Traces of Escape and Persecution

Felix Nussbaum's "Self-portrait in hiding place" (1944)

Self-portrait in hiding place (1944) by Felix NussbaumGerman Historical Museum

The painting "Selbstporträt im Versteck" (Self Portrait in Hiding) shows Felix Nussbaum together with his wife Felka Platek and Jaqui, another victim of persecution. At the time of this painting's creation in 1944, the couple lived in hiding at a friendly art dealer's in Brussels. In June of the same year, the couple was arrested, deported to Auschwitz, and murdered.
In the picture, Nussbaum refers to their situation of being in hiding against the background of the Second World War and the persecution and murder of Jews in Europe.

Born in 1904 in Osnabrück, the Jewish painter first gained artistic success in 1932. He received a scholarship from the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin and went to the Villa Massimo in Rome. However, due to the seizure of power by the National Socialists in 1933, he never returned to his homeland. In 1935, he and the Warsaw born painter Felka Platek, who had previously lived in Berlin, emigrated to Belgium, where they married in 1937.

In the camp (1940) by Felix NussbaumGerman Historical Museum

On May 10, 1940, 2 days after the German troops invaded Belgium, Nussbaum was arrested and detained as an "undesirable foreigner" in the Saint-Cyprien camp in the Pyrenees. In August, he managed to flee to Germany while being transported and later returned to Brussels.

Nussbaum worked his impressions from the Saint-Cyprien camp into this painting from 1940, which can also be seen in the Deutsches Historisches Museum. It is an imposing illustration of the drastic conditions in the camp.

Self-portrait in hiding place (1944) by Felix NussbaumGerman Historical Museum

In "Selbstporträt im Versteck," created 4 years later, Nussbaum depicts his situation in Brussels and the associated insecurity. The prominently placed Jewish badge serves an important function.

From June 3, 1942, a new law dictated that the Jewish population in Belgium be labeled with the yellow badge. A little while later, in August, Jews started to be deported in the east.

"Yellow star" (after 1 September, 1941)German Historical Museum

From as early as September 19, 1941 all people over the age of 6 in the German Reich who were considered Jews according to National Socialist racial ideology had to wear the yellow badge in public on the left side of their chests. This made Jews recognizable at first sight, which often led to public harassment and permanent humiliation. "Improper" wearing of the badge resulted in harsh punishment.

Self-portrait in hiding place (1944) by Felix NussbaumGerman Historical Museum

The people in the picture have displayed the yellow badge in their hiding place. Nussbaum is expressly portraying himself as a devout Jew.

His faith is primarily recognizable from his robe, the tallit. The square prayer shawl with blue or black stripes is a ritual garment in Judaism.

Nussbaum also wears the traditional kippah hat.

A barren tree can be observed through the window. In Judaism, the Tree of Life or "Etz Hayim" is a religious symbol. In Nussbaum's picture, it does not appear to have any life anymore.

Ashtray from a camp for Jewish Displaced Persons (around 1947) by Client: American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (Joint)German Historical Museum

Another object from the Deutsches Historisches Museum collection also refers to the Tree of Life. This ashtray was commissioned by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (or "Joint" for short). The organization supported Jewish displaced persons after the end of the Second World War.

On this object the tree stump has a new shoot, symbolizing the hope of the Holocaust survivors.

Self-portrait in hiding place (1944) by Felix NussbaumGerman Historical Museum

In Nussbaum's painting, a Belgian newspaper appears on the table as a glimmer of hope. It signifies Nussbaum's emigration to Belgium. At the same time, it refers to the need to receive news about the current course of the war while in hiding.

Accordingly, in the picture, Felix Nussbaum turns toward the map hanging on the wall.

It shows the Eastern front line. Together with the newspaper on the table, the map shows that the 3 people have followed the events on the Eastern Front. At the time of the painting's creation in January 1944, the map signified the hope for an end to the war.

The three people in the painting appear to be isolated from each other despite their proximity. Their faces have been drawn with empty gazes. In his pictures from this time, Felix Nussbaum dealt with the topic of death. Nussbaum's last known picture is the "Triumph des Todes" (Triumph of Death) which he completed in April 1944.
On June 20, 1944, the hiding place of Felix Nussbaum and his wife Felka Platek was revealed and the couple arrested. They were sent to the Mechelen transit camp and then deported to Auschwitz on July 31, 1944 on the last deportation train from Belgium, where they were murdered.

Credits: Story

Created by: Björn Schmidt / DHM

More about Felix Nussbaums at LeMO (Lebendiges Museum Online)

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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