By Peter Oliver
Shortly after I settled in Brussels in 1978, I discovered the painter Felix Nussbaum, a German-Jewish artist who took refuge from Hitler in the 1930s with his Polish-born wife Felka Platek, also a painter. His later works display a deep sense of foreboding, typical of German art in the inter-war years which was suffused with bitterness and irony for obvious historical and political reasons. In the late 1930s, his work became even more grim, as he had no illusions about his chances of survival under the Occupation.
Tragically, his premonition was correct: he and Felka were both deported and murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, just a month before Brussels was liberated. Felix was only 43, and Felka was 45.
My first encounter with his work was this painting (see photo). It is a self-portrait with Nussbaum’s Belgian identity card stamped with the words “Juif – Jood”; he is surrounded by a wall so high as to be insurmountable. I was immediately captivated: the format of the Belgian ID card was exactly the same as my own ID card at the time, made of soft cardboard; but fortunately mine was not stamped with those fateful words. What’s more, coming from a German-Jewish background myself (scratch me a little, and you’ll find a yekke!), I was steeped in German art of the period.
As time went on, I learnt more and more about this dark and tragic artist, and his proximity to … me. A few years ago, Stolpersteine with the names of the two deported artists were placed at Rue Archimède 22 – just five minutes’ walk from my office in the Berlaymont ! Until then, I had no idea that they had lived so near my workplace.
Not until the recent lockdown did I find the time to learn more. In a monograph which I had bought in the Jewish museum in Paris, I read that in 1942, fearing that his paintings would be destroyed by the Nazis, he stored them at the home of a Dr. Grosfils who lived at Ave Brugmann 255 – about 200 meters from our home ! After the war, Grosfils refused to part with the paintings, which sparked off litigation in the Belgian courts lasting nearly two decades. Finally, as I learnt from German television last year, his cousin (now 95 and living in Tel Aviv) had devoted her life to bringing legal proceedings to recover Nussbaum’s paintings and moving 117 of them to Osnabrück, his birthplace. Learn more here.
They are now housed together with thirty of Felka’s paintings in a splendid museum designed by Daniel Liebeskind on similar lines to his Jewish Museum in Berlin. A happy end – in a sense.
Peter is a long time IJC member and a former Board member.