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Occupied Poland’s Jewish Ghettoes were home to creatives – painters, writers, musicians and actors ...
2021-05-15 09:00:00

The Creatives and Art of Poland’s Jewish Ghettoes

Gela Seksztajn, “Self portrait” / Wikipedia
The Creatives and Art of Poland’s Jewish Ghettoes
The Creatives and Art of Poland’s Jewish Ghettoes

Painters, writers, musicians, actors. The residents of Poland’s Jewish Ghettoes – for whom living also meant creating – produced artistic works till the end. Sylwia Stano writes about those who didn’t let their love for beauty be taken away from them.

Read in 14 minutes

The first concert of the Jewish Symphonic Orchestra took place in Warsaw on 25th November 1940, nine days after the Ghetto had been sealed. It was conducted by Marian Neuteich, composer and cellist, who set up the Orchestra and became its artistic director. The programme featured, among others, Beethoven’s pieces, which were forbidden compositions.

In the Ghetto, the symphonic repertoire was subject to many restrictions. First of all, the Germans only allowed the playing of ‘Jewish’ music. Therefore, it was permitted to play Bizet, Offenbach, Mendelssohn and Mahler, but not Chopin, Verdi, Mozart and Beethoven. Second, the musicians in the Ghetto didn’t have access to all the sheet music. Third, the make-up of the Orchestra wasn’t complete, particularly when it came to wind instruments. For these reasons, numerous changes were made to classical pieces. Aleksander Rozensztejn, reviewer at Gazeta Żydowska [Jewish Gazette], wrote in 1941: “The noble, romantic sound of the French horn was replaced with the somewhat bright and flat sound of the saxophone, but the intelligent and sensitive listener took this substitute as a necessity brought about by extraordinary conditions.”

Although the reviews didn’t mention it, Beethoven still belonged to the most often performed composers. Professor Marian Fuks cites Ludwik Hirszfeld, founder of the Polish School of Immunology, who wrote in his memoir The Story of One Life about the strange mood at concerts during which pieces forbidden by the occupiers were performed because “those malicious Jews loved Beethoven, and Brahms and Chopin, and they would rather risk imprisonment than give up on this timeless beauty. I even remember Beethoven’s 9th Symphony Ode to Joy being performed by the prisoners. […] The ban on listening to Beethoven is like a ban on enjoying the sun.”

In the Łódź Ghetto, which was located on the territory of the Third Reich, the situation was the reverse: it was officially allowed to perform not only Bach and Beethoven, but also Chopin. On the other hand, it was forbidden – just like in the whole of the Third Reich – to play pieces by Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Schönberg and Mahler. It is known, however, that maestro Teodor Henryk Ryder, who organized music events in the Łódź Ghetto, was looking for pieces by Schönberg and Mahler. He might have hoped that it would be possible to perform them for audiences.

The forbidden compositions appeared unannounced most often in encores. In fact, reference to the defiant musicians first came when I asked actor Dorota Liliental about artists and the Ghetto.

A temple of forgetting

“The moment it was sealed off, the ghetto started searching for the resources for survival; it wanted to live,” writes Agata Tuszyńska in Vera Gran: The Accused. “It was a closed city, but a city nevertheless, and a living, breathing organism that purchased, ate, dressed, and excreted.” The newspapers included advertisements for tailors and dentists, but also theatres. Cafés were popular, as the clients denied themselves food to listen to pre-war songs over a glass of hot water in the evening.

Vera Gran called Sztuka Café in the Warsaw Ghetto “a temple of forgetting”. Despite its disadvantageous location right next to the Ghetto entrance and with time more frequent round-ups, the place was always full. “Boys and girls came secretly from the Aryan side, they greased the palms of the policemen to come listen to me,” said Vera Gran. “There were so many of them. I took that for a great compliment. You have to be young and stupid to risk your life for some music. [...] They would check: Is Vera there?”

In this way, people were able not only to detach themselves from the grim reality, but also to help others. At the time, the newspapers mentioned charitable concerts, the profits from which were donated to help orphaned children or ill colleagues.

Sztuka Café also hosted Marysia Ajzensztadt – known as ‘the nightingale of the Warsaw Ghetto’. “Young, beautiful, black haired Marysia was the most popular person in Warsaw,” wrote the prominent Jewish historian Emanuel Ringelblum. “Her repertoire included pieces by the best Jewish, Polish and Hebrew poets.” It was the Germans who forced her to sing one of her most popular songs “Ejli, Ejli, lama azawtani” (“My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me”) in the Riwiera restaurant. They included the recording in a propaganda film to show that the Jewish elite lived in luxury in the Ghetto.

In his memoir Life Strictly Forbidden, Antoni Marianowicz wrote that Marysia Ajzensztadt performed anywhere she was able to. The poet even resented that the young singer ‘wasted her talent’. Yet he also told the journalist Hanna Bałtyn how he regretted not being at every party at which she performed; how she had the most wonderful voice one can imagine.

No concerts on cemeteries

The Ghetto cafés were popular and their artistic activity was condemned by neither the Association of Polish Stage Artists (ZASP) nor the underground Jewish organizations. This doesn’t mean that such activities were not controversial. In her article “Kabaret za murem” [A Cabaret Over the Wall], Anna Kuligowska-Korzeniewska cites Michał M. Borwicz: “There were numerous accusations levelled at these open parties. The issue was not about the programme, but about the events themselves. Parties are associated with entertainment, which seemed tactless in these conditions.” In the Vilna Ghetto, concert posters were scribbled over with the words: “No concerts on cemeteries!”

Nonetheless, theatre and concert halls were full every day. People yearned for art and entertainment. Since the German invasion of Poland, Jews were forbidden from going to libraries, theatres and cinemas. Even group prayer was forbidden. Only in the Ghetto was the right to meet, sit in a café, and attend a concert and theatre performance reinstated.

In comparison with the price of bread (in winter 1942, it was 13 złotys per kilogram), a theatre ticket was cheap, costing almost two złotys. Ruta Sakowska, a historian at the Jewish Historical Institute, calculates that in the 1941/42 season in the Warsaw Ghetto, there were around 180 performances per month, attracting hundreds of people. Attendance on weekdays was 80%; on holidays, it was 100%.

Marek Edelman, deputy leader of the Jewish Combat Organization (Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa), highlighted that “the spirit of freedom and equality had been present at all times in the Ghetto: we were all locked up and weren’t allowed to attend school, eat, sing, dance or read books.” Still, despite these restrictions, every evening there were literary readings in enclosed courtyards. This activity was the first impulse of resistance.

In spite of the difficult conditions in which theatres operated, there were debates over the programme. Emanuel Ringelblum regretted that the Warsaw Jewish Theatre was a show for the least picky audience that predominantly loved revue theatre. Kuligowska-Korzeniewska refers to the opinion of the author of the Kronika Getta Łódzkiego [Łódź Ghetto Chronicle] from 1943, in which they defended the revue theatre: “We would have found ourselves in the position of someone who stifled the most basic life instinct within people in dire straits if we had blocked their only source of vitality and life affirmation. To sit in a theatre hall again, away from the gloomy reality, to exit into the hallway during an interval, to gossip, to flirt, to show new clothing, a new hairstyle – these things do not belong to the luxury category.” An anonymous author emphasized that “the pain of the Ghetto wasn’t lessened even if one experienced a few hours of joy.”

The testament

“She lived for 36 years. What is left after her are 61 watercolours, 178 sketches and 71 drawings, along with a few photographs and documents. Two pages filled with someone else’s handwriting: a testament and a short biography. All this placed in a tin box of dimensions 50 x 30 x 15 cm,” writes Monika Libicka in one of the first chapters of her book about Gela Seksztajn, Gela. Skarb z Archiwum Ringelbluma [Gela: A Treasure from the Ringelblum Archive]. Tin containers were dug out in September 1946 in a school basement on 68 Nowolipki Street. A few years later, two solder milk cans full of papers were also found. Inside them there were around 35,000 documents, photographs and art works collected and drawn up by the Oneg Shabbat group. Its activity was completely secret and its task was to record the lives of Jews during the German occupation. Children’s stories were also collected by proposing a variety of essay topics, for example, “What did our displacement look like?”

Gela Seksztajn, “Self portrait”
Gela Seksztajn, “Self portrait”

Beniamin Rozenfeld, a graphic artist, collaborated with this underground group. He was commissioned to create a collection of drawings illustrating life both in the Ghetto and beyond its walls. On 7th March 1942, he gave to the group’s treasurer five drawings accompanied with a commentary and received a 100-złoty payment.

The archive was secured and buried under the ground by Izrael Lichtenstein, one of the closest friends of Ringelblum and a husband of Gela Seksztajn. He wrote in the testament that he himself put in the box: “I would like my wife Gela Seksztajn, talented artist and painter, to be remembered. Dozens of her works have never been exhibited nor seen the light of day.”

Gela Seksztajn’s works and the history of the recovery of her artistic oeuvre constitute a special part of the history of Polish Jews, preserved owing to Ringelblum and his collaborators. Her works are unique, as the underground archive includes mostly written works. According to Eleonora Bergman, author of the introduction to the fourth volume of the Ringelblum Archive documents, Seksztajn’s heritage “is exceptional also because it is with difficulty that we find any traces of works of the numerous artists who found themselves in the Warsaw Ghetto and the majority of whom died.”

Gela Seksztajn only had one small box at her disposal, which was a great privilege. “Other artists didn’t have such an opportunity,” Bergman emphasizes. Apart from paintings, carefully trimmed to fit the box, Gela’s testament was also found. Its title is: “What can I say in such a moment and what can I ask for?” “Standing on the border between life and death,” Gela wrote, “in the conviction that I will most likely die rather than live, I would like to say goodbye to my friends and to my works. It’s ten years of working; I’ve collected my works, torn them, and worked again. I’ve been preparing to exhibit my paintings, but most of all to exhibit my portraits of a Jewish child. Now I’m saving what I can and if there is enough space.” The testament ends with a request: “I’m not asking for praise, but to retain me and my daughter in people’s memory. […] Now I am already in peace. I have to die, but I have done my work.”

Gela Seksztajn, “Portait of a man in a hat”
Gela Seksztajn, “Portait of a man in a hat”

In his book Who Will Write Our History, Samuel D. Kassow claims that creating an archive was one of the forms of cultural resistance. And although almost all of those who collaborated with Oneg Shabbat died, some of their work survived – such as the ‘evidence of existence’ hidden in the milk cans and tin containers. The Nazis wanted not only to eliminate the Jewish nation, but also to remove all signs of any works by Jewish artists, thinkers and writers. In 1943, Emanuel Ringelblum wrote to Adolf Abraham Behrman: “History knows of no other example where the enemy has been so determined to wipe out every trace of the vanquished. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, they left the “Wailing Wall.” After the barbarians invaded Rome, they left everywhere the [material traces] of Roman culture.”

The copyist commando

Adolf Abraham Behrman, the addressee of Ringelblum’s letter, was the leader of a special commando created in the Białystok Ghetto. In the Ghetto, there were many talented artists, including Natalia Landau, Izaak Celnikier, and the brothers Efraim and Menasze Seidenbeutel, who were so alike that before the war they attended art school classes interchangeably, as they couldn’t afford the double fee for the studies.

The group led by Behrman was called the ‘Commando of Copyists’. Oskar Steffen, a German businessman, came up with the idea of creating a studio. The Commando’s task was to paint copies of paintings by great masters, such as Rubens, Titian and Murillo, among others. Every week, trucks carrying ordered works would leave the Ghetto. They were first delivered to the Lubomirski Palace and then taken to Germany, where they were sold.

The documentary film Kopiści [Copyists] starts with an attempt at calculating how much money the owner of the Commando made out of it: “Nineteen painters paint two paintings every week for fifty two weeks. Times two. Let’s say times one thousand złotys. That is an approximate and very general price. It amounts to four million!” The film talks about the impact of the work of Joanna Tomalska-Więcek and Jolanta Szczygieł-Rogowska, local history researchers who for years have collected and enriched information about the artists, which was given to Celnikier, the only member of the Commando that survived.

Abraham Adolf Behrmann, “Talmud readers”
Abraham Adolf Behrmann, “Talmud readers”

The art studio in the Białystok Ghetto was a unique place. The artists had palettes, paints and easels at their disposal. They were able to paint and talk about art with one another. Nobody was rushing them and there was no guard with a rifle standing over them. The only guard was at the door to check if the artists didn’t take any paints. They were taking them anyway to paint their own works, even in hiding. On 16th August 1943, during the liquidation of the Białystok Ghetto, all the artists obediently left the atelier once the Germans arrived. All but Behrman. He insisted on continuing to paint. He was shot dead next to his easels.

The film Kopiści was created during the course Nauczanie o Holokauście i prawach człowieka poprzez sztukę [Teaching About the Holocaust and Human Rights Through Art], organized by the Olga Lengyel Institute for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights. It premiered in March 2021 and was accepted to the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. A representative of the Institute and an educator, Katarzyna Łaziuk designs lesson scenarios about the Holocaust for teachers. She is often asked by her students: Why did artists in the Ghetto create? What did they need art for? “The form is important,” claims Łaziuk, “because not everything can be expressed with words. It works both ways. My pupils also cannot find words to describe their emotional states. I then ask them for an artistic reaction to express what they’ve felt and experienced, or for a quotation.”

Such as this one: “I am tall, slim, my legs not ugly, and my waist very narrow. My arms are long, but my nails are ugly and not well looked after. I have big eyes, brown, thick eyebrows and long eyelashes, even very long. My hair is black, cut short, and combed to the back, my nose is small and snub. And my lips are well-shaped, my teeth very white, and a portrait is ready. I would like to put on paper everything that happens within me, but I am absolutely failing in that.”

It is a fragment of the diary written by 14-year-old Rutka Laskier from 27th January 1943. The girl hid a green, 60-page-long notebook in the rope underneath the stairs of the house in which she lived while in the Będzin Ghetto. The Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków has prepared lesson scenarios in which pupils make a portrait of Rutka based on her diary.

A case study

Teresa Śmiechowska, an art historian and exhibition curator at the Jewish Historical Institute, says that the opportunity to create art in the Ghetto was salutary for the artists. “It allowed them to detach themselves from the inhumane reality, to forget for a moment about the horror taking place at every turn.” Śmiechowska describes the life of Maksymilian (Max) Ejlowicz piece by piece: “Nine existing paintings, a few others found in reproductions in newspapers from the interwar period, entries in certificate records, records of memories and mentions in the Warsaw Ghetto Chronicle, articles and press announcements – these are the sources of information allowing us to bring into light more fragments of biographies, and to add new elements to a greater whole,” she writes in her article about the painter.

On 6th March 1940, Ringelblum wrote: “An interesting occurrence took place with Eljowicz, a painter, who was captured to work on tanks. He lit the fire well in the furnace and was asked how he knew how to do it. ‘I am an art painter.’ He was asked to paint. He is now painting the sixth person and of a higher rank. He receives one hundred and fifty złotys per painting, a receipt, every painting features his name. Good portraits.”

Good portraits, songs, poems and a 60-page lined notebook. Every found piece is a priceless treasure, the evidence of not only someone’s talent, but also simply of someone’s life. In defiance of those who wanted to erase all traces of Jewish artists, the trackers of these traces still hope to find new discoveries. Who knows how many of them are still hidden in attics or underneath floor boards?

Artists mentioned in the text:

Maria Ajzensztadt, singer (1922–1942)
Adolf Abraham Behrmann, painter (1876–1943)
Izaak Celnikier, painter (1923–2011)
Maksymilian (Max) Eljowicz, painter (1890–1942)
Vera Gran, singer (1916–2007)
Natalia Landau, painter (1907–1943)
Rutka Laskier, pupil (1929–1943)
Marian Neuteich, composer, cellist (1890–1943)
Emanuel Ringelblum, historian (1900–1944)
Beniamin Rozenfeld, graphic artist (1912–1944)
Teodor Henryk Ryder, conductor, pianist (1881–1944)
Menasze and Efraim Seidenbeutel, painters (1902–1945)
Gela Seksztajn, painter (1907–1943)


Translated from the Polish by Agata Maslowska

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