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August 22, 1941. “As you can see, we are already in the city, at Hampton House,” writes early Modernist artist Marc Chagall to General Morris Troper and his wife Ethel shortly after his arrival to the United States. At the time, the Tropers were imminent figures of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and were instrumental in rescuing Chagall from Nazi-occupied Paris in June 1941. “We are waiting impatiently for the arrival of the children,” Chagall’s letter continues, expressing his concern for his daughter Ida and her husband Michel Rapoport who followed him to New York on the refugee ship SS Navemar, smuggling a large case of his work on their journey. “We read today (in a Russian newspaper) that ‘Navemar’ is a floating concentration camp; that there is no water or the least of conveniences,” the painter writes. “Oh God, how the people suffer there.”
This anxious letter, along with 11 others penned by or addressed to Chagall, were recently brought to auction in a Guernsey’s sale held at the Fifth Avenue Synagogue in New York City. The lot also included a book of Chagall’s work entitled “Peintures 1942-1945.” Chagall had gifted the book to the Tropers with a personal dedication and a self-portrait on the inside front cover. The book includes an introduction by Paul Eluard, with a poem by Leon Degand.
A majority of the letters in the auction (written in German, French, and some English) date from the time period between May and August of 1941, before and during Marc and Bella Chagall’s process of immigration. Not speaking any English, the Chagalls depended greatly on assistance from the Tropers. Chagall’s main concern in the early letters was the safety of his daughter Ida, who remained trapped in Europe without the paperwork needed to emigrate.
An article published by the David S. Wyman Institue for Holocaust Studies narrates the dramatic story of Ida’s journey to the US and her struggle to rescue her father’s work:
On May 7, Marc and Bella crossed into Spain by train, then continued on to Lisbon, arriving on May 11. There they waited while their daughter and son in law, Ida and Michel Rappoport, prepared to bring Chagall’s paintings, which had been shipped to Spain. But once again, disaster threatened. The Spanish customs authorities were holding up the transfer of Chagall’s art work, reportedly because of Gestapo pressure. Ida went to Madrid to try to rescue the art, but Michel was arrested while trying to cross the Franco-Spanish border and had to be smuggled out of prison.
Eventually, the couple made it to the United States after a climactic journey on the SS Navemar, narrowly dodging German torpedoes en route, accompanied by crates of Chagall’s masterpieces.
Marc and Bella Chagall lived a life of turmoil before arriving in New York. The Belarus-born couple had initially immigrated to Paris to flee persecution in Russia. Then in 1941, the Vichy Regime took over France and made life in Europe impossible for the Jewish couple. Upon arriving in NYC, they were accommodated at Hampton House on 20 East 70th Street, but for a while, their mail address was channeled through the Museum of Modern Art.
MoMA played a major role in rescuing Chagall from Occupied Europe. Alfred H. Barr, who was the museum’s director, invited Chagall to have a solo exhibition as a way to justify a United States visa for the artist. The fictive invitation became a reality in April 1946, when Chagall had his solo exhibition at MoMA.
Guernsey’s auction is an unusual one. Entitled “Humanity and Inhumanity,” the action sought to link the Holocaust with Civil Rights Movement by juxtaposing Chagall’s correspondences with a rare recording of a 1967 Martin Luther King speech at County Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, and a collection of documents exchanged between members of Israel’s Provisional Council who drafted and signed the country’s declaration of independence in May 1948. Chagall’s letters were sold to the current owner by the Morris Troper’s family for $5,000.
In June of this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York shrouded Chagall’s painting “The Lovers” (1913-14) on the event of World Refugee Day. The painting depicts Chagall with his wife Bella during their life together in Paris, before the war broke. A sign posted next to the painting asked: “What would the Met’s walls look like if there were no refugees?” Chagall’s granddaughter Bella Meyer, who was the Met’s guest of honor at the shrouding ceremony, told Hyperallergic: “I wouldn’t have been here if my grandparents were not accepted into the US.”