Just One Life

French Jewish Artist Nathalie Kraemer murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.

Balance between Good and Evil

I do not like ceremonies. The officialdom in them obscures, in my understanding, the essence. I also doubt a sincerity in measured events  which is always individual. Those who are sincere at ceremonies are sincere in general, many others are on duty. Among the speeches, there are so many formalities, and so rarely this kind of speeches is ‘the real thing’ – as it was with President of Israel Reuven Rivlin’s speech at the parliament of Ukraine in September 2016 when he told to hostile audience that our memory on their predecessors’ atrocities and those animals disguised as humans whom they decided to worship now as their heroes, did not vanish, not for a bit;

President Rivlin addressing parliament of Ukraine in September 2016. (C) Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Israel.

or as it was with incredible Marian Turski during his outstanding speech at the United Nations in New York in January 2019. I wrote about my friend’s  first-hand message to mankind then.  

Chairman of the POLIN Museum of History of Polish Jews Marian turski speaking at the UN Assembly New York. January 2019. Courtesy: Marian Turski.

On the other hand, I understand the necessity to remember and to do it publicly and in an organised way. Compulsory commemoration? It is better this way than nothing. I would never know how sincere Willy Brandt was falling on his knees at the Warsaw Ghetto  Memorial, but I think that the fact of him kneeling there is good for the balance between Good and Evil. 

German Chancellor Willy Brandt kneeling in front of the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto fighters. Warsaw, 1970. Open Sources archive.

The balance which is if to speak and think on the Shoah is non-mendable. And that’s why it still bothers us, it bothers the hearts of people who are responding to the theme of Holocaust in its variety and nuances, its general and individual aspects alike. 

The Holocaust case is not closed. It will never be closed. 

And we return to it en masse , country by country, every January, and many of us, with Israel leading on this, every April, too. 

There are some of us who are dealing with Shoah on a daily basis. Those people, among them many of my distinguished colleagues world-wide, are living lives in which Holocaust exists in present tense. And for many of us, it is highly personified, too. 

When we are turning to figures, the devastating figures of Holocaust, would it be 96% of the large Jewish population of Lithuania exterminated in no time and enthusiastically, or 90% of Polish Jewry annihilated with similar enthusiasm, or one and half million children killed in a cold blood by monsters who are human in name only, I always am seeing a pictures. Of those people who had name, place, family, home, relatives, friends. Who were reading, working, laughing, thinking, trying, hoping. 

It is impossible for me to perceive Shoah in figures although I know them well. Sometimes, better than I wish. My friend, great historian Andrew Roberts told me once on his perception of Holocaust: “So many talents, so much potency for the world has been exterminated, so many lives were cut off. So many future writers, composers, scientists were eradicated by the steel criminal will of the Nazis”. So true. The world has been deprived of so much goodness by the calculated actions of the Nazis and zealotry of their supporters almost everywhere. 

Our other great contemporary, legendary former minister for foreign affairs of the Czech Republic and mentor of Vaclav Havel Prince Karl von Schwanzerberg, a rare personality of all ages, told a few years ago at the Raoul Wallenberg International Round Table conference that we attended together that ‘among the European countries, perhaps, only Iceland can tell that it was preserved its dignity during WWII although I am not 100% sure about it. But certainly no other country in Europe can claim it”. So very true.

Why the French government in 1945 was so fiercely against the publication of the shocking photos from just liberated camps as it comes from recent research and publications? The ostentatious version at the time was that they were trying to prevent family members of those people who were sent to the camps from seeing macabre images ahead of getting checked information on what had happened with their loved ones. Or was it, in fact, because France as a state although under the other governing was responsible for collaborating with the Nazis and thus not preventing the deportations? One wonders. 

Return of Nathalie Kraemer

There was a woman living and working in Paris once. In the bubbling with talent Paris of the 1920s and 1930s, works of the artist Nathalie Kraemer had been noticed and admired. She was full of promise and her works matured with every year. She was active among her soul-mates in the Ecole de Paris which should be in reality be called Ecole de Vitebsk, as my husband, artist himself, once mentioned regarding the conglomerate of Yiddishkeit-infused souls bursting of visual art talent of Chagall, Soutine, Modigliani and their friends and colleagues. 

Artist Nathalie Kraemer. Archive photo, the 1930s. Courtesy: The Gehz Collection Catalogue. the Hecht Museum. With kind permission of the authors of the Catalogue.

Nathalie Kraemer’s works bears semblance of both Modigliani and also of Felix Nussbaum, especially during her last years, being on the run and in anguish. 

In the darkest hour, in April 1942, the family of Nathalie’s husband Marcel Levy being forced away, along with all Jews there, from the Vichy territory went to Loire Valley. They did not have Marcel’s wife with them. Nathalie, a fragile soul, was very distressed and probably was unable to attain to the constant pressure of being hunted. She was anxious, and just one month before decided to leave on her own. She ran to Nice hoping to hide there. Changing place of her staying there trice, being alone and vulnerable, she was arrested 18 months later, in September 1943, and sent to Drancy,  where from in three months time, she was deported to Auschwicz where she was murdered upon arrival. She was 53. 

In a heart-wrenching paradox, the family of her husband was saved by the French Tougnat family who had been recognised by Yad Vashem as the Righteous Among the Nation in the late 1980s. 

Her husband who did manage to preserve her works, was unable to do anything with it, nor was he able to pursue commemoration of his murdered wife’s artistic  legacy. Maurice died in 1960. Levy family kept her works, and Maurice brother Roger organised two small exhibitions of her works, in Paris and Provence in 1971. Soon after, he sold the entire collection of survived 43 works, many of them large oil paintings on canvas, to art dealer Andre Graziani. 

Nathalie Kraemer (C). Portrait of Maurice Levy, the Artist’s Husband. Courtesy: the Ghez Collection. With kind permission of the (C) proprietors.

Soon after, in 1973, the collection in its entirety was acquired by an exceptional man whose role in commemorating of the Holocaust artist victims is largely under-estimated, in my opinion. Dr Oscar Ghez was committed to preserve the works of eliminated in the Holocaust artists and to amass the collection which would become their living legacy. That noble man was tirelessly buying the art of the murdered in the Shoah members of Ecole de Paris and other artists in the years and decades after the Shoah.  

Dr Oscar Ghez. Courtesy : The Ghez Collection, Geneva. With kind permission of the proprietors.

In 1978, he did donate a part of his priceless collection to the University of Haifa with an idea that there would be a special museum exhibiting that treasure. Until 2018, only a few of those works were exhibited at the Hecht Museum where the collection is held. 

In 2018, at last, many works from that collection and the other ones from the Ghez outstanding collection in Geneva were exhibited at the milestone Arrivals, Departures exhibition at the Haifa University in June-November 2018. My essays on the exhibition in detail are here and here

It was at that moment when strong and powerful works of Nathalie Kraemer met their viewers in Israel, the first time since her last exhibition in Paris in 1940, and apart of two small commemorative exhibitions in 1971. 

Nathalie Kraemer (C). Portrait of a Woman. Supposedly, a Self-portrait, the only one known to the art historians. Courtesy: the Ghez Collection, the Hecht Museum. With kind permission of the proprietors.

A palpable paradox was present there: while public knew the names of practically all other from exhibited 18 artists, all masters of Ecole de Paris, the name of a female artist, author of expressive and noticeable works was largely unfamiliar. It was due to the tragic circumstances of her life, and of her family that was bearing the unbearable trauma of the Holocaust and tragedy of loss of Nathalie while the rest of the family was saved, with them all the years after it. We were seeing the works of the unknown master eighty years after her last exhibition and 75 years after her murder in Auschwitz. It was a powerful call. 

Dr Rachel Perry who did originate the project and curated the exhibition with her students at the International Holocaust Studies Program at the Haifa University did it in the way that each of her student was assigned with a certain artist presented at the exhibition. In a case-study research, the students were digging to their best finding original documents reconstructing the life stories, finding the new evidence and archive materials. 

The lead towards Nathalie Kraemer was developed in the further work of Dr Perry and her students.  Nathalie Kraemer whose only two unclear photographs were existing at that stage, with very little of her biography known, was making her remarkable return from oblivion, eighty years on. 

One-Way Self-Paid Ticket To Auschwitz 

One year later, in June 2019, international gathering had happened in Tel-Aviv. Our friends and colleagues from the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Studies Centre under the leadership of professor Simha Goldin and with instrumental role played by historian and author Dr Francoise Ouzan were hosting a unique symposium, Crossroads of Remembrance: Art and Humanity After Holocaust. Our Rogatchi Foundation co-organised the event. 

Poster of the International Symposium Crossroads of Remembrance. June 2019, Tel-Aviv University.

Many of our dear friends and colleagues, distinguished historians and leading public figures participated in the symposium, including  long-term colleague of Elie Wiesel and founder of the great Wiesel Library & Archive in Boston prof.  Joel Rappel, leading culture expert Dr Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig, deputy Mayor of Jerusalem Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, head of the UNESCO department at the Ministry of Education Dalit Atrakchi. Top-level representatives of the American, Finnish, French and Austrian Embassies were  present along with writers, artists, historians, art curators. The son of Oscar Ghez Dr Claude Ghez who was very helpful in organising the symposium did send a warm and meaningful greetings from New York. 

In the hall before the auditorium in which our symposium took place, a small exhibition of the Nathalie Kraemer’s works was organised. When the door of that hall was opened, and the technical worker appeared there pushing the cart with the paintings in, my husband’s face paled. I was stunned, too. 

It is not every day that a historical works from the Ecole de Paris are getting so intimately close to you and that you are handling them, touching them, placing them around. Without saying a word to each other, we felt as being transported into another time. The tiny breath of Nathalie Kramer was palpable from her more than 80-years old paintings. 

Fragment of the exhibition of Nathalie Kraemer’s paintings at the Crossroads of Remembrance symposium at the University of Tel-Aviv, June 2019. (C) Inna Rogatchi. Courtesy: The Rogatchi Foundation.

We will never forget that moment and that feeling. You knew that you were keeping in your hands, now and there, the part of the soul of the Jewish artist, the French woman who was murdered in horrific way in Auschwitz. And just now, in an hour or so, people living eighty years after, in the Jewish state, many of them relatives of the survivors, would come to seeing these works, from a very close distance of just fifteen-twenty centimetres. 

How many times in one’s life something like that happens, actually? How many times in practices connected to the Shoah, we have this material positive substance in front of us? Extremely rarely, indeed. 

At the symposium, Dr Perry who was awarded by our Rogatchi Foundation Humanist of the Year 2018 Award for her work in commemoration of the the artists victims of Nazism, spoke about Nathalie Kraemer in length and in detail. Her key-note was the first public lecture on the details of life and work of Nathalie Kraemer ever.

Thanks to the joined effort of many people from several countries, the murdered artist was returning after eighty years of oblivion. It was not just memorable, not simply meaningful, but unprecedented moment for us who experienced it. 

It felt almost physically like some forces of good had lifted a very heavy and cold stone slab, metaphorically speaking, too, to give a breath of warm and light wind of memory to get in, being focused on that very person, just one life of all those millions exterminated in the Shoah. 

On the screen, a new materials were demonstrated, some photos, some archival notes. All of the sudden, I felt that I could not breathe. I looked on the screen where the piece of yellowed paper from  December 1943 was shown. It happened to be an one-way ticket Paris-Auschwitz paid by Nathalie Kraemer herself. 

New materials, the documents demonstrated in the first public lecture on Nathalie Kraemer by Dr Rachel Perry. Documents courtesy: Dr Rachel Perry. Photo: Inna Rogatchi. Photo courtesy: The Rogatchi Foundation.

Fleur Hassan-Nahoum sitting next to me lifted her eyes towards the screen and exclaimed in whisper: “Self-paid ticket to Auschwitz. Beyond”. 

There is one thing to know about something theoretically, and there is totally different to have an experience of physical contact with material evidence, million times so when the matter is related to Holocaust. 

I just could not take that ticket paid by Nathalie Kraemer in December 1943 out of my mind. It has got into my sub-conscience in the same way as the story told by Elie Wiesel couple of years before his death on the event that happened 70 years from the moment when he was recalling it, on how his beloved violin ( and Elie was a very aspiring and good young violinist before the war) was smashed by the boot of nasty capo when teenager Elie following the suggestion of his father tried to get himself into one of two male orchestras at Auschwitz. “The members of the orchestra got some small extra of bread, you see” – Elie was telling with that disappearing semi-smile. 

Since I’ve heard that story told by Wiesel himself, I just cannot stop to think about that youth’ violin smashed by capo in Auschwitz. 

In the similar way, I cannot stop to see in front of me that one-way ticket to Auschwitz that Nathalie Kraemer was made to pay, as everyone else who was deported to the Hell on earth willingly constructed and run by creatures who for some reason are regarded humans. 

* * * 

Still, the main outcome of that many-month’ joint effort of a number of  people from different countries was the return of substantial artist, Jewish French woman, from 80 year of oblivion.  The return of the memory of a person is as vitally important, as life itself is. 

The return of the memory – and the legacy – of an artist is absolutely special because it has a long-lasting effect on so many people, possibly in generations. To participate in such effort which resulted positively is a huge privilege. 

We are immensely grateful to all our friends and colleagues who participated in the Return of Nathalie Kraemer and who had made it possible and unforgettable experience. 

I hope that her soul, whenever it is,  somehow felt now that she is loved and remembered again, and that people know on her works and life. That Dr Oscar Ghez saved her works for us, and that they are taken care of, and even exhibited, at least some of them. That we remember her looking on these special faces on her works, and her dialogue with her viewers is revived, eighty years on.

Ecole de Vitebsk. Homage to the Jewish artists of the Ecole de Paris. Michael Rogatchi’s (C) drawing on Inna Rogatchi’s (C) original archival print on cotton paper. 50 x 40 cm. 2018. Rogatchi Art Collection.

If we can do anything for any of the victims of the Shoah, it is to bring some light and peace to their wandering souls. As many of them as possible. Each one of them counts. Every one. 

About the Author
Inna Rogatchi is internationally acclaimed writer, scholar and film-maker, the author of widely prized film on Simon Wiesenthal The Lessons of Survival. Her professional trade-mark is inter-weave of history, culture and mentality. She is the author of the concept of the Outreach to Humanity cultural and educational projects conducted internationally by The Rogatchi Foundation of which Inna is the co-founder and President. She is the wife of the world renowned artist Michael Rogatchi. Inna's family is related to the famous Rose-Mahler musical dynasty. Her professional interests are focused on Jewish heritage, Holocaust and post-Holocaust, arts and culture. She is twice laureate of the Italian Il Volo di Pegaso Italian National Art, Literature and Music Award, the Patmos Solidarity Award, and the New York Jewish Children's Museum Award for Outstanding Contribution into the Arts and Culture (together with her husband). Inna Rogatchi is the member of the Board of the Finnish National Holocaust Remembrance Association.
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