Jan De Ruth, An Unexpected Encounter

Recent releases of films like “Woman in Gold” (2015), which chronicles the righteous return of Gustav Klimt’s world famous eponymous painting to its rightful owner, and George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” (2013), which tells the story of a World War II platoon sent to Germany rescue stolen art from Nazi thieves, brought the topic of art and the Holocaust to mass attention through Hollywood. While these two films focus on the recovery of artwork once sequestered by the nazis, my attention was recently turned toward another aspect of the story about art in the Holocaust: the artists.

I had always wanted to go to an art auction, and a couple of months ago I spontaneously went for the first time, almost as a “bucket list” experience. I was not aiming to spend thousands of dollars on a painting, and this was not Christie’s or Sotheby’s. It was an estate sale auction in the Village. I went there with no expectations, hoping to possibly bid on a special piece of art if I ended up seeing one. The hours went by and nothing called out to me. Until I saw one limited edition lithograph print of a painting that I thought had beautiful energy. I connected with it.

When the auctioneer called out for bidders, I raised my card for $75, sure that someone would out-bid me. But, no one did, and as the beauty of auctions goes, if no one bids higher than you, the item is yours! So, to my surprise, I was now the owner of this lithograph. I had no idea who the artist was, or the real value of what I had acquired. Naturally, I turned to Google and found out that the artist was named Jan De Ruth, and the original painting was called “Daydream.” Who is Jan De Ruth?, I thought.

I kept researching, and learned that Jan de Ruth was a Czech artist who was moved through five different concentration camps during World War II and made four escape attempts, only succeeding on the fifth. He risked his life constantly to pursue art while in the camps, stealing, when he could, art materials including scraps of paper from a factory where he labored, a pencil, coffee, and often created his works on scraps of cloth torn from his clothing: the only possession he was permitted to have. Per Ro Gallery:

“Jan drew a mother and child on a scrap of paper he scrounged from the factory where he worked, filled it in with shadings of coffee in various strengths-his finger was his brush. He exchanged the sketch for a piece of bread from a camp guard, and in effect, sold his first painting.”

In 2008, Hilary Helstein created an award-winning documentary about the topic of artists in the Holocaust titled, “As Seen Through These Eyes,” narrated by Maya Angelou, which exposes the plight of artists like Jan De Ruth. While I wasn’t necessarily planning to purchase a painting at the auction that day, I am grateful to now look daily at a piece that reminds me of Jan De Ruth’s strength, courage, and perseverance.

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