Artwork holds answers to destinies of Holocaust survivors.

A painting by Nathalie Kraemer  (photo credit: GHEZ COLLECTION UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA)
A painting by Nathalie Kraemer
A recent research project at the University of Haifa has uncovered the life stories of 18 Jewish artists, most of whom perished in the Holocaust, through the artworks they left behind.
A collection of artwork produced by these artists was donated to the university by the late Swiss collector Dr. Oscar Ghez in 1978. Founder and president of the Petit Palais Museum in Geneva, Ghez had been collecting art since 1945.
It took him 30 years to assemble the collection, obtained from Jewish-owned galleries, as well as from those who had survived the Holocaust and resumed work. All the paintings, drawings, sculptures, and watercolors that are included in the collection were found and purchased in Paris.
A team from the university’s Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in Holocaust Studies spent the past year researching the biographies of the 18 artists, piecing together some of their previously unknown fates.
The French capital was the home of all 18, at least during some part of their careers, and where most of them were arrested by the Nazis and their collaborators.
The researchers have produced a new catalogue, based on their investigations, that traces the lives and careers of the artists, who all belonged to the École de Paris but came from various walks of life.
“Although the Nazis saw them all as the same – as inferior others or ‘Untermenschen’ – the artists assembled in our collection came from diverse backgrounds and countries: Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Romania and France,” the introduction to the catalogue states.
Some of the artists converted, others had been baptized at birth and several of them intermarried, while others were born into deeply religious homes and remained committed to Yiddish culture and Jewish custom.
A number of them knew each other; some had studied together and some were close friends or relatives.
The collection is mostly made up of conventional genres (portraiture, nudes, still-lifes and landscapes), but they range from minimalism to erotic nudes, provincial townscapes, exotic odalisques and surrealist fantasies, among many others.
The idea behind the collection was that its objects would serve as a memorial to Jewish artists who perished at the hands of the Nazis.
“On this 30th birthday of the State of Israel, ‘The Memorial in Honor of Artist Victims of Nazism’ is to be founded at the University of Haifa,” Ghez wrote in the preface to the first catalogue of the Ghez Collection in 1978. “How many wonderful human beings and geniuses could have contributed to civilization such as we perceive it.
“On the thirtieth floor of the Eshkol Tower of the University of Haifa, surrounded by natural beauty and splendor [of the Carmel forests], with a view of the sea and toward the endless horizon, one will be able to appreciate the realization of a quite simple idea: to gather in Israel works by artists who fell victim to Nazism; works representing today, for the Jewish people, precious relics to be preserved from dispersion or destruction.”
“WE ARE privileged to have the Ghez Collection as part of the world-renowned Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa,” said Karen Berman, CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa. “It took Dr. Ghez more than 30 years to collect the works he donated to us and we are honored to preserve them as a memorial to those artists who were victims of the Nazis.
“Recently, the collection has played an important role in our Weiss-Livnat Holocaust Studies Program, which is known for its broad-based approach drawing from a wide range of academic disciplines, including history, psychology, art anthropology and law. It is our goal to share the collection and its history with as many people as our resources will allow.”
Though the collection comprises 138 pieces, only seven are permanently on display today: four paintings and three sculptures. Shunit Marmelstein, director and curator of the Hecht Museum, explained to The Jerusalem Post that this was a compromise reached after the university struggled to find a suitable place for the display.
“This was done in coordination and with the approval of the Ghez family, who visited the museum a few times and was pleased to see how the collection was presented,” Marmelstein assured the Post. She also noted that once a year the museum puts up a larger temporary exhibition that presents most of the works from the collection.
In the next year or so, the museum will put on an exhibition displaying the findings of the research team, which adds depth and context to the collection.
“We tried to find out as much as we could to flesh out their biographies – the date of death, spouse, where they were arrested, where they went to school.
Most came from Eastern Europe and made their way to Paris in the early decades of the 20th century, like so many artists did.
“But they didn’t have the time to establish their legacies,” said Dr. Rachel Perry, an art historian and lecturer in the Weiss-Livnat program, who spearheaded the research.
She appointed 10 graduate students to each be responsible for one or two of the artists. Their journey involved twists and turns and thorough investigation resembling detective work. Perry also spent time in Paris meeting with relatives of the deceased artists and browsing through archives, missing-persons folders and deportation papers.
“These artists were brought together by Oscar Ghez because they perished during the Holocaust, but more unites them than where, when and why they died.
Their deaths should not define their legacies in what [art historian] Eunice Lipton calls an “interpretive injustice,” whereby “the Holocaust’s retrospective hold on our past” obscures the lives they led,” Perry wrote in the catalogue’s prologue.
“We have approached our project as an act of restoration – a search and rescue mission – to collect as many traces of their lives as possible... In some cases, it was a question of merely correcting a date and place of death, or finding a spouse or a full name.
“In other instances, the faint outlines of a biography materialized, such as when Nathalie Kraemer suddenly became more than a list of dates or string of facts, but a daughter, a wife, an accomplished poet, and a Frenchborn woman to a Yekke from Alsace-Lorraine and a non-Jewish woman from the Champagne region (and not to Polish immigrants, as previously believed),” she wrote.
Kraemer is the only female artist in the group and has the largest number of works in the collection. Next to nothing was known about her before Perry and graduate student Pninit Saban began their research.
Kraemer was born to a non-Jewish mother and married a Jewish man named Nathan Marcel Levy, who is featured among the many portraits she painted.
After marrying, Kraemer lived in Vichy with the extended Levy family. In 1940, she exhibited her work for the last time, in the Société des Artistes Indépendants exhibition at the Palais de Chaillot on the Trocadero esplanade. One month later, France capitulated to Germany and was occupied.
Kraemer was forbidden to exhibit and sell her works, in accordance with the new racial laws that forbade Jews to practice in various professions.
Kraemer tragically separated from the Levy family.
Having kept her maiden name, she believed she would be safer without them. The Levy family was saved by a righteous gentile, but Kraemer, who had moved to Nice, was ultimately arrested by the Gestapo.
On December 1, 1943, she was sent from Nice to Drancy, and on December 17 that year she was deported from Drancy to Auschwitz with 850 other Jews. Her voyage lasted over a week, arriving on December 22, when she was gassed upon arrival.
By the end of 1944, between 76,000 and 78,000 Jews had been deported from France and sent to killing centers in Eastern Europe.
Of these, two-thirds were foreign refugees. Only 2,500 survived.
A memorial plaque with Kraemer’s name was erected at the entrance to the synagogue in Vichy by the Levy family. Her husband, not knowing of his wife’s fate, had filed a missing person’s report, one of the vital documents that enabled the research team to piece the story of her life back together. Her deportation papers, in which she listed herself as an artist, was another. Perry also met with Kraemer’s 96-year-old niece in Paris.
Ghez purchased all of the Kraemer paintings in his collection through an anonymous dealer in 1973.
THE RESEARCH team also found that four of the 18 artists survived the Holocaust. Natan Grunsweigh was one of them. The team found that he had not perished in a concentration camp in 1943, as reports had held, but had survived with his entire family.
Over the past decade, a number of his paintings that were dated after the war surfaced at an auction, piquing the curiosity of the researchers. They were unable to locate his name on any of the deportation lists from France.
By what Perry and graduate student Esther Halperin described as “complete serendipity,” the Ghez collection was photographed by a relative of Grunsweigh’s who put them in touch with his son’s wife and grandson, who live just outside Paris.
Grunsweigh died of natural causes in 1956 and was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris. He was survived by his wife, children and grandchildren, who still live in the suburbs of Paris, and one grandson who lives in Israel.
Jacques Gotko painted some of the few pieces in the collection featuring Holocaust imagery. He was born in Odessa, Ukraine, and emigrated to Paris with his family in 1905, fleeing a wave of antisemitic pogroms. In 1937, he settled in the region of Charente- Maritime on the southwest coast of France with his wife, a non-Jewish Frenchwoman, and devoted himself to painting landscapes and portraits.
In May 1941, Gotko was rounded up in the Billet Vert operation, arrested as a Jew and foreign national, and sent to the Royallieu Compiègne camp, where he was interned first in the “Soviet” section of the camp and then transferred to the “Jewish” camp. All of the works in his studio were destroyed.
While in Compiègne, Gotko continued working, taking portrait commissions and sending funds to his wife, as well as drawing, printing, and painting scenes of daily life in the camp. The poignant visual documents of the transit camps that he created survived largely thanks to his close friends, the artist Isis Kischka and the historian and scientist Georges Wellers, who were interned in Compiègne with him.
That September Gotko was transferred to Drancy, where he was reunited with his mother and sister, who had been arrested near his home in Bordeaux. Shortly thereafter, he witnessed their deportation to Auschwitz on November 11, 1942. He followed them on July 18, 1943. Upon his arrival in Auschwitz, he was one of 369 men on the transport selected for labor, but he died of typhus on January 2, 1944.
“It’s really incredible that so much of what we found had been lying there for over 70 years,” Perry remarks. “As much as we did, so much remains to be uncovered and discovered,” she adds, noting that she plans to continue her studies on Kraemer and another of the artists, Alexandre Fasini, perhaps even making a book out of it.
“Throughout,” Perry concluded, “we were driven by an ethical commitment not to leave these artists or their work on the margins of history.”