A view from inside a concentration camp (1942-1945)

The artist Josef Nassy (1904-1976) spent much of the Second World War interned in Belgian and German concentration camps, and his works offer a insight into the tragic fate of his fellow prisoners. Intensive research by Monica Rothschild-Boros has produced a picture of his life. He was born in Surinam, the son of a prominent merchant and politician who was himself descended from Jews who had fled the Spanish Inquisition. He moved to New York City in 1919 where he trained to be an engineer. Using falsified information he acquired US citizenship in 1929, which allowed him to travel to England, France, Belgium to install sound systems for cinemas. And it also provided a measure of protection during the war. While in Belgium he trained at the Academie de Beaux Arts and married, and he remained in Belgium with his wife after the Nazi conquest. With the American entry into the war he became an enemy national and was arrested in 1942. He spent the rest of the war first in the Belgium concentration camp Beverloo and then the Bavarian camps Laufen and Tittmoning. In the latter he joined some dozen other black prisoners from across Europe who were all housed together. These were internment camps for foreign civilians, which meant that the prisoners did not suffer from the same extraordinary brutality of most camps, like in nearby Dachau.

The directors of the camps seem to have appreciated Nassy’s artwork. They encouraged him to paint and to provide painting classes for other prisoners, probably on the principle that this might distract them from their circumstances. The International YMCA provided art supplies. Nassy’s works are shaped by a powerful sense of isolation from the world but also a striking resistance against that isolation. His camp “landscape” scenes convey the crushing despair of prisoners watched over by watchtowers and hemmed in by barbed wire, their emotions reflected in the intensely painted skies. Other works give a sense of the prisoners’ everyday lives; as they carry out apparently “normal” activities like reading, doing chores, or playing music, Nassy conveys a mix of resignation and determination. In one sense his portrait sketches are his most striking works. They seem to reflect an effort to record for posterity the resilient individuality of his fellow prisoners in the face of a system determined to crush them.

After the war, Nassy dedicated himself to his art career, exhibiting his works produced while a POW and developing new themes that took him away from this difficult subject.


Slideshow? Scattered through the page?

Give a sense of what prisoners did:

N4.045 of black man playing piano with a listener

N1.026 of two black men in barracks

N1.023 man reading but with mix of determination and resignation

Perhaps his most striking portraits were those depicting the sense of despair among prisoners N1.030 (landscape), N1.048 (portrait),

N4.055, N4.044, N4.048, N3014

Josef Nassy, In the Shadow of the Tower: The Works of Josef Nassy 1942-1945 (1989) was published version. Items held at USHMM, so would need to ask them for permission.

https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005677

https://collections.ushmm.org/search/catalog/irn74916