Israeli man pulls uncle's lost art from the abyss of the Holocaust

Haaretz 14 July 2013
By Ofer Aderet

An Israeli immigrant travels the world to restore the legacy of his late uncle, Jechezkiel Kirszenbaum, whose work was looted by the Nazis and thought to be gone forever.

Nathan Diament
Nathan Diament in front of his uncle's paintings in the new exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot in Tel Aviv. Photo by David Bachar

Feast of St. Jean, Sao Paolo, 1952.
Jechezkiel Kirszenbaum, self-portrait, circa 1925.

Nathan Diament was 8 years old in 1946 when he first met his grandmother’s brother, Jewish artist Jechezkiel Kirszenbaum. “I met Kirszenbaum in 1946 when he came from Paris to visit us at our home in Brussels. I remember that he arrived at our apartment in Brussels broken and shattered. I can still see this fragile man, as if in a fog, sleeping in the bedroom we’d vacated in honor of his visit,” recalls Diament.

Diament grew up in Belgium − his parents had immigrated from Poland in the 1930s. The paintings of his Uncle Kirszenbaum, which decorated the walls of the house where he grew up, portrayed everyday life in the Jewish town of Staszow in Poland, the hometown of Diament’s mother’s family, whom he never met.

Alongside his uncle’s paintings there were pictures on the walls of many members of his mother’s family, most of whom were murdered in the Majdanek extermination camp. To her dying day Diament’s mother refused to tell him anything about them.

Looted, but not lost

Jechezkiel Kirszenbaum was born in 1900 in Poland, and at the age of 20 moved to Germany, where he studied at the Bauhaus school. In Berlin he published caricatures and illustrations in several newspapers. In 1933 he fled to Paris with his wife, and there too he continued to paint, but during the occupation he was forced to leave his studio, leaving behind his paintings, which were looted by the Nazis. His wife was murdered in Auschwitz and he spent the war years in labor camps in France.

Nathan Diament, Kirszenbaum’s nephew, also survived the Holocaust. His family scattered during the war, hiding in attics and with Christian families in Belgium − and after the war they were reunited. The encounter with Kirszenbaum in 1946 held great significance for him. “One day I took a walk with my grand-uncle. He held my hand. ‏(At the time I couldn’t fathom or truly understand the disaster which had befallen him − the murder of his wife in a concentration camp and the loss of all of his life’s work.‏) As we walked he said something to me, the exact words fail me, about how ‘the field of art would suit my personality.’”

In 1949 Diament immigrated to Israel. He made a career in administration and business and raised a family with Gilada Shamir, the daughter of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He never saw his uncle again. Kirszenbaum died in Paris at the age of 54, before he had a chance to visit Israel, in the midst of his contacts with the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to display his works in the museum.

Since his retirement Diament has been devoting his life to the restoration of his uncle’s work. Diament’s mother and aunt − Kirszenbaum’s nieces − died in 1996 and Diament and his brother inherited his artwork.

“We didn’t know much about his professional life and we didn’t know the extent of his contribution to art − just as most of the public today is not fully aware of it,” says Diament. “It is essential that Kirszenbaum’s artistic legacy be restored, especially those works which recall the period which has been destroyed forever; a period which saw the development of Zionism and the involvement of Jewish artists in the concurrent social and cultural revolutions noted at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th,” he explained.

Kirszenbaum’s legacy, says Diament, is not limited to paintings that “describe life in the Staszow shtetl, but also those which were directly integrated into the mainstream development of modern art, exhibiting clear stylistic similarity to contemporary works of Cubism, Expressionism and the beginnings of abstract art.”

Diament’s journey led him to many surprising places. “For years I was involved mainly in collecting archival material,” he says. In 2000, after reading an article in Haaretz about an international computerized database called the Art Loss Register, which keeps track of stolen works of art, he traveled to their headquarters in London and discovered that hundreds of his uncle’s works had been lost in the Holocaust.

“I discovered that the artist’s total loss included 400 oil paintings and 200 drawings and aquarelles,” he said. “I hoped to find material which would complement that which I’d received from the Art Loss Register, but from the start I knew that the chances were slim, as the Germans had destroyed nearly every significant piece of art work made in France by Jewish artists in the 1940s,” he said. “I was convinced that all of Kirszenbaum’s works, dating to his pre-war time in Germany, had been destroyed as a result of his designation by the Nazi Regime as a ‘Degenerate Artist.’”

Diament’s search for his uncle’s work led him to archives in France, and a meeting with those in charge of the national French archives led to the discovery of a thick file of documents, signed by Kirszenbaum, including a detailed list of the items in his collection before the war.

“With this discovery I began to truly understand the magnitude of the havoc the Holocaust had wreaked on Kirszenbaum,” he said.

At the end of 2004, upon his retirement, Diament expanded his activity. At the age of 66 he returned to school and learned a great deal about the periods when his uncle worked as well as those which influenced him.

“I spent many hours in various archives in my attempt to piece together the whereabouts of the artist’s work as well as to deepen my understanding of his artistic contribution, and over the following years made many exciting discoveries,” he said.

Rescued by a baroness

The website he started helped him to contact the children of artists who had studied with Kirszenbaum, and introduced him to people from the art world who knew about his uncle. One person whose name came up in his research was Baroness Alix de Rothschild, who was a student of Kirszenbaum’s and even helped him to overcome his depression after the war.

A chance encounter between the baroness and Kirszenbaum changed the course of his life. “She identified the soul and exceptional personality of the artist and set herself the goal of having him return to the art world,” says Diament.

Rothschild studied art with him and kept his best paintings in her private collection. At the same time she promoted his legacy by donating many of his works to museums, including the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Museum of Art in Ein Harod.

Armed with the new information, Diament visited the Israeli museums and found many of his uncle’s works in their basements. With the help of the Rothschilds, additional works were found in museums in Holland, France, Poland and Switzerland, and in private collections worldwide.

“The search for his works was both frustrating and exciting,” says Diament. For example, when he looked for a prophet triptych which was originally commissioned for one of the Rothschild mansions, he thought he would find it at the Rothschild Foundation in Paris, but in the end it was found in the Tel Aviv Museum.

Another surprise awaited him when he discovered a collection of photos of caricatures by Kirszenbaum that were published in several newspapers in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s, all of them signed “Duvdivani” ‏(Hebrew for Kirszenbaum, “cherry tree”‏). “This discovery proved not only that some trace of that period had survived after all, but that Kirszenbaum was a well-known caricaturist in care-free Berlin during the 1930s,” he added.

Last week the exhibition “J.D. Kirszenbaum, 1900-1954, The Lost Generation” opened at Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People, in Tel Aviv. It includes dozens of his paintings which his nephew managed to locate. “His dream and his lifelong goal were that his works would be displayed in Israel,” says Diament.
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