Chescz, dzień dobry. I live in Warsaw.
Lots of Jewish people live here.
My parents have named me Felka. They say
it means a girl who is happy.
And I am happy. Most of the time.
I`m happiest when I am drawing.
Then I forget the whole world.
Hello, my name is Felix. It`s my birthday today.
My parents have given me a lovely tin
with 36 coloured pencils in it.
The pencils are very bright.
We live in a big house in Osnabrueck.
My mother chides me: I should help in the kitchen.
She scolds my father as well, because I'm not a
good daughter. Good daughters help in the kitchen
and want to learn everything, how to cook and
what things have to be prepared for Shabbat. My
father replies gently and quietly: But she has other gifts.
My mother smiles and quickly turns away. But I saw it.
While we were on the street today I heard my parents
whispering to each other: Phillip, you really must
tell the boy that he shouldn't stare at people like that.
It isn't polite. And my father whispered back to my mother:
Rahel, let him carry on looking. He sees more than you
or I. He's remembering the people for his pencils.
I like that.
I asked my parents what exactly we are. We’re Jews,
we’re Poles and Russians rule in Warsaw. So?
My father explained it to me: “We will always be
Jews, Felka, and we will always be Polish Jews,
but we will not always be Russian subjects.
But you must never say that last thing anywhere
outside, only at home with us.”
We’ve got a lovely Christmas tree as well. Papa bought it.
Our neighbour Wilhelm yelled at me on the street:
“Jews aren’t allowed to have a Christmas tree because
they killed the Lord Jesus". Mama says: “Keep
out of that lad’s way. His father is the worst
anti-Semite on our street”. Papa growls:
“Anti-Semite? He’s an idiot, stupid and dim”.
In the flat below us the Flugs are packing everything up.
Boxes and baskets. They’re going overseas
to America. Lots of Jews want to go to America.
I asked my mother why: What is different in America?
All people are meant to be equal and free there, with
no hatred amongst the people, my mother explained.
No hatred against us either? No, Felka, no hatred against
us either. But I really like Warsaw. I don’t want to leave.
In the evening when father comes home from work, the first
thing he wants to see is the homework my brother and
I have done, and then he looks at what I’ve drawn during
the day. He praises me and explains anything he doesn’t like.
Later he takes the big book from the shelf: Look Felix,
van Gogh, he’s the summit. You have to keep climbing
there time and again if you really want to be an artist. Never
give up! From now on I’m allowed to take out the book on my own.
11 October 1913
I’ve done it. I’ve told Papa and Mama: I want to be an artist.
It’s the first time I’ve ever said it. Papa smiles sadly:
Girls don’t study, Felka. Not in this world and not in
these times. Mama just shakes her head and is angry with
Papa: It’s you who keeps putting all these silly ideas
into her head. And to me she says: You can’t earn a living
from painting; a single person can’t survive from it, let alone
a family. But I want to be an artist.
One day I shall leave and become an artist.
11 October 1913
Today we all went to the synagogue on Yom Kippur. Papa held
our hands really tight while the cantor was singing.
I can’t stop thinking about the cantor. His face stayed
with me the whole way home. The cantor's first name is Elias.
Papa says Elias was a prophet who went straight to
heaven in a chariot of fire. That’s why the locomotives
are still called Fiery Elias. And Elias reminds us that we
should always be faithful Jews.
29 June 1914
The city is nervous. I hear people whispering on the
streets: The Russians will be in for it now
Yesterday they shot the Austrian heir to the throne
and his wife in Sarajevo. Papa says: The world is
shuddering, and no good will ever come of it. Those
were the first two to die. Mama hugs Papa:
The main thing is that we’re all together.
29 June 1914
Papa tells us that cowardly Serbian assassins murdered the
Austrian heir to the throne and his wife in an ambush.
At supper he talks a lot about war: Germany will have
to help its allies and defend its own honour. Now we
German Jews are also standing firmly behind our Kaiser
and our Fatherland. There are no differences anymore;
everyone must be in his place and stand his ground when the
Fatherland calls. You children as well. Mama says nothing.
5 August 1915
For days now, the Russians have withdrawn from
Warsaw and from Poland. We heard the detonating of the
bridges. There’s a lot of destruction. Even so,
the people are pleased. Today the Germans rode into
Warsaw on their horses. I was standing in the street: the
horses were very tired. The war still hasn’t ended.
They say thousands of soldiers are dying in the west.
Father has said that many of the soldiers are
only one or two years older than me.
6 August 1915
That’s us, exclaims Papa when he comes home from work.
Hurrah! Yesterday our cavalry took Warsaw. The German
soldiers and the German horses: For the Kaiser and Hindenburg.
And all the Germans are loyal and true. And he patted
me on the shoulder and asked: Can you draw horses as
well, Felix? Draw horses, they deserve it.
Mama just shook her head.
I’ve been arguing with my parents: Jews have no rights
at all, but we’re allowed to die in wars – no matter
which side we’re on. Why don’t we fight for ourselves,
for our own rights? Father talks on and on, but he
never fights. He reads, works and sleeps. And mother reads
or sings in the kitchen. Nothing ever changes. The war is
in the fourth year. The Germans are ruling in
Warsaw as if they’ve always been here.
On the way home from school I passed the “Germania” tavern.
Suddenly, a man tore open the door and yelled:
“That’s rich Nussbaum’s son. Get out of here Jewboy, or else
I’ll make sure you do.” I ran home crying.
But when I reached our door, I wiped my face. “We’re fighting a
war and everyone has to be brave,” says Papa.
The Germans and the Russians have signed an armistice.
The war seems far away, and yet it seems so close to me. It devours
everything. Everything is just terribly sad now – and horrific. “What will
come of it all?” A sentence from my favourite story by Boleslaw Prus.
I often watched Prus taking a walk along Nowy Swiat Street.
Today I shall draw him from memory: He was an old man but never used
a walking stick. He walked with his hands clasped behind his back.
His eyes shone out into the distance. And my favourite story is “The Returning Wave”.
There is no czar anymore in Russia either. The Bolsheviks have killed him.
We’re always having to eat turnips. Everyone in my class is very hungry.
The adults are afraid of what will happen: even the teachers are
quietly growling. The war on the western front must be terrible.
I asked Mother whether we might be going to Ostend this summer.
She was very indignant: “Don’t ask such stupid questions. People don’t
go on holiday in wartime. They stay at home. Ostend is in enemy territory.”
The eldest brother of Fritz in the parallel class has been killed in France.
Fritz was secretly crying in the yard during break. The school janitor saw him
and boxed his ears: “You should be proud, you yellow-bellied sissy.”
26 June 1919
A new era is dawning, a time for a new parliament and a new constitution:
Poland is an independent republic. Its creator is Marshal Pilsudski: a man
with a huge moustache and a very high forehead. That’s the face of power.
The people worship him. He fills them with admiration and gratitude. The
neighbours are whispering that there are still pogroms being carried
out against us Jews in the country. Father says: “The situation is still
dangerous for us. They’ll never accept us as true Poles.” People in
America have protested against the pogroms. Now Poland will be signing
a treaty for the protection of minorities. I stood in front of the mirror in
my room and drew a self-portrait. Under it I’ve written: “Protected minority –
please let me live.” But nobody thinks it’s funny.
Everything is completely different now. We’re a republic. The Kaiser abdicated
a long time ago. Father is not at all pleased: “We knew where we stood before.
The new people first have to prove that they’re capable. There’s too much talking
going on, too many plebs – did we fight on the front for all this?” Mother says he
should wait and see, after all they’re decent people as well. And he should certainly
keep his moody comments to himself at work: “You’ll just make the employees angry
with us. It’s quite enough when you talk big at your cavalrymen’s association.”
I’d like to join the chess club. One has been founded at the Hotel Hohenzollern.
Eva asked me whether they accept women too. Then we could go there together.
I feel cramped in Warsaw. My parents want me to stay
where I am, as I am and what I am: their daughter. But I’m
22 years old. I’m an adult, and I want to be free to go,
see and learn: so that I can paint, paint and paint. But
that will never be possible wrapped in this cosy cocoon.
Yesterday I saw some paintings by a woman named Paula
Modersohn Becker. She worked together with other women
in a Berlin association of female artists. That’s what it
said in the article. Interesting. Berlin isn’t that far
away really. There’s no sea between Warsaw and Berlin.
At least that’s one consolation for Mother and Father.
I feel cramped in Osnabrück. I want to get started.
I don’t want to be simply “the artistic talent” who
is stuck at home. Utrillo was also seventeen when he
started to paint: as an individual personality. That,
and the constant discussions about Berlin. My parents,
especially Mother, think Berlin is too brash, full of
temptations, and too far away. “Hamburg offers a lot of
possibilities, too,” says Father. Why not? Hamburg’s
on the way to Berlin. We’ll see.
That’s the last thing we needed: They’ve murdered the
Foreign Minister Rathenau in Berlin. “A Jew,” mother says
to me with a look of reproach and anger in her voice.
“And that’s where you want to go? It’ll worry me to death.
My daughter alone in this huge Moloch.” I tried not
to listen. It’s as if every day in Warsaw has at least
48 hours. But I must keep my eyes open:
looking, painting, painting.
It’s all in preparation for the beginning.
At last: Goodbye to Osnabrück. In the end, it was
nothing but stress: Graduate from school? Yes or no?
“No self-discipline at school – What will happen
when you have to stand on your own two feet away from
home?” I couldn’t bear it anymore. So it’s Hamburg.
The State School of Applied Arts looks very impressive:
A colossal mural painted by Willy von Beckerath:
The “Eternal Wave”. Everything begins, ends and begins:
I’m beginning now. You’ll see just how disciplined I am:
The artist Felix Nussbaum.
Berlin, 27 September 1923
“Dear Miss Platek, We are highly impressed by the
drawings you sent us. Should you decide to move to
Berlin, you would be very welcome at the Lewin Funcke
School to continue developing your talents and to be
together with like-minded people.” A letter from Berlin
– sent poste restante. So my parents wouldn’t know.
Not yet. Who knows when…? I secretly sent the drawings
to the school where women and men study together: As
artists who want to discover the best in themselves.
I need criticism, other people, soon...I keep reading
the letter over and over again.
I’m going home at the weekend: we need to clarify
things. Father will understand; he has to understand:
art in Hamburg – it’s something the rich ship owners
like to have hanging on the drawing room walls in their
villas. It’s like something dead hanging there: nothing
breathes with excitement; nothing rushes out into the
world. It’s time for change: the only option is Berlin.
It has to be Berlin.
Everything has been said and it’s all decided now.
Mother is running around Warsaw with a tear-stained
face and telling everyone that I’m leaving her and
father: not a good daughter who gets married, no,
an ungrateful and egoistical creature. She doesn’t
actually say that, but I can sense that’s how she
feels. Father is sad, very sad, but he wants my
happiness just as much as I do. Mother wants me
to be like her and do as she did. I love both of
them dearly. And I’m sad as well. I hate saying
farewell to their and my world. I’m leaving for Berlin in a week’s time.
Berlin breathes hastily and loudly. Everyone is
hungry for life. You can’t turn your head fast
enough to see what you hear. In the evening your
eyes are overflowing with impressions. So what
do I paint? A still life with flowers. And what
is wandering in my mind? A selfportrait – as a boy,
with my beloved beret, a present from my parents.
At first I hated it, it was just too crazy.
Berlin: I‘m being thrown back on myself,
to gain a good hold.
Berlin is tearing me further away from Warsaw with
each day. I feel close, yet far away from the people
at the school: the daytime is filled with incredible
eagerness, short profound sentences in conversations.
Everyone wants to grasp the world with both hands;
art is the entire essence of their lives. And in the
evenings, they plunge themselves like liberated people
into the nightlife of Berlin which dazzles and lures
like some other continent. My teacher is Ludwig
Meidner. He paints and writes. Today he said to me:
“You must overcome the conventional, Miss Platek.
When you paint a house with windows, do it so that the
windows let us hear what the people inside are saying
to each other, how they shout, cry and laugh.
Your gaze and your pictures have to penetrate the walls.”
In the afternoon, when I’ve finished my daily
stint and classes at the academy, I sometimes
attend the private school run by the artist
Arthur Lewin-Funcke in Kantstrasse. Men and women
work together. It creates quite a unique
atmosphere. There’s more vitality, more focus on
the essential, and it’s less professorial or formal.
And there’s no competition: Each of us follows and
observes what the others are doing with interest and
openness. No shattering verdicts. It’s basically thumbs
up, with encouraging criticism. I’m absorbing all of
this like a sponge. For weeks now I’ve been secretly
watching a young Polish woman: her face when she’s
working is absolutely fascinating. I don’t even
know her name.
I didn’t come to Berlin to fall in love. There’s
a man here who keeps staring at me. Thank goodness
he usually only comes in the afternoons. Clearly the
spoilt son of wealthy parents, rather conceited. Here
they call it: “from a good family”. But the colleagues
say that he takes painting and art very seriously.
Worse still, his name is Felix.
The main thing is that he leaves me in peace.
All of my days on earth and all of the images
that have ever passed through my eyes to parade
in my head, have all come to Berlin with me.
They leave me no peace: I paint pictures of
my mother, of my father, and Elias as well,
the cantor at the synagogue in Osnabrück. He’s
returned and is knocking at the door: Yom Kippur
with our parents in the synagogue, unforgettable
and inseparable. The serious Polish woman’s name is
Felka. A colleague has spotted me gazing constantly
in Felka’s direction: now, the saying “Felix seeks
Felka” is circulating in the studios at Lewin-Funcke.
23 May 1927
Berlin is reeling with Lindbergh fever. Crazy, as
they’d done the journey themselves: all alone across
the Atlantic. It makes me think of Icarus: his eager
gaze into infinity, into the depths, into the
expanses of the universe. Oblivious until the end.
I gaze at the empty canvas: this endless fear of
the white space, of being able to add nothing,
absolutely nothing. It’s rare that you manage
to fly; it’s hard work and yet always a gift.
And: I’ve given in. Felix, the staring man, has
invited me out for a meal this evening. I don’t
care what the others say. It’s the merry
month of May...
23 May 1927
It’s Maytime: I’m putting the final touches to
my self-portrait with a green hat – self-
assured, rather dashing, in search of
something. Before making an entire fool of
myself, I finally spoke to her and invited
her out this evening – a meal, then a variety
show. Thank goodness father’s allowance for June
arrived just in time. The whole day I keep saying
to myself: slowly, Felix, slowly. Don’t lay it on
too thick, just be nice and modest. She already
thinks I’m a spoilt young man, a colleague told
me that in confidence. She’s older than me: how exciting
She’s so serious, so wonderful, so beautiful. It’s Maytime...
I’m still in love: Felix is clever and spoilt,
gentle and stubborn. He unfolds his worlds and his
history in front of my eyes: you must get to know
this; you really should know that… But he knows
next to nothing about me, about Poland, about the
Jews in Poland. He looks at me in amazement and
suddenly interrupts me, if I talk about it all for
too long. He wants me to meet his parents. It
doesn’t sound like a good idea to me. Not yet. We
both keep on painting as if we were bewitched. In
the studio they say: “Here come the two enchanted
beings.” And we smile.
Father has called. He shouts down the phone:
“Hip, hip, hooray! We can do it, too! It’s
the first time the Atlantic has been crossed
by plane from east to west. You see, my lad,
Germany is back on the map.” The old man is
a hopeless case. Felka is wonderful, so
enigmatic, so completely different. We love each
other; we talk and talk. She wants to know
everything about me. I’m working with an entirely
new vigour; everything from the past years is
bursting out: landscapes, travels, people.
Felka the sorceress.
Doing lots of work in Felix’s new studio. It’s nice
and close to Kurfürstendamm. It’s another big step
for him. And for me? Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m
becoming too involved in his world and that my own
is growing too small. I’m now beginning to see
Berlin with different eyes: the hatred towards
Jews is becoming louder and more commonplace. My
parents were planning a visit, but I’ve advised
them against it. There will be quieter times to come.
Off to the world of the Nibelungs: I’ve
rented a studio in Xantener Strasse. My
parents will like that: a good solid German
address, dragon included. Mind you, today’s
dragons look more like newspapers: since
January, the Völkischer Beobachter has been on
sale in Berlin, the paper in which Mr. Hitler and
his crew spew fire at us every day. Felka is
anxious and alarmed. Father on the phone:
“Hitler – a spook, ridiculous.”
Felix is absolutely crazy about my new beret. He
paints me on the spot. And the miracle happens
again: as a human being, as a man, he still knows
very little about what moves me deep within. But
as an artist, he sees everything: How unsettled
I am, how I shut myself off against his own world,
how I try so hard to be strong, and to keep my
distance, how unhappy I am in this foreign place.
Felka bought herself a white beret yesterday.
It makes me think of my beret that I loved so
much as a child, and I paint a portrait of
Felka, as she faces the world, stands up to
it – in a world of her own, all to herself.
The Germans remain so foreign to me. The street
shudders, starving beggars on the corners. But
many, including us, carry on living and pretending.
Felix and I – we keep quiet about it with each
other. To talk openly would seem like capitulating
to our fears. I sense his, he senses mine. We hold
each other tightly – in silence.
I am painting flowers. What is going to happen?
I should really be feeling content. The studio,
life with Felka, the success, the recognition –
I even have a ‘bit of a name’ in Berlin. How I
have yearned for this. But there’s a shadow
hanging over it all, so many people are suffering
under the world economic crisis, and the fanatic
screams of the wretched Nazis. Father refuses to
see it. Felka shuts the fear away in her heart, but
she trembles every day. I am painting a pessimist:
the sun darkens, the wind rises and becomes a tempest.
Felix is looking for his place. He’s getting more
and more involved. He’s making great progress, his
world is expanding immensely. And yet he always
stays grounded and I’m the one who ventures into
the unknown. Have I paid, am I paying too much for
this? Who knows? My painting is all around me.
Yesterday Felix paused in front of my easel.
His gaze was curious, then wide awake. Almost
alarmed. What’s happening here? I enjoyed it.
I’m becoming more and more annoyed by the old
artists who turn their noses up at us. They’re
arrogant and disparaging. Oh, what wonderful
representatives they are of the high arts,
dressed in their tail coats and top hats,
devoid of vitality, dark, dull and grey. But
I simply laugh and carry on painting: Pariser Platz
with the Academy and its monotony. High above it
all is Liebermann, the old warhorse: at least he
still paints with some fire – I’ll give him credit for that.
Moody old Felix. Instead of being pleased about the
recognition and a scholarship for Italy, he
grumbles away in the studio. He takes it for
granted that I’ll be travelling with him. Italy:
further away than ever from my parents, from
Warsaw. I often think about them and miss them.
But I’m still looking forward to something new.
I never would have thought that I’d see Italy,
live in Italy.
Farewell Germany. I’ve won a scholarship for the
Villa Massimo in Rome. But Italy doesn’t interest
me much anymore. I hope my work doesn’t
deteriorate to kitsch down there. Felka is coming
too. She’s looking forward to it far more than I
am. So it’s off to Italy. The only good thing about
it is, we can shake off Germany for a while. The
foundations here are getting shakier every day.
Felix – a mere shadow of his former self. All
of our pictures in Berlin have been destroyed.
The apartment was deliberately set on fire.
What hatred. What is left of our lives? It’s
good that we’re in Italy. I couldn’t bear being
in Germany. Broad expanses of blue sky, but the
misery clings to our feet. I comfort Felix.
He’s drowning in sorrow.
It’s as if I’ve been destroyed. The studio in
Berlin has been gutted by fire. Probably arson:
Burn down the world of that Jew Nussbaum!
All of the pictures stored there have been
destroyed. My life is utterly empty. And then the
news from home: Hitler is chancellor, he now stands
for Germany. It’s terrible. I’m worried about my
parents who are now exposed to this
hatred more than ever.
15 May 1933
I‘d been hoping so much that no more terrible
things would happen, but today Felix was brutally
beaten up by a colleague at the Villa Massimo.
Another outburst of hatred. Felix had to be taken
to hospital for stitches to his head. He looks
awful, black and blue everywhere, but he’s
stone-cold: he doesn’t want the police involved
or to cause a stir. He’s afraid of negative
consequences for us, and above all his parents
who are in Germany. Fear is descending
on us, it’s everywhere.
15 May 1933
An argument with Merveldt. The ‘honourable’
aristocrat keeps hitting me until I lie bleeding
on the floor. Member of old German nobility puts
the Jew in his place. I no longer have any
illusions about what my father still calls his
home country. This villa is also Germany –
as the above shows.
A letter from my parents: I recall the cold of
January in Warsaw. You can see people’s breath as
they hurry along the streets to get back home
quickly. My parents are fine – well, at least they
have written nothing to the contrary. They hope
I’m happy – those are the wishes they send. Am I
happy? The cold here is something I feel deep
inside – you can’t see your own breath.
After they made us move out of Villa Massimo
last May, I too was happy to have escaped that
dungeon. Now it’s Rapallo: I’m finding it easy to
paint here, and I’m basically in good spirits. But,
my dear, silly father: in October they expelled him
from his cavalrymen’s association. He really thought
he was one of them. Now he’s sent me a kind of love
and farewell poem dedicated to his good comrades who
have treated him so wretchedly – after 34 years of
membership. The old Jew has been removed as well.
Felix’s parents have arrived in Rapallo. Their
reservations towards me – too old, not a German
Jew – have collapsed under the weight of their
misfortunes. His father is thin and bent, but not
broken. His mother is weary from living in daily
fear and the hatred back home in Osnabrück. We’re
taking care of them. I’m glad that my parents are
safe in Poland. What’s happening with the Germans,
interminable figureheads of progress, art and culture?
My parents are with us – thank goodness. Father
is being very brave: he doesn’t want to let anyone
see his suffering, his deep injury. Those are
gangsters, that’s not Germany. He stresses it time
and again, complete with exclamation mark. Yes,
there are decent Germans as well. I agree with him
to calm him down. We’re breathing the clear fresh
Adriatic air, we’re bathing in light. But what will
become of us all now?
Ostende, a new language, a new country. A new home?
Lots of things are familiar for Felix – that’s why
he’s so acutely aware of the difference in our
present situation. Giving each other mutual support
is hard when your own courage is melting away like
snow in the sun. We find consolation in our work.
But what on earth can we live on?
Back in Ostende again. My childhood. Holidays
with the family. It’s only now that I realise how
carefree we were in those days; how life pampered
me. Today, I’m a fugitive. We keep moving from one
boarding house to the next. Felka and I have a
tourist visa, but it’s a long time since we were
tourists. We’re refugees seeking protection and
safety. But still we keep on painting.
Constant worry about having valid documents,
about having enough money to make ends meet. I
shall try to paint “conventional motifs” now,
flowers and other appealing things – pictures
that will sell better.
For days now, I’ve been watching a scissors grinder
who does the rounds in Ostend with his cart. I
almost envy him for his security: he is at home,
he has his cart, and people need him. Felka and I –
we’re being ground down by every day that passes.
I often stand in front of the mirror now for
selfportraits: Who are you?
Yet another new chapter: Brussels, rue Archimede.
Our parents in Warsaw and Osnabrück will have
to get used to a new address. We are all having
to get used to a lot of things in these times.
The world is darkening more and more. Felix
has asked me to marry him. He was always opposed
to marriage. And now this change of mind:
Do I have to thank Hitler for that?
The Germans are in Spain. They have bombed
Guernica. When will they come here? Hitler will want
to grab the whole of Europe, I’m certain about that.
War is coming, it’s just a question of time. The
war on the Jews started long ago. Felka and I are
getting married – out of fear. It’s to defend
ourselves, and because we love each other.
The Germans are becoming increasingly greedy.
First of all, Hitler swallowed up Austria, and
now he’s grabbing at Prague. He’s getting closer
to Poland, and to my parents in Warsaw. My
biggest worry is that they will fall into his
hands as well – like Felix’s parents in Osnabrück.
Don Quixote keeps haunting my mind and has to be put
on canvas. I need to buy new paints. The eternal
struggle for money – that’s our windmills. Felka is
my Sancho Panza. She looks after us and leads us,
and frees me from many of the day-to-day difficulties.
27 May 1939
Thank goodness, my parents are safe in Amsterdam.
Father stubbornly refused to leave Germany up to
the very last day: “I’m not a renegade and I’ll never
desert my country. I remain loyal to my nation.”
Felka worked hard to persuade him on the phone: “But
it’s only for a short time. This whole nightmare will
be over soon, and then you can both go back home again.”
3 September 1939
No contact with my parents in Warsaw. The
Germans have overrun Poland. War. I’m utterly lost
for words and sick with fear. When will Hitler
turn against the west as well? Where will we be
safe? Have we lost my mother and father?
Felix tries to comfort me, but deep down
we both fear the worst.
Hitler is now waging war in the west.
He’s invading us. Will Belgium be able to resist,
or will it be overrun like Poland a few months ago?
I’m painting in a race against time.
What mockery. The Belgian police have
arrested the Jewish refugee Felix Nussbaum as
an Imperial German citizen who represents a
threat to Belgium. I’ve been told that all German
men are being interned in a camp. I have no idea
where that camp is. No news from my parents,
and none from Felix. I’m completely alone.
Crammed together behind barbed wire.
The camp here is called Saint Cyprien. For 18 days
they herded us here through the whole of France
to the extreme south. Filth, vermin, it reeks
of fear and ghastly hopelessness. Some people go to
pray in the camp synagogue. I see them as they
stumble there in their prayer shawls.
Is God listening? Has my message reached Felka?
Felix is standing at the door. He signed
an application to the French camp commandant
for repatriation to the German Reich. He was
able to escape in Bordeaux. He managed to make his
way back to Brussels, hiding in the daytime
and trekking at night. His eyes are sunk deep
in their sockets; he is starving and very weak.
I’m standing in front of the easel,
and I can see the brush trembling in my hand.
I’m trembling, because we are utterly abandoned:
to fear, to barbarity, to the Germans.
I am still haunted by the barbed wire of captivity.
The Germans are restricting our lives more and
more. There are rumours that there are camps in the
east where they are taking us all.
They’re still letting us wait. We don’t have to wear
the yellow star here yet. I observe them and I paint:
as a witness of their murderous times.
Felka is extremely weak.
We were forced to wear the yellow star in May. Now
they’ve started the deportations to the east. To
Poland? What are they doing with the people there,
with us? When will we be on the list? Felix is
looking for a place for us to hide. Hiding us can
be lethal. Who would take that risk? On the street
today I saw an oleander in full bloom.
I didn’t wear the yellow star.
2 December 1942
We’re in hiding at Ledel’s – the sculptor and his
family. Felka and I are living with them. They are
very natural and generous. Little Karin gazes at me:
Who is this new Uncle Felix? I want to say: I’m
Uncle Felix in his hideout, and explain it all to
her. But I stay silent. How can such a small child
comprehend this world? I draw cute little animals for
Karin and tell her: It is Uncle Felix’s birthday soon.
Then we’ll invite all of the animals in the picture.
When the page is full, the little girl says: You have
to sign it too. And so I sign it for her.
The Ledels are leaving Brussels and going to the
Ardennes. They reckon it’s safer there, further away
from the war. They keep imploring us to come with
them. But Felka is determined to stay in Brussels.
“People will notice us more in the country – we don’t
belong there and everyone will stare at us.” Ah, my
dear Felka, I think, we don’t belong anywhere anymore.
Those days are long gone. We will miss our friends.
Little Karin cries as we say goodbye. We all cry –
for the first time in this wretched situation.
When will we meet again?
Back in the studio at the Rue Archimede.
The landlord has created a special hiding place
for us in the attic, so that we can escape quickly
from the studio, if there’s a raid or any kind of
danger. Then he can show that the flat is empty.
But he puts a finger to his lips – don’t say
a word to anyone, just keep very quiet! And no more
oil paintings: the smell of turpentine
could betray us all.
We are drawing with pencils and painting with
watercolours. No turpentine! We leave the studio
only for absolute necessities. Our eyes wander
around the kitchen. There’s the ladle, and there’s
the watering can for our flowers: all of them need
to be in the pictures. We hardly speak. We even try
not to whisper. We are growing increasingly silent,
battling against the fear, living on borrowed time.
I couldn’t stand it any longer – painting without
oils, so I found another studio in the Rue General
Gatry in July: anonymous and hopefully invisible. I
want to recount everything again. I paint myself with
the yellow star which I have never worn, and never
will. I look the murderers in the face. And every time,
Felka waits for my return, trembling.
Tuesday, 18 April 1944
I’m sitting in the dark and waiting for Felix.
I have always hated that other studio. It fills
me with dread every time, the thought that Felix
will be picked up off the street and I’ll never see
him again. He opens the apartment door and says
quietly in the darkness: Today – that was the last
painting. Death will triumph.
He takes hold of my hand.
20 June 1944
They’re hammering at the door of our hiding place.
Someone must have betrayed us. We had real
hope after Stalingrad. But it was not to be. I hold
Felka close beside me as I open the door. I want
them to look us in the face. They should never
forget us. I have just one remaining wish:
Even if we perish, do not let our pictures die.
1 August 1944
Inside the freight waggon. The train has been
rolling east since yesterday. We are cowering in
straw. Felix is beside me. The children are thirsty
and beg for water. There is no more water left.
Felix talks quietly with Mr Goldberg. A small,
delicate man – a watchmaker. He keeps glancing at
his tool case: “Watchmakers are needed everywhere.”
That’s his consolation.
But is there still time for us?
2 August 1944
We are sweaty and cramped – travelling for days.
Where will this horrific journey end? The smells
are revolting. The old people and the children are
suffering the most. Some of them are dead. We have
moved them to one side. Felka is being very brave.
The train is slowing down now. People are shouting
and yelling outside. They open the door. The light hurts
our eyes. I see dogs straining hard against their leashes.