As time passed and conditions worsened in the Ghetto of Łódź, Izrael Lejzerowicz used his gifts and skills as a painter to develop a project of witness for future generations of humanity. His goals:
  • •to survive - physically, emotionally, spiritually;
  • •to build a community of like-minded people for mutual support - through the sharing of experience, information, knowledge, and profound, respectful presence for each other;
  • •to observe the reality of life around him as well as pay close attention to his own emotional reality;
  • •to record that reality in sketches, paintings, and poetry without sentimentality;
  • •to analyze - as a human being and as a painter - what was happening to himself and to the Jewish community imprisoned in the ghetto, including ways in which he, like others, colluded with the oppressor for the sake of mere survival;
  • •to interpret his life and the life of the community in the light of Jewish and non-Jewish history and European art traditions;
  • •to transform his own suffering and that of the ghetto’s people into increasingly visionary and sometimes apocalyptic, eschatological artwork.

All of this was a profound type of resistance to oppression. The world as Lejzerowicz knew it was ending. He could see this. In doing this work, Lejzerowicz was taking part in a larger movement of archivists, historians, writers, photographers, and artists of all kinds to document and bear witness for the future.

Of course, Lejzerowicz’s work is an indictment of the oppressors, including the Jewish leadership of the ghetto. But the work goes well beyond this: seen as a whole, it is a lucid if visionary expression of a human community pushed to the edge of the abyss, yet a community whose best were unwilling to abandon a sense of self-worth and a faith in ultimate redemption, whether by future human generations or by the creator.

The case of Lejzerowicz is yet more complicated, however, because he was compelled to work with the German administration and with Chaim Rumkowski, the “Eldest of the Jews,” i.e., to collaborate with the puppet regime that ran the ghetto on the Nazis’ behalf. He also had to use his talent to create portraits not just of Rumkowski, but of high-ranking German officers. He had no choice. Nonetheless, he was no purist - which renders him all the more human.

One can say that Lejzerowicz’s project was a massive failure. He did not survive. His community was scattered or destroyed. Few of his paintings - and almost none of his poetry - survive. Today, he is largely forgotten.

Yet Lejzerowicz inspired others to carry on their own work as artists: Chava Rosenfarb and Hilda Stern Cohen both pay homage to him in their writing. He saved their lives - physically and spiritually. When we, as members of that future generation of human beings that Lejzerowicz was looking to, see his work and try to understand and appreciate his struggles, we validate his suffering and pain. We hear his message. And we are faced with the terrifying challenge of having to think about what it might mean in our own lives and in our own times.

-- William Gilcher, July 2011