is a strong hint that she could have developed a much more varied oeuvre. Unfortunately, she was never given the opportunity.
Perry’s interest in Kraemer was sparked by the exhibition, and she pursued her interest turning it into a research project that she presented at a special event at Tel Aviv University earlier this year. Organized by the Rogatchi Foundation in conjunction with the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University, the evening was dedicated not only to Nathalie Kraemer’s life and work but also to the more general issue of how we remember the experience of those who suffered during the Holocaust years.
At the seminar, Bar-Ilan Prof. Joel Rappel – also director of the Eli Wiesel Archive at Boston University – quoted Wiesel in asking: How do we remember the Holocaust when there is no one left to remind us? This was particularly poignant when, as playwright Arthur Miller observed as early as 1952, “In a hundred years’ time the Holocaust will be considered a small event in history.”
According to Rappel, art is certainly a good place to start since it is a universal language, and if allowed to remain, can become an invaluable source of memory. The painters who died in the Holocaust are certainly worthy of recall. Nathalie Kraemer in particular should have a special place in the history books, for being an independent woman artist (she retained her name throughout her professional career, rather than that of her Jewish family) at a time when such a phenomenon was still rare. It is no wonder that Inna Rogatchi, the major organizer of the conference, called the whole event “a labor of the heart.”
The full text of Perry’s essay will appear in December in Ars Judaica: The Bar-Ilan Journal of Jewish Art
TAU symposium honors Kraemer, by Steve Linde
A special symposium titled “Crossroads of remembrance” dedicated to examining the theme of return in the general theme of the Shoah took place at Tel Aviv University in June, sponsored by The Goldstein-Gorin Diaspora Research Center and The Inna and Michael Rogatchi Foundation, with the support of the Jerusalem Municipality, the Education Ministry and Yad Vashem.
The warm and well-attended event assembled many leading historians and experts including Prof. Yoel Rappel, Dr. Simcha Goldin, Dr. Francoise Ouzan, Dr. Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig, Prof. Claude Ghez, Jerusalem’s Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum and US Ambassador David M. Friedman.
The idea of the symposium was to create a visible forum to honor the legacy of French-Jewish artist Nathalie Kraemer, a member of the Ecole de Paris, after 80 years of oblivion.
“Kraemer was murdered in Auschwitz in the age of 52, but by another Jewish miracle, her works were left intact in her family, who survived World War II,” says Inna Rogatchi, president of The Rogatchi Foundation. “For a number of reasons, the name and the legacy of this powerful artist was not known publicly until Dr. Rachel Perry and her students at the University of Haifa at the Weiss-Livnat International Program of Holocaust Studies started to look into the facts of Kraemer’s life and her artistic legacy.”
The Rogatchi Foundation named Perry as one of its four annual laureates, honoring her with the Humanist of the Year 2018 Award. She was invited to speak on the research she and her students did on the life, death and legacy of Nathalie Kraemer. Among the striking documents she presented at the symposium was a copy of Kraemer’s ticket to Auschwitz, which the art-admiring Nazis made her pay for.
In addition, the originals of Kraemer’s works from the rich Ghez collection at the University of Haifa’s Hecht Museum were on display at the symposium. “These images, powerful and harrowing, affected all the participants of the symposium,” said Rogatchi.