Germany returns two Nazi-confiscated Old Masters to the heirs of a renowned Jewish art collector Harry Fuld, Senior

Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, The Clothing of St. Clare By St. Francis, (1455), Inv. Nr. 2170, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Jörg P. Anders.
Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia, The Clothing of St. Clare By St. Francis, (1455), Inv. Nr. 2170, © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie, Jörg P. Anders.
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By Luise Wank, Art Net News, September 1, 2019.  Click for full report.

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Germany has returned two late medieval panels to the heirs of a famous Jewish art collector. The religious paintings, which were in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie (Old Master Gallery), originally formed part of the remarkable art collection of the Jewish businessman Harry Fuld Senior. They are the latest pieces of Nazi-looted art to have been successfully recovered by his heirs, although hundreds of items remain missing.

The panels by the Italian artist Giovanni di Paolo depict two scenes of the life of St. Clare of Assisi. The Clothing of St. Clare By St. Francis, and St. Clare Rescuing the Shipwrecked. Both date from around 1455.

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation organized the restitution. “I am glad that the provenance of the two predella panels, which are probably the most important works belonging to the collection of Harry Fuld Senior, could be clarified, and that they could now be returned to the descendants,” the foundation’s head, Hermann Parzinger, said in a statement.

The foundation has previously overseen the restitution of a late medieval alabaster relief in 2009, and two fabric fragments in 2012 to Fuld’s heirs. In an agreement with his descendants, the alabaster relief can still be seen at the Bode Museum in Berlin.

The art collector Harry Fuld Senior owned a Frankfurt-based company that produced and sold telephones. After Fuld’s death in 1932, his wife Lucie Mayer-Fuld and his two sons inherited shares in the company, but they were expropriated by the Nazi regime. In his will, Fuld stated that his estate should not be distributed to his family until 1950, but his wishes were never carried out as his wife, children, and the executors of the will were Jewish.

After the family lost their company, Mayer-Fuld fled to France, and his two sons—Harry Fuld Junior and Peter Fuld—escaped to England. In 1940 the two panels were bought by what was then called the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, and entered the national collection. They were sold by the art dealer Carl Bümming, who was acting as an intermediary for an unknown party. While it is unclear who Bümming worked for, the foundation accepted that the works were confiscated during the Nazi era.

More than 500 items in Germany’s lost-art database are listed as belonging to Mayer-Fuld. These include 13 paintings, 18 sculptures, and more than 482 craft and folk artworks, as well as two library objects, and two graphic objects.

Last month, two Louis XVI vases, which are estimated to be worth around $120,000, were returned to Mayer Fuld’s heirs. Christie’s New York alerted the FBI’s art crime team after they were consigned for sale and the Fuld name raised alarm bells.

V&A hope to reunite families with art stolen by the Nazis as museum becomes first in UK to hire provenance expert

A rectangular, gold-mounted hardstone snuffbox
A rectangular, gold-mounted hardstone snuffbox

The Victoria and Albert Museum hope to reunite families with 80 pieces of Nazi looted art as it becomes the first museum in the UK to hire a provenance expert.

Between 1933 and 1945, Jewish art collectors in Germany and Nazi-occupied Europe had their possessions systematically taken from them but now the V&A hopes to reunite families with their stolen artefacts.

Jacques Schuhmacher, 35, from Frankfurt, is the UK’s first museum curator dedicated to provenance research and has been uncovering the story of Nazi-looting through the museum’s Gilbert Collection.

The collection includes 1,000 items of gold and silver; gold boxes, pietre dure, portrait miniatures and micro mosaics and was founded by Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert.

But, Schuhmacher has so far identified 80 items from the collection with a troubling past, including objects sold by a German auction house in the 1930s, objects that are known to have been in Nazi Germany or a country occupied by Nazi’s, items that were once in a Jewish collection and items with limited information.

Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert donated over 1,000 items to the Victoria and Albert Museum
Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert donated over 1,000 items to the Victoria and Albert Museum
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Schuhmacher, who started his position last June, said his appointment is part of the museum “intensifying its efforts in the area of provenance search” with Nazi-looted art being a “big priority”.

Now he hopes the 80 objects can be reunited with families.

“I have been in touch with some families,” he said. “In many cases, it’s very difficult. We’re talking about cases where people were murdered and sometimes did not leave behind family members.

“In other cases, the family members were scattered all over the world as they managed to escape Nazi-occupied Europe but it’s very difficult to track them down.”

One of the objects is a gold box owned by Eugen Gutmann founder of the Dresdner Bank, who died in 1925, with the bulk of his collection inherited by his son, Friedrich.

Friedrich Bernhard Eugen Gutmann with his son Bernhard. Dutch art collector 
Friedrich Bernhard Eugen Gutmann with his son Bernhard. Dutch art collector
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It was acquired by the Gilbert Collection in 1983 with no information about its provenance.

“In 1942, Nazi art dealers descended on the Gutmanns’ home and compelled Friedrich to send the collection to Munich. The snuffbox is not recorded on that inventory,” said Schuhmacher.

“In 1943, Friedrich and his wife Louise were told they could immigrate to Italy. Instead, their train was diverted to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, and they were murdered.”

Schuhmacher travelled to the Netherlands, where Friedrich lived, Germany and the United States to look through the archives. While the case remains unsolved he was able to meet a descendant of the Gutmann family, Simon Gutmann, who himself has written books on Nazi looting.

Snuffbox with monogram LM in diamonds
Snuffbox with monogram LM in diamonds CREDIT: PAUL GARDNER
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The Gutmann case was more fruitful than most and Schuhmacher says the process can be “frustrating”. “Sometimes you send emails to members of families and you never receive a reply and you can’t be sure if you’ve contacted the right person.”

But, he hopes a new display of eight objects from the Gilbert collection with “problematic provenance” that will go on show for free at the V&A this December, will encourage answers.

Arthur Gilbert, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who donated over 1,000 items of gold and silver, gold boxes, pietre dure, portrait miniatures and micro mosaics, to the Victoria and Albert Museum
Arthur Gilbert, a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who donated over 1,000 items of gold and silver, gold boxes, pietre dure, portrait miniatures and micro mosaics, to the Victoria and Albert Museum
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“If anyone has further information we welcome that information and I hope that it will lead to further research,” he said.

Once families are found they are able to make a claim via the Spoliation Advisory Panel who will issue a recommendation on the object.

For now, the 35-year old said the V&A would continue to tackle the difficult history of the collection “head on” and “where it is appropriate” provenance will be featured on description labels and the V&A website.

Schuhmacher said there has been a “tremendous public interest” in provenance and public restitution with a huge demand for tours and seminars.

He added that the exhibition, titled Troubling Objects, was “an attempt to pioneer this type of display in the UK and to see what the response is to it”.

Schuhmacher believes it is the duty of the museum to understand its objects provenance but resources prevent other institutions from following suit.

He said: “It’s not about museums trying to hide something, in many cases they just don’t have the means to carry out this research.”

Troubling Objects. Uncovering the Story of Nazi Looting, a free display, curated by Jacques Schuhmacher and Alice Minter, Curator of the Gilbert Collection, will open at the V&A on 5 December 2019.

How Chagall’s daughter smuggled his work out of Nazi-occupied Europe

Headshot portrait of artist Marc Chagall and his daughter Ida Chagall, 1945. Photo by University of New Hampshire/Gado/Getty Images.

Headshot portrait of artist Marc Chagall and his daughter Ida Chagall, 1945. Photo by University of New Hampshire/Gado/Getty Images.

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Alfred H. Barr, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, invited Chagall to have a solo exhibition as a ploy for obtaining a United States visa. Supported by Jewish-American organizations and collectors who paid for their passage, the artist and his wife, Bella, seized this ticket out and departed France as fast as they could. They took what they could, but inevitably left some cherished treasures behind.
One of these was the couple’s only child, Ida, who couldn’t get a visa under Barr’s invitation. The other was the stock of the artist’s paintings.
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Before fleeing Europe, Chagall tried to ship trunks of his colorful canvases featuring cows, fiddlers, and Russian villagers to the United States. “Chagall’s major capital was his paintings,” explained Susan Tumarkin Goodman, curator emerita at New York’s Jewish Museum who organized the 2013 exhibition “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile.” The artist hadn’t, however, made arrangements for 25-year-old Ida and her husband, Michel Gordey, to cross the Atlantic to safety.
“It was too urgent to make any other plans,” noted Galya Diment, a Russian literature professor who has researched Chagall’s relationship with Ida, of the chaotic circumstances under which the artist (who was briefly arrested by the Vichy police in Marseille) left France. “They were definitely concerned about Ida’s well-being but felt that Chagall, because of his visibility, was in real danger of being re-arrested and sent to camps,” Diment continued. Not only was Chagall Jewish, but the Nazis had also labeled him a “degenerate” artist.
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So Chagall and Bella exited fast, concluding two years of dodging the Third Reich. The couple left Paris in 1939, migrating further and further south as German troops neared France’s northern border, transporting their crates of artwork again with each move.
When the Chagalls landed in America, they discovered that Spanish customs had impounded their crates. A distressed Chagall wrote to Ida, still stranded in southern France. She began a heroic effort to salvage her father’s work from being lost to the war, traveling to Spain by herself to try to release the crates.
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Michel, following a few days later, was arrested at the Spanish border, compounding Ida’s efforts to liberate Chagall’s paintings from customs with the need to spring her husband from jail. She ingeniously succeeded at both. “Ida played the bureaucratic harp with skill and persistence, pulling all the proper strings,” writes Chagall biographer Sidney Alexander.
Then another seemingly impossible hurdle surfaced: Barely any ships were leaving Europe.
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By the late summer of 1941, vessels like the Mouzinho refugee ship that carried the Chagalls to New York were scarce. With some luck—and money from his parents—Michel bought two pricey $600 tickets, worth roughly $11,000 per ticket today (the Chagalls did not contribute), aboard a ship for Jewish refugees. The couple ambitiously attempted to embark not only with their lives, but also a sizable crate of Chagall’s paintings.
Smuggling paintings out of Europe during the frenzied onset of World War II wasn’t simple, even with means. Jewish-American collector Peggy Guggenheim frantically bought paintings from top contemporary artists in Paris leading up to the German occupation; in 1941, she got them out of Europe by tucking rolled-up canvases in a shipment of linens and blankets.
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Those cozy conditions were far superior to the circumstances that Ida, Michel, and a 6-by-6-by-3-foot crate of artwork ultimately faced aboard the Navemar steamship in August 1941. The steamer, built to accommodate cargo and up to 15 people, was hastily outfitted to fit 1,180 passengers (plus 4 live oxen serving as the ship’s meat supply during the 40-day voyage, since the ship had no refrigeration facilities). Conditions were gruesome, but this was the last way out for the refugees, some of whom died at sea and were thrown overboard.
The headline-making Navemar left Lisbon on August 17th. In New York, the Chagalls soon read descriptions of the journey in the newspaper. “We read today…that ‘Navemar’ is a floating concentration camp,” Chagall exasperatedly wrote to Morris and Ethel Troper, European director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee aid organization, in a letter offered this month at Guernsey’s auction house. In another message to Troper, Chagall describes a letter Ida sent when the ship docked in Lisbon. “They were ill, with 40-degree [Celsius] fever, no medication, no water, no food,” Chagall lamented. “We do not sleep nights. We cannot eat, thinking how the children in worst conditions live like animals.”
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Ida and Michel were indeed living like animals, among animals. The couple opted to ride on deck—which also housed a makeshift stall full of oxen—to avoid moisture damage to the paintings. It’s unclear how much artwork Ida brought on the Navemar; regardless, it would have been a challenge on a ship arranged to utilize every inch of real estate to salvage human lives.
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Still, Ida, Michel, and the paintings survived the journey. Her intuition to ride on deck proved wise, since all the luggage in the ship’s hold rotted and was thrown out in New York.

The Couple of the Eiffel Tower (Bride and Groom of the Eiffel Tower)

Marc Chagall

Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris
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Ida may have resumed her heroics after the war, in 1945, according to descendants of Konrad Kellen, an American soldier serving in Europe that year. In Kellen’s unconfirmed story, Ida approached him in a Parisian café and asked if he was going home. When he answered yes, she convinced him to transport a large stack of her father’s canvases (reserving one for himself, as a token of appreciation). Kellen reluctantly agreed, conveying the paintings through rain (and other surely dicey) conditions over a month before arriving in America.
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The following year, in 1946, Chagall did have a solo exhibition at MoMA, just like the one Barr described in his initially less-than-truthful invitation to the artist at the beginning of the war. It was likely a welcome return to career normalcy after years of global and personal chaos. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the show highlighted a thriving Jewish artist—and prismatic paintings of floating lovers, larger-than-life roosters, and pensive rabbis that would have perished were it not for Ida’s bravery and determination.

HAMEC educational opportunities for the new school year

Memorial1The Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center is reaching out to you again to offer educational programs to engage your students and teachers in a dialogue of the Holocaust.  In the past eight years we have reached 250,000 Greater Delaware Valley area students and teachers in a discussion of racism, ethnic cleansing, and intolerance.

This school year will make the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps in the spring of 2020.  We encourage you to take advantage of the momentous occasion and once in a lifetime educational opportunity for your students to engage in dialogues with our Survivor and Liberator speakers.  Outlined below are the programs, suitable for the 5th-12th grade students that meet Pennsylvania’s Academic Standards for History and English.  Each program offers an opportunity to expand their understanding of the Holocaust through an honest portrayal of its history.  Presentations can be held at the locations of your choice.  Contact us to schedule any of these programs.

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WITNESS TO HISTORY–SURVIVOR PRESENTATION

One of our more than 20 Holocaust survivors, liberators, and resistors meet with students at your school or at our museum and share his or her personal story.  An accompanying Holocaust educator introduces the speaker and facilitates a Q&A session at the end of the testimony.  This program is ow also offered through Skype to accommodate schools’ growing technological needs.

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WITNESS TO HISTORY–STUDENT PRESENTATION

Students learn the personal history of a Holocaust survivor or liberator by hearing their testimony, writing a biography that includes pertinent historical background information, and then presenting the testimony.  This is an excellent opportunity for independent or senior projects for students, and allows us to honor the speaker, ensuring the history is not forgotten when the testimony is all that is left after the Survivor is gone.  Museum Education Staff provide resources.

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ANNE FRANK THEATER PROJECT

Two Broadway quality education theater productions are available to be performed at your school.  Both are based on historical facts.  Your school can be site of a performance of one of two plays, both of which are professional grade and based on historical facts.  Lida Stein and the Righteous Gentile depicts how the implementation of the Nuremburg Laws affected ordinary teenagers in a rapidly changing society in Germany.  The Diary of Anne Frank, adapted from the Broadway original, shows how an ordinary family endured the unfolding Final Solution while hiding in the Netherlands.  A post performance talk back discussion with the case and a Holocaust educator provides the interactive learning experience that is the hallmark of all of our programs.  Contact us to see if your school qualifies for financial assistance.

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RIZ RESOURCE CENTER LEGACY LIBRARY

We also offer you free access to the Riz Resource Center, a vast collection of primary documents, and the Legacy Library, a unique collection of interviews of Philadelphia area Holocaust Survivors, Liberators and Resistors.  These materials support curriculum development, research and independent projects.

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For more detailed information, resources and discounts on Professional Development Opportunities, visit us at www. hamec.org or contact Geoff Quinn, Education Director, at Geoff@hamec.org or telephone him at 215-464-4701.

CLICK TO REQUEST A PROGRAM.

Wherever you are, our Survivors and Liberators can address your school, congregation and civic group.

 

streetcaropeningday-schaffeld-21750xx1200-675-0-63Through Skype in the Classroom, in cooperation with Microsoft, or in person, we can bring the latest in Holocaust education to you.  Contact us at info@hamec.org or 215-464-4701.

Hate never takes a vacation and neither do we.

Yale launches Holocaust Survivors podcast

Titled “Those Who Were There,” the podcast has narration by Eleanor Reissa, an actress and Yiddish theater director, and historical oversight by Professor Samuel Kassow.

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BY CNAAN LIPHSHIZ/JTA, Jerusalem Post, September 15, 2019.  Click for full report.
Yale launches Holocaust survivors podcast

Polish born Mordechai Fox, an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor, wears a yellow Star of David on his jacket during a ceremony marking Holocaust Remembrance Day. (photo credit: REUTERS)

(JTA) — Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies launched a podcast series featuring the remembrances of survivors.

The series launched this week with the testimony of Martin Schiller, a Jewish man from Poland who described his experiences in the concentration and slave labor camps of Plaszow, Skarzysko-Kamienna, Buchenwald and Theresienstadt. Plaszow serves as the setting for the film “Schindler’s List,”

Titled “Those Who Were There,” the podcast has narration by Eleanor Reissa, an actress and Yiddish theater director, and historical oversight by Professor Samuel Kassow. It features testimonies collected from 1979 onward.

Filmed in Auschwitz with former prisoners, first Holocaust feature film was a feminist triumph

Centering around the story of a real Jewish heroine, the first ever Holocaust feature film was a revolutionary female-led experiment. ‘They did everything automatically, as returning prisoners. It was frightening’

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Exactly 70 years ago, in the summer of 1949, a distinguished group gathered at a Tel Aviv Cinema for a preview showing of a pioneering Polish film. The event was attended by members of the diplomatic corps, government figures and notables from literature and art.

The movie was “The Last Stage” – one of first feature films about the Holocaust, the first to be filmed at Auschwitz, and the first to show all the stages of killing at the camp. The director, screenwriter and many cast members had been prisoners there.

“This film offers a terrifying documentary-like depiction of episodes of the ‘life’ of the women prisoners in the camp, including many Jewish women and the inner spirit of rebellion, which was headed by a Jewish woman,” Haaretz wrote at the time. Whether in Israel or the wider world, not many people at the time knew much about the scope of the atrocities at Auschwitz. In this respect, too, “The Last Stage” was ahead of its time.

 Film Polski
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Director Wanda Jakubowska, sometimes called “the grandmother of Polish cinema” and “the mother of Holocaust movies,” was born in Warsaw in 1907. As a child, she moved with her parents to Russia, but they returned to Poland in 1922.

After discovering her love for cinema, she founded a film club that showed top Soviet films like “Battleship Potemkin” and “Storm Over Asia,” and later began making movies herself. Her first film, “The Sea,” was nominated for an Oscar for best short film in 1933.

A keen (non-Jewish) communist activist, Jakubowska was arrested by the Gestapo and was sent to Warsaw’s notorious Pawiak Prison, where she spent six months. Through the windows of her cell she saw the ghetto go up in flames during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the spring of 1943. In April that year, she was sent to Auschwitz. When she heard the gates slam shut, she told a friend that she had to record that sound. “At that moment, I realized that I had decided to make a film about Auschwitz,” she said years later.

She worked as a photographer in a factory at a satellite camp of Auschwitz, where the inmates were compelled to produce rubber to make tires for the war effort. As another prisoner from the camp recounted later, “In the dark cell where Wanda Jakubowska was put to work developing pictures, we women would gather when we could elude the eyes of the supervisors. By the red light of the machine we would read the articles from the German newspapers that came to us from the men’s camp.”

The Soviet Novosti news agency wrote in 1965: “Jakubowska swore that if she lived, she would make a film about the horrors of Auschwitz, and thus arose the terrifying truth of the film ‘The Last Stage.’” Jakubowska later said she survived Auschwitz because of her burning desire to make a film about it. She survived even though, as the Red Army advanced on Auschwitz, she was sent on a death march to the Ravensbrück women’s camp in Germany.

Right after the war, she began writing the script for “The Last Stage” with Gerda Schneider, a political prisoner from Germany, also a communist, whom she met at Auschwitz.

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 Film Polski
Film Polski
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The material was drawn from her own experiences, from stories she heard in the camp, and from interviews with survivors and Germans who served there. The women continued working on the script after Schneider returned to Germany, meeting in Berlin to do so. One of the film’s first working titles was “The Auschwitz Concentration Camp for Women.”

Before Jakubowska’s film, scenes from Auschwitz were filmed by the Red Army. In some cases, these were reenactments made after the camp’s liberation, using former prisoners or Polish extras. But Jakubowska was the first to use the camp as the setting for a feature film.

Polish actresses and extras, including former prisoners and residents of the adjacent town of Oswiecim, were cast for the film. The production crew noted later that there was a certain advantage – not just because the cast already knew the site well, but because they acted like prisoners on the set “and did everything automatically, because they knew it all from their own experience, as returning prisoners. It was frightening.”

The production crew also spoke later of odd incidents during the filming of the “half-documentary,” as the director called it. One example was the encounter between a female cast member, still dressed in an SS uniform during a break in filming, with genuine German prisoners – POWs. Another time, Jewish visitors touring the camp were stunned to be greeted by SS troops with attack dogs – actually actors attired for their roles.

Soviet soldiers also took part as extras. “I had the entire Red Army in Poland at my disposal; it was very easy for me to make the movie. They were very disciplined and trained,” Jakubowska said. The clothes and other objects in the film – suitcases, shoes, pots – were authentic. The atmosphere was so similar to the situation during the war that the crew had to stop shooting sometimes when they were overcome with tears.

‘Don’t let Auschwitz rise again’

The movie was filmed two and a half years after the camp’s liberation, between July and September 1947. It was at this time that Poland’s parliament decided to turn the camp into a memorial that would emphasize the sacrifice and suffering of Poles and other prisoners.

Even just two and a half years after liberation, a certain amount of restoration work was required. Some of the barracks had been taken apart already – in some cases the result of theft. The film was shot in the actual buildings, including a hospital area and doctor’s office. During the filming, the crew stayed in former SS quarters. Jakubowska stayed at the house of the camp commander, Rudolf Höss.

A scene from The Last Stage. – דלג

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Certain aspects of the horror were censored. “The reality of the camp was emaciated prisoners, piles of corpses, lice, rats and all kinds of horrible diseases,” Jakubowska said. “On screen, this reality would cause terror and revulsion. We had to forgo these aspects despite their authenticity, because they were too unbearable for the postwar viewer.”

A number of the iconic visual images in the cinematic representation of the Holocaust were shaped by Jakubowska, Asaf Tal wrote on the Yad Vashem website. “‘The Last Stage’ can be characterized as a paradigmatic and influential work on Holocaust cinema,” Tal writes, citing similar imagery in films like “Sophie’s Choice” (1982) and “Schindler’s List” (1993).

Later Holocaust films inserted scenes from Jakubowska’s film as if they were documentary footage. Scenes that have been borrowed from her film – sometimes without approval and credit – include the arrival of transports, the curling of crematoria smoke, the hard labor of female prisoners and the barbed wire fences.

 Film Polski
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The film centers around a Jewish heroine, Marta Weiss, who is deported to the camp with her family. During the selection, she translates the commander’s instructions for the other prisoners and is chosen to serve as an official interpreter. Later she exploits her position to help her fellow inmates smuggle supplies and information, and eventually escapes with a friend, Tadek, in order to tell the world about the plan to liquidate the camp. But the two are caught and executed in a humiliating show parade.

At her death, she is revered as a heroine when the prisoner-hangman gives her a knife with which she slits her wrists and shouts to the watching crowd: “Don’t be afraid! They can’t hurt us. Hold on. The Red Army is near.” As the furious camp commander approaches her, she says: “You will soon be so small.” Then she slaps him and says, “You will not hang me.” At that dramatic moment, Allied planes appear in the sky and the Germans flee. “Don’t let Auschwitz rise again” are her last words, as she dies in the arms of another prisoner.

The Marta Weiss character is based on a true story – the story of Mala (Malka) Zimetbaum, a Polish Jew who moved to Belgium with her family as a child and was deported to Auschwitz in 1942. Fluent in several languages, she was chosen to serve as an interpreter at the camp and used her job to help other prisoners. In the camp, she met Edward (Edek) Galinski, a Polish political prisoner, and a romance developed.

They decided to escape together, in the hope of bringing news about the camp to the free world. On June 24, 1944, they escaped from Auschwitz-Birkenau. Galinski disguised himself as an SS officer and pretended to be escorting a Jewish prisoner to work outside the camp. They were caught two weeks later. One account says Zimetbaum went into a shop to buy bread and was spotted by a German patrol that happened to be passing by. The two were returned to Auschwitz and were executed together in September 1944.

The story of Zimetbaum’s execution is just as dramatic as that of her escape. Naama Shik described it in an article on the Yad Vashem website in which she examined Zimetbaum’s story from the perspective of gender studies.

“When the verdict was read, she slit her wrists and slapped the SS man in the face with her bloody hand when he tried to stop her. The execution was interrupted,” Shik writes. “I will die as a hero and you will die as a dog,” Zimetbaum said to the SS man, according to eyewitness testimony. She was taken in a wagon to the camp hospital to stop the bleeding – so the execution could then continue as planned.

Several prisoners reported that she died on the way to the crematorium. Others say she was shot to death. Edek, her beloved, who is said to have etched her name into the walls of his prison block, shouted “long live Poland” as he was being hanged. Zimetbaum became a legend after her death. In the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust edited by Prof. Israel Gutman, she is listed as the first woman to escape from Auschwitz.

The choice to put the Mala Zimetbaum character at the center of a feature film as early as 1947 is interesting. She had become a heroine among the other women prisoners while she was still alive. Tales of her heroism were recounted right after the war. One of the earliest testimonies, also cited in Shik’s article, was given by Bila Bender in November 1945. In her testimony, provided in Yiddish, Bender called Zimetbaum “the martyr Mala” and said she deserved a place of honor in the history of heroism, and as a Jewish martyr.

“The Last Stage” as shown in the Eastern bloc was a critical and box-office success. Many considered it the first important work of Polish cinema in the postwar era. “The new stage in Polish cinema” and “a victory for the Polish film industry” were some of the praises it received. For a short time it was also shown in France, as well as in Israel, but it didn’t reach the English-speaking world and other cultures. It also eventually disappeared from Israel. A new DVD version came out a few years ago, but it hasn’t been shown in theaters for decades.

Stalin reviews the script

Seventy years after its premiere in Israel, the film has returned as part of the Polish Zoom events this month and next, a project of the Polish Institute in Tel Aviv and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Poland. This time around, the film is premiering in Tel Aviv on Sunday evening.

Reexamination of the film all these years later clearly reveals its historical weaknesses; after all, it’s a communist propaganda film. Praise for Russia, Stalin and the Red Army is woven in. They are depicted as the prisoners’ only saviors – without any mention, of course, of Stalin’s cooperation with Hitler at the start of the war or of the war crimes committed by the Russians. In the film, all resistance to the Nazis is led by communist women. There is no trace of any resistance by other groups. The prisoners’ social solidarity in the face of evil is portrayed in the spirit of “The Internationale.”

The internal rivalries and acts of cruelty among the prisoners receive no place in the film. Nor is there anything on how Jewish prisoners were harshly discriminated against by prisoners of other nationalities; this wouldn’t serve the message.

Film Polski
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“This film is based on authentic events that represent a small fraction of the truth about the Auschwitz concentration camp,” says the film, which also lists various nationalities whose members suffered death at Auschwitz. The Jews appear near the end of the list.

Also, in the film one hears Polish, Russian, German and French, but no Yiddish. This is no coincidence. Produced under the auspices of the Soviet Union, the film deliberately avoids any mention of the uniqueness of the Holocaust and instead emphasizes the universality of the war’s victims. In this, the film betrays the truth. Most of the 1.1 million victims at Auschwitz were Jews.

But unlike other works produced under the communist regime, the Jews aren’t completely absent from this one, thanks to Jakubowska’s stubborn insistence. Describing it years later, she said she was pressured to alter the plot and remove any mention of Jews. Seventy years ago, Haaretz lauded her for not paying heed.

AFP
 Film Polski
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“The film’s creators do not fall for the Western method that tends to obscure the Jews’ suffering within the general suffering,” Haaretz wrote. “In fact, more than once, emphasis is given to the systematic increase in suffering that was the lot of the Jewish prisoners, and to the open plot to completely annihilate this race. And this is the film’s great virtue.”

Film Polski, the production company, was subject to the communist ideology that racked Poland after the war. To win approval to make the film, Jakubowska had to travel to Moscow with a translated version of the script, which was reviewed by the Soviet official in charge of cinema and culture, and by Stalin himself. Jakubowska later said that before the film’s Moscow premiere, Stalin kissed her hand. She said she was startled by the difference between his powerful image in photos and his visage in person: bad teeth on a short man.

In a film career spanning 50 years, Jakubowska made 14 full-length films and is considered the first Polish woman director to gain international recognition. Her other films include “King Matthew the First” based on the novel by Janusz Korczak and “The End of Our World,” which she considered her finest work. She taught film at the Lodz film academy for decades and held various administrative positions in the Polish cinema world.

But although she won numerous prizes under communist rule, film critics have tended to consider her works as propaganda pieces. For a long time, her name was often left off the list of important Polish filmmakers. Jakubowska, who remained a communist her entire life, died in 1998 at 90.

“Movies have to be made out of a love for cinema, not a love for money or an Oscar,” she once said. Besides a love for movies, her works also show a love for an oppressive regime, one that Poland’s current nationalist government – which is also responsible for the Polish institute that arranged for the film to be shown in Israel – sees as an enemy of the people.

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