“Tell them to paint scenes from the ghetto”

128th birthday of Roman Kramsztyk, a painter and drawer, one of the most popular artists of the inter-war period.

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Roman Kramsztyk, A Family in the Ghetto (from the JHI’s collections)

Today would be the 128th birthday of Roman Kramsztyk, a painter and drawer, one of the most popular artists of the inter-war period. Probably, also in August it was 71 years since his death. He perished on a Warsaw ghetto street, shot by a member of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia during the first liquidation action.

Roman Kramsztyk was born on 18th August, 1885 in Warsaw into an assimilated Jewish family, engaged in the political activity. Both his maternal (Helena Fajans) and paternal (Julian Kramsztyk, the chief of staff of the department of internal medicine of the Bersohn and Bauman families’ Children’s Hospital) families belonged to the Polonised Jewish intelligentsia. The drawer’s grandfather, Izaak Kramsztyk, was a Reformed Rabbi, a graduate and professor in the Rabbinical School in Warsaw. Rabbi Kramsztyk was locked in a citadel for the participation in a patriotic demonstration on 27th January, 1861.

In 1903, Roman Kramsztyk began studies at ASP (Academy of Fine Arts) in Cracow under direction of Józef Mehoffer. He travelled a lot and studied, among others, at ASP in Munich. He familiarised himself with the works of impressionists and Paul Cezanne. During his stay in Cracow he met Henryk Kuna, Leopold Gottlieb, Wacław Borowski, Władysław Skoczylas. These friendships survived and resulted in collaboration in the Society of Polish Artists “Rytm”. 

In the summer of 1939, Roman Kramsztyk came to Warsaw to settle inheritance matters after the death of his mother. It was then that the outbreak of the Second World War took place. At the beginning, he stayed in his parents’ flat at 4 Boduena Street and during the bombardment he found shelter in the basement of the flat of his cousin, Andrzej Kramsztyk (3 Boduena Street). After the destruction of both buildings, he moved to Smolna Street to Maria Konopowa’s place. In November 1940 he was living in the ghetto at 7 Sienna Street and later at 5 Elektoralna.


Roman Kramsztyk in the Warsaw Ghetto

He was a man of incredible culture and high culture in general, a modest one with a lot of warmth. [...] However, we could talk about music for hours, because not only did he know music literature, but he also sat at the piano and played some less known pieces by Chopin.

-Władysław Szpilman.

The artist, despite difficult conditions, continued drawing and painting. He was a common guest of cafe “Cafe-bar Capri” at 59 Sienna Street. It was there that he observed and sketched the ghetto reality. Joanna Simon and her niece Halina Rothaub wrote about his habit in this way:

“Roman had always liked sitting in cafes and so he did in the ghetto. He would sit by the window in a cafe in Rymarska or Elektoralna Streets just next to the border wall. With his artistic eyes he observed smugglers gathering there and the fruit of these observations was a series of drawings presenting smugglers [...] He was also interested in the types of Jewish paupers. He would draw whole groups of paupers hugging to warm themselves up and dead bodies that were a common sight in the ghetto. He believed that preserving this was his mission. [...] He drew a lot and very quickly, doing his best to keep record of what he saw. He stored his drawings in cardboard folders tied up with ribbons. The folders were bulging [...] and when there were more drawings he tried sending them to the “Aryan side” as often as possible. To do that he would arrange on the phone a meeting with Maria Konowa and he would meet her in Leszno in courts.

Thanks to his friends, Roman Kramsztyk had offers to run away from the ghetto and hide on the Aryan side. He did not accept them. It is hard to establish unequivocally why. Help was offered to him, among others. by: Jan Żabiński (organiser and the first director of the Warsaw Zoological Garden, where during the occupation he hid Jews), Maria Konowa as well as Jarosław and Anna Iwaszkiewicz, whose daughter, Maria, reports the situation: “They had a flat, and documents and a way out prepared for him. It was possible to make phone calls to the ghetto and they did so. He did not want to leave the ghetto. What was the reason for that? I always think that it is the so called story of Lord Jim: you do not leave your brothers in the final situation and that is why it was impossible to drag Roman Kramsztyk out of the ghetto”. At the beginning of the existence of the ghetto people could not imagine what kind of fate was awaiting the Jews. Many residents of the ghetto were unable to meet the demands of mystification and preferred to surrender to terror rather than to hide.

During this time, Kramsztyk drew scenes of Jewish life in the closed quarter: begging children and emaciated, homeless people. One of such drawings is a 1942 sanguine “A family in the ghetto (Old Jew with children)”, which is part of the collections of the Jewish Historical Institute. 


Death

The last days Roman Kramsztyk’s life can be reconstructed thanks to the Władysław Szpilman’s memoirs: “Death of a City” and “The Pianist” published in 1946 and 1998. Szpilman recollects a meeting with the painter on 18th July, 1942 during the intermission in a concert in the cafe “Pod Fontanną” in Leszno. “He was subdued, hunched and full of darkest thoughts. He had just learned from a reliable source that this time the upcoming deportation of the ghetto is inevitable: on the other side of the walls German Vernichtungskommando was already operating, ready to take action”.

The second meeting of Szpilman and Kramsztyk took place about one week after the beginning of the liquidation action. Szpilman asked the painter, “What do you think, will they deport us to the final one?” He did not reply but said evasively, “You don’t look good! You worry too much...You’ll see that it will end any day now, because... because it does not make any sense!”

Szpilman comments this conversation. “He said it with a funny, a bit helpless conviction, as if the absurdity of some events was a more sufficient reason than poverty for it to stop”.

Szpilman’s memoir is one of the few reports of the death of Roman Kramsztyk: “Kramsztyk died on one of the first days of deportations. When the house where he lived had been surrounded, he refused to go down into the yard. He preferred to be shot dead at home, among his paintings”.

The account of Joanna Simon allows us to place this event on a timeline. She says that it happened during the liquidation action of the small ghetto. It took place between 10th and 16th August, 1942. “Roman, who at the time was living at 17 or 19 Chłodna Street, lingered ignoring the danger [...] The so-called „action” surrounded the house in which he lived in early August 1942. Roman was dragged out of the apartment by members of the Committee for the Liberation of the Peoples of Russia and shot on the stairs.

In October 1942 Antoni Szymanowski wrote a report commissioned by the Office of Information and Propaganda of the Warsaw District AK entitled „Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto.” He made a note in it, wrongly dating entry for 27th July, 1942. “ The man carried out of the apartment was not walking down the stairs fast enough and a German just shot him in the back of his head. Because in the ghetto there was a rule that you had to move quickly, even to your own death”.

An eye witness to the death of Roman Kramsztyk was Samuel Puterman, a painter, who was an officer of the Police in the Ghetto. In his diary “The Warsaw Ghetto” on 6th August, 1942 he wrote: “At 10 o’clock Kramsztyk went to his flat to get a few pencils. He encountered a blockade. He had nowhere to hide. Some random bullet lodged in his lungs. He fell covered in blood, unconscious. (...) It was only after a few hours, when the screams and shootings quietened down and those hiding in the shelters went out into the yard and took him to the basement. (...) I had to make him a solemn promise that I would persuade his colleagues to paint the scenes from the ghetto after the war. «Tell them that Kramsztyk asked them to paint the scenes of the ghetto. Sacrifice everything, let the world know about the bestiality of the Germans. » He was already in agony (...) he was suffering terribly and was still talking to me. From his pocket, he pulled out a pair of coloured sanguine pencils and handed them to me with solemnity. «Give them a souvenir from Kramsztyk, they are good crayons, original Lefranc». He handed me as a souvenir a gold watch, the award from some exhibition in France. On the envelope there were the words „Liberte-Egalite-Fraternité”.

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