The whole Story


      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.      

           March 1918  

      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.  

  January 1918           

  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.  

  September 1919           

  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...      

           April 1928  

      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.  

  April 1928           

  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.”      

           August 1929  

      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.  

  August 1929           

  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.      

           January 1933  

      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.  

  January 1933           

  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.      

           January 1934  

      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.  

  January 1934           

  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.      

           May 1934  

      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?  

  May 1934           

  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?      

           June 1935  

      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?  

  June 1935           

  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?      

           October 1937  

      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?  

  October 1937           

  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.      

           September 1938  

      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.  

  May 1940           

  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.      

           May 1940  

      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.  

  July 1940           

  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?      

           August 1940  

      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.  

           August 1941  

      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.  

  August 1941           

  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.      

           August 1942  

      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.      

  March 1943           

  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?      

           March 1943  

      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.  

           April 1943  

      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.  

  August 1943           

  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.