The artist Josef Nassy (1904-1976) spent much of the Second World War interned in Belgian and German camps, and his works offer an insight into the tragic fate of his fellow prisoners. Intensive research by Monica Rothschild-Boros and Sarah Phillips Casteel 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, and Belgium to install sound systems for cinemas. 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 Belgian internment camp Beverloo and then the Bavarian camps Laufen and Tittmoning. In the latter he joined some dozen other Black prisoners, many of them Americans, who had been captured across Europe and 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 concentration camps like in nearby Dachau. In this respect his experiences were different from those of Black German civilians like Bayume Mohamed Husen or French colonial prisoners of war.
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, and 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.
Most of Nassy’s works are held in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Because it is unclear who holds the rights that authorize their reproduction, we unfortunately cannot present any of them here. However, many of them have been published in a collection curated by Monica C. Rothschild-Boros, entitled In the Shadow of the Tower: The Works of Josef Nassy, 1942-1945. Before they were donated to the USHMM, many of these works were displayed in numerous exhibitions sponsored by the art collector Severin Wunderman, who had purchased them in 1984, and images from those are available in various places online. The most comprehensive collection of digital images is held by Reed College’s Cooley Gallery.
Josef Nassy offers a view of internment camps (1942-1945) by Jeff Bowersox is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://blackcentraleurope.com/who-we-are/.