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Xavier Magazine | July 28, 2017

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Ghetto Art

By France Griggs Sloat

Ed Adams pulls into the Golden Nugget Flea Market in Lambertville, N.J., just across the Delaware River from his gallery in New Hope, Pa. Searching for a way to fill part of his weekend and maybe find some interesting art, he slides out of the car and walks past the large cadre of temporary dealers who have set up their wares on folding tables outside the main building. He steps into the indoor market, where the Golden Nugget becomes more of an upscale bazaar where dealers pay for permanent booths and stock valuable antiques and quality collectibles.

Adams strolls between counters cluttered with old relics and booths stocked with furniture, rocking horses and used red wagons. His eyes dart from table to table, pausing only temporarily at the visual cacophony until they catch a glimpse of something different. He stops.

Spread across a dealer’s counter are six pencil drawings slightly larger than letter size tucked into plastic sleeves. The drawings have a certain quality to them—the subjects’ hands are oversized, the brows furrowed, the eyes looking away. There’s nothing pretty about these people. They are tired and overwhelmed, as if carrying a heavy burden. They’re dressed in outdated clothing that appears in some cases ill-fitting. The paper they’re drawn on looks old—yellowed with ripped edges and odd markings. On the whole, the drawings appear to be true representations of a time long past. They pull at Adams’ soul.

“Where did these come from?” Adams asks the dealer.

“The Warsaw Ghetto,” the dealer says.

The answer gives him chills.

Adams knows about the Ghetto. He’s well-grounded in Holocaust issues. His wife is Jewish, and in addition to being a psychologist, he’s an artist and sculptor working on a bust of Oskar Schindler for movie producer Steven Spielberg. Spielberg’s film, “Schindler’s List,” details the German businessman’s heroic efforts to save the lives of 1,100 Jews from the Nazi death camps.

Adams knows how the Warsaw Ghetto was a prelude to the death camps. The central section of Warsaw, the capital of Poland, was walled off by the German army in 1940 and designated for the imprisonment of Jews. Nearly 500,000 people from across Poland were stuffed into its 1.3 square miles, forced to live on top of one another and scramble for whatever food could be scraped from the streets to keep from starving. More than 300,000 were eventually deported to the Treblinka death camp.

When the remaining residents staged a bloody uprising in 1942, the Ghetto was burned to the ground. Soldiers marched through the dirty streets, setting buildings on fire and killing all who resisted. When the Ghetto was liberated, only about 50,000 residents survived the deportations and the burning. Few artifacts, not to mention art, survived at all.

“How did you get these?” Adams presses the dealer.

“From the estate of a family who knew the artist. They carried them out of the Ghetto.”

“What’s their name?”

“I can’t say,” the dealer says. Proprietary information.

Adams stands there, mesmerized, and studies the drawings—13 in all. The dealer asks $2,000 for the set, adding that he doesn’t want to sell them individually, but Adams can’t be sure he won’t. He mulls over the decision: spend too much on drawings that turn out to be worth little, or follow his hunch and preserve an important piece of history?

He thinks about it some more. Then walks away.

It’s been five years since Adams left the drawings on the table that afternoon, and a lot has happened to them since. They were appraised for much more than the $2,000 asking price. The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., deemed them as historically priceless. And two weeks after Adams walked away from them, they were sold, creating one of the greatest flea market finds ever.

Fortunately for Adams, he was the buyer.

As soon as he left the flea market, Adams couldn’t get the drawings out of his mind. For a week the faces followed him, haunting him everywhere he went. So he returned to the Golden Nugget the next weekend and struck a deal with the seller for the right of first refusal. If anyone else tried to buy them, the dealer would call.

Adams went home and began looking for investors. It wouldn’t be enough to buy them by himself. He needed others to buy into his idea—rescue the drawings, research their origin and present them publicly as both art and education. Perhaps the artist could be identified, his descendants discovered and the art find a permanent home worthy of its value. So he turned to an organization of men he’d founded years before—a group that explores how to be better men, fathers, husbands, workers.

He presented his idea, and the group of 15, known as Men Mentoring Men, willingly opened their wallets.

Adams put in his share, returned to the market once again with money in hand and bought the set.

The drawings have since been authenticated as depicting scenes of life in the Warsaw Ghetto and appraised for at least double what the group paid. Their actual value is expected to be greater still. Curators of the Holocaust Museum told him they have nothing similar in their collections.

“They said they own no artifacts out of the Warsaw Ghetto because so few survived,” says Adams, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1971 and a master’s degree in education at Xavier in 1972.  “And what few are on exhibit are on loan from European museums.”

They asked Adams to donate the art so it could be recorded and archived, but Adams declined. He has other plans. He carefully protected the drawings behind glass frames and put them on display at his art gallery in New Hope this spring. The unveiling was likely the first showing in the 60 years since their creation in the sad, crowded, impoverished neighborhood in the heart of the beautiful city of Warsaw. Other displays were scheduled to follow.

The group will sell them, he says, only if the buyer agrees to restrictions on their use: They must be kept on exhibit, made available for educational purposes and researched to determine their origin. Their historic value can’t be overlooked, he says. Consider the events through which they survived, says Michael Berenbaum, a psychologist and founding member of the Holocaust Museum.

“Anything that survived has a certain degree of importance because the Ghetto itself was liquidated in two major stages,” says Berenbaum.

“Whatever survived had a certain measure of importance. It’s a remnant of a remnant of a remnant, and when something has artistic quality, it is a matter of evidence and is useful to illustrate life within the Ghetto. So it becomes not only more valuable but more important as an interpretive tool. The more we find out about this artist, the more interesting this story will be because it’s an accident it was saved, and it was done for a purpose and the more we understand, the more we can be faithful to its intent.”

The fact the drawings survived is one thing. The fact that anyone had the time or energy—or courage—to sit quietly and sketch worried faces, while also keeping an eye out for German soldiers, is quite another. Very few items—and almost no art—survived intact. Two milk cans, unearthed from the ruins, contained journals, flyers, letters and memos placed there by residents who wanted the world to know what had happened to them. There may be other milk cans or even artists that haven’t been found, and they probably never will, Berenbaum says.

“People used the various skills they had,” Berenbaum says. “They understood they were living through historic times and were desperately afraid of one terrible thing—not the crime being committed, but that it would be forgotten. They were desperately afraid of a sense of oblivion that would come, and they used what tools they had to be sure that history would be recorded. That’s clearly what the artist was doing.”

There are many curious elements of the drawings that make experts certain of their authenticity. For one, they’re drawn on ledger paper that on the reverse side was used for a stamp collection. The stamps are German and there is German writing on the pages. The paper is heavy, the kind used at that time for record-keeping. And the people depicted in the drawings are wearing clothes and doing activities known to be common of that period and culture.

In one, a father, wearing a prayer shawl draped over his shoulders, and his son, wearing a scowl, appear to be heading to prayer. Another shows an old man carrying a book and also wearing a prayer shawl. His face wears a look of bewilderment. A third shows a man standing alone in front of a poster on a building. He’s wearing a heavy overcoat with the Jewish star on the right panel. His face is heavy and sad, his shoulders hunched. A fourth shows a group of men in conversation on a stoop who seem glad to be together, but no one is smiling.

Adams says nine of the drawings are like these—tight portraits of everyday life in the ghetto, and all the subjects are men. It is assumed the artist is a man. The other  four drawings are portraits taken from photographs of well-known local and Zionist leaders who advocated an independent Jewish state.

“You can get the feel of the artist sitting and sketching the pieces, looking at his subjects,” he says.

The artist signed his name Ben Kadai, where Ben means “son of,” but Adams and others believe it is a code name, because to record the events of the day by any method was to risk death.

“The art is good because they have an aliveness to them,” Adams says. “They are skillfully done by a skilled draftsman. They are sensitive, varied, accurate, and I have yet to show the originals where there aren’t goose bumps in the viewer. When art is good, it moves you, and these move you. They walk the edge between trying to hold on to life and deep sadness.”

Adams sees his group’s purchase of the drawings as both their rescue from the obscurity the ghetto residents feared and a new chapter in their journey. The men are not looking to make a profit, though they’d like to recover the approximately $10,000 they’ve invested in purchasing, appraising, preserving and framing the drawings, as well as the cost of making prints and staging the initial exhibit.

With his recent commissions for Holocaust art and his growing interest in its history, Adams says it’s as if he was meant to find them.

“This is the start of their new journey,” he says. “I don’t know where they’ll end up.”

He’ll make sure, however, they never see the likes of the Golden Nugget Flea Market again.

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