Mystery of the missing painter of the Kolor Group

The scale of the Holocaust of Polish Jews is evidenced by the fact that we are surprised when it turns out that someone survived the German occupation on Polish soil. After the war, therefore, the painter Elżbieta Hirszberżanka was thought to have perished. No one had any contact with her, she did not resume her artistic career. And yet she survived. Records held by the Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) and American databases confirm that she left for the USA in 1961 and died in 1991, having survived for almost a century. She was in the care of Stefania Tomczak, who declared that she was her sister. And this may or may not have been the case....

Elżbieta Hirszberżanka (1898-1991)

Few artists achieve great fame. The names of painters that everyone knows can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There are hardly any women among those chosen. In Poland, before the war, they were eager to study art, but it was difficult for them to break through. Instead of waiting for recognition, Tadeusz Pruszkowski's three female students decided to play the card used by their male counterparts: set up an art group, hold an exhibition, make a name for themselves among art lovers and critics. This is how Poland's first women's art group, Kolor, was founded in 1929. It was formed by Elżbieta Hirszberżanka, Mery Litauer and Gizela Hufnaglówna.

They three and painting

They submitted their college papers in 1922.

Elżbieta Hirszberg: "I would like to ask to be counted as a student at the National School of Fine Arts."

Gizela Hufnagel: "I most kindly request that you kindly accept me as a student...".

Mery Litauer: "I would like to request to be counted as a ...".

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE They were accepted. They had no trouble paying for their studies. They came from bourgeois families. Only Litauerówna, a Wilnian, was an outsider. Gizela and Elżbieta were born and raised in Warsaw.

Elżbieta Hirszberżanka (because that was the form of the surname she used), together with her father Szaja and mother Bronisława, lived in a tenement house in Aleje Jerozolimskie in Warsaw at number 75. A Google map immediately indicates: today it is the Marriott Hotel. It is in no way associated with history, and if there is any, it is the history of the endless communist construction sites. Previously, there were sizable tenement houses here, as befits one of the city's main thoroughfares. The movement of people and vehicles here was intensified by the presence of two transport routes: from the front, the long-distance railway; from the back, along Nowogrodzka Street, the electric railway carrying people from the city centre to Grodzisk Mazowiecki via Pruszków and Brwinów.

In the forms submitted to the dean's office, Elżbieta Hirszberg consistently wrote: state affiliation - Polish, nationality - Polish, religion - Jewish.

During her studies, she was keen to learn a variety of artistic techniques. In addition to painting, which was most important to her, she learned solid modelling, printmaking and folk art. She also took a course in didactics, although before her studies she had already successfully passed an examination to become a drawing teacher at the Tadeusz Rejtan Gymnasium. She herself graduated from the Warsaw Antonina Walicka Gymnasium.

She interrupted her artistic studies only for a trip to France, where she studied and painted. Judging by the reproduction of her painting depicting Breton woman, she stayed not only in Paris. She graduated in 1929.
Invitation to the opening of an exhibition of three female painters of the Kolor group, signed by Elisabeth Hirszberżanka. The 1930s. Photo: - Public domain
Gizela Huffnaglówna was a graduate of the Krystyna Malczewska gymnasium. During the "Bolshevik invasion she did social work - she was active in the Circle of Polish Women and in the Circle of Intellectuals, based at 39 Wspólna Street. She also studied passionately, like Huffnagl, in the studio of Tadeusz Pruszkowski.

Mery Litauer came from Vilnius and studied first with Professor Stanisław Lenz in Warsaw, then in Kraków, then again in Warsaw. When submitting her documents, she enclosed a certificate of her activity in 1920 in the Circle for the Protection of Polish Soldiers at the Committee for the Defence of the State. As secretary of the Circle. She was the most worldly of the three. This is what Władysław Bartoszewicz wrote in his book " Shed in Powisle": "I remember the quiet and modest Gizela Hufnagel, later the wife of Eugeniusz Arct... Mery Litauer painted in our studio always looking like a million dollars".

Tadeusz Pruszkowski was a charismatic teacher and an outstanding artist. His talent, bold approach to the matter of painting and drawing fully on life, seduced his students. They were eager to spend time with him, especially at the famous plein-air workshops in Kazimierz on the Vistula. Kazimierz was immortalised in many ways. Mery Litauer, among others, devoted a series of woodcuts to it, Gizela Hufnaglówna, among others, painted an atmospheric picture "The Well in the Market Square". The canvas 'Pasieka' by her is in the collection of the Museum of the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Kolor - the first women's art group

The students not only painted, they also talked a lot about art, its role, its tasks. From these discussions and joint artistic excursions, groups were born: St. Luke's Brotherhood, the Warsaw School, the Freemasons' Lodge (later the Painters' Lodge) and, in 1934, the Fourth Group.

In 1929, a women's group was formed: the Kolor. Three female artists wanted to make a name for themselves by presenting works that they were proud of. They focused not on the content of their works, like their colleagues in the Brotherhood of St Luke, but on form and colour. Other considerations also influenced the formation of the group. As Dr Renata Piątkowska writes: "Practical considerations probably also played a major role. It was certainly easier to debut as a group, sharing the costs of renting a hall, framing paintings or printing a catalogue. The bonds of friendship that brought them together during their studies, and which lasted until their deaths, were also of considerable importance. The members of the 'Kolor' group were also united by their Jewish origins, although we do not know whether this fact had any significance for them other than a personal one. We may venture to say that, for their lives and work at the time, it had virtually no significance, at least we do not find any accounts of it".

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Critics positively received the works of the members of the Kolor group. They were known to be graduates of Pruszkowski's studio. He gave them stature, but was also a burden. As one wrote: "All three artists of the Kolor group bear the unmistakable stamp of the good training of Pruszkowski's class. All three are painters who take their work seriously". However, one waited for the artists' own explorations....

They kept painting, and so they kept exploring. They exhibited. Elżbieta Hirszberżanka and Mery Litauer travelled to France. The slightly less well-off Hufnaglówna: to Sandomierz and Kazimierz.

Wartime fates

Most is known about the wartime fate of Mera Litauer. In 1935, she married the artist Roman Schneider, a widower with a daughter Anna. After the outbreak of war, the couple were arrested probably in Lutsk and imprisoned in Lvov. They then both went through the gulags. They were reunited in Uzbekistan. All the time they were creating and teaching: in Iran, Lebanon and Canada, where they both died - he in 1969, she in 1992.

Gizela Hufnagel survived the Holocaust. In Warsaw 1946, she had literally nothing. In the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute (ZIH) there is a letter from 1946 recommending help for "outstandingly talented painters". Pruszkowski's former pupil received from the donations: a skirt, an overcoat, a pair of shoes, a jumper, a waistcoat, one pair of underwear and a hat.

She left a partial account of her experience, writing of a colleague: "Zofia Czasznicka is my colleague from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. During the occupation she proved to be extremely brave and did a lot of good to her Jewish acquaintances and friends. When I was arrested and interrogated at the police station in 1942, I found myself released - at 8.30 in the evening without a roof over my head. Zofia Czasznicka took me into her house - the house where the gendarmes lived. I lived there for a while until I left for the countryside".

Gizela Hufnaglówna used the surname Klimaszewska during the war. After the war she continued to use it, later adding the surname Arctowa. Gizela Klimaszewska-Arctowa - this is how she signed her post-war paintings, mainly landscapes and still lifes with flowers.

We know the least about Elżbieta Hirszberżanka. Her trail is interrupted even before the war. Due to a prolonged stay in France, she did not exhibit with her colleagues during the last exposition. Perhaps their contacts had loosened. This is what emerged from a conversation I had years ago with the well-known artist Teresa Girzyńska (family connection with Roman Schneider). Hirszberżanka's fate was to be unknown to her pre-war friends.

She did not take up artistic or social activities. It was not known what was happening to her. In post-war Poland, missing meant dead... It was believed that Elżbieta Hirszberg had died.

And this is where the turning point comes in.

The first proof PhD Renata Piątkowska reached was in the archives of the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts. A certificate from 27 April 1957 was preserved there, which reads: "The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw hereby states - on the basis of the preserved documents and the statement of Professor Eugeniusz Arct and Antoni Łyżwiński - that Elżbieta Hirszberg (now Elżbieta Malinowska) received her degree in painting in 1929. The certificate is issued for submission to the Association of Polish Artists in Warsaw'. However, it is not she who applies for the certificate, but her sister Stefania Tomczak.
It is puzzling that Eugeniusz Arct, the husband of Gizela Hufnagel-Klimaszewska, attested to Hirszberżanka's diploma. So at least she knew that a friend was alive. Did she not tell Mery Litauer-Schneider about this? Because it is hard to imagine that a husband would not inform his wife that her close friend was not dead. Even if he was "modest, quietly stubborn and hard-working", as Władysław Bartoszewicz described him in his book " A shed in Powisle".

In the footsteps of Elżbieta ... and Stefania

Out of curiosity and journalistic duty at the Archive of New Files, I looked through the files of the branches of the Association of Polish Artists. I started with Szczecin, because that is what experts on the subject suggested to me. Apparently people who, because of the trauma of war, did not want to try a new life in their former place of residence sometimes chose distant parts of Poland. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find Elżbieta Malinowska in the Association of Fine Artists either in Szczecin, Białystok or Warsaw. She simply never submitted these documents, even though without them in communist Poland you could not buy specialist materials, you had no access to competitions, union grants or holiday centres. So why was this certificate needed? And who is Tomczakowa? Perhaps she is another name for Hirszberżanka?

The case is explained by communist-era passport files held at the Warsaw branch of the IPN. Stefania Tomczak and Elżbieta Malinowska (the surname Hirszberg no longer appears), interchangeably using the name Józefa, are sisters. They have Staszewski parents in common: Stanisław and Bronisława (née Piotrowska).

Stefania was born on 1 September 1910. Elżbieta Józefa - 1 February 1898. The date of Elżbieta Józefa's birth given to communist officials coincides with the date written in 1922 on her university application and accompanying documents. Anyway, this is the only way I could find her. I typed the date of birth into the file browser at the IPN.

As several people researching the life or work of Polish Jews have explained to me, people changed their documents and had to learn the new data by heart. The real date of birth in a fake Ausweis (German for identity card) was safe. It did not have to be learned. It did not expose anything, because there were no search engines, no web, no apps back then. Apparently, one often just left one's date of birth, one's name, or used it as a second one. This did not arouse suspicion. And it gave security when someone suddenly addressed you by a name other than your official name.

Stefania Tomczak appears only once in the Archives of the Jewish Historical Institute. She is listed among the people to whom Józefa Kwiatkowska gave shelter in her flat at 21 Poznańska Street ( flat 8), and who, years later, old and infirm, found herself in a difficult situation. Two women whose lives she had saved applied to the Jewish Historical Institute for some kind of assistance for Kwiatkowska. They argued, citing a dozen people whom the old woman had helped. Stefania Tomczak is listed there in exceptional detail, with her home address (Koszykowa 1 m. 20) and a note that she is just "preparing to leave to join her husband in California". As you can see, the ladies were in touch, because three years after she took Elżbieta Malinowska's diploma certificate from the Academy of Fine Arts, Stefania Tomczak applied for an emigration passport. She wanted to leave to join her husband, whom she married on 8 November 1960.
Stefania Tomczak-Dormont. Or perhaps Stefania Goldberg? Photo: IPN Archives
Who was the man who married the affable, as can be seen in the photo, 50-year-old? He was George Dormont, a Pole naturalised in the United States. He had emigrated before the Second World War. His parents had died before the war. Rudolf Dormont was a military doctor, head of the Ujazdowski Hospital and a social security practitioner. In 1926 he buried his wife, Anna, née Rotmil. He died 10 years later, aged 73, and was laid to rest next to his wife in a tomb in the Old Powązki cemetery. The obituary was signed by his daughter, son-in-law, son and family.

The son was an engineer by profession. At the time, he was employed by the Metro Goldwyn Mayer film studio in Los Angeles, California, as a sound engineer, as he stated in a letter to the Polish authorities, requesting that his wife and sister-in-law be allowed to leave. Easily accessible online, US data shows the emigration trail of this Varsovian and raises new questions. What is true and what is not?

Ignacy Dormont, son of Rudolf and Anna, was a dashing engineer, a graduate of the Warsaw University of Technology. He made inventions, e.g. he patented a device to switch off the radio from a certain distance (I think it was a kind of remote control). He also developed a system that allowed one to listen to the radio on the train while it was en route. It was against this background that he got into a legal dispute with the company Polskie Radio, as it first used Dormont's idea and then broke off cooperation with him and introduced its own solution, similar to the one previously used. The case went to court.

Ignacy left Poland for the USA in the summer of 1936, after the death of his father. In his documents for the authorities in the new country, he stated that he had married Stefania Goldberg on 18 June 1921 and that he was divorced (he did not state when the divorce took place). Only this one time did he enter that he was of "Jewish race". In all other declarations and forms in the USA, he entered his Polish nationality.

Interestingly, Stefania Goldberg appears again in his file, this time as a 'relative'. The name Stefania was very popular before the war. However, doesn't the thought arise that they are the same person: Stefania Goldberg and Tomczak? Could it be that George married the same woman a second time? This is not absurd. According to the identity card, Stefania Tomczak was 10 years old in 1921 when the wedding took place. Perhaps it was easier to go to the Registry Office than to explain the discrepancies in the documents with the communist services. The question is, did Stefania Goldberg and Ignacy Dormont really divorce?

There is one more riddle. Before the war, Elżbieta Hirszberżanka lived with her parents in a tenement house in Aleje Jerozolimskie at number 75. Doctor Rudolf Dormont ran a private practice in the same house for years. So did Elisabeth and Ignacy George only meet after the war? Did they never meet on the stairs? Didn't they bump into each other in the backyard? Not likely. Especially since Stefania declares that she has known her husband for a long time: "My husband is now 62 years old, he was born in Warsaw and has lived permanently in California for 25 years. We have known each other since our early youth and both he and I are single. At present - due to our advanced age and his state of health - we want to organise a joint family home as soon as possible, realising that we have few years left to live...".

The Dormonts' wedding took place in November 1960, and on 8 March 1961 - Women's Day, revered in communist Poland - Józefa Malinowska applies for a passport to leave Poland. She encloses a completed form.
Elżbieta Józefa Malinowska - actually: Hirszberżanka. Next to the mark on the folder of her passport file. Photo: IPN archives
The description she gives confirms what we see in her passport photo: grey hair, dark eyes. She fills in the box: profession - painter. Next lines of data... Box number 16: current place of work (in full), address of workplace and position held, or other source of income. Malinowska writes: "I am dependent on my sister who lives with me". Stefania declares the same: "Elzbieta Józefa Malinowska aged 62, dependent on me".

George Dormont stated that he is employed as a sound engineer at the film studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer and intends to support his sister-in-law: "She is an artist painter".

The authorities quickly agree to the trip, in just three months, but then the procedure is prolonged. Stefania urges. She writes that they have nothing to live on, as she has given up her job and their flat, passed off for accommodation, "has been allocated to re-migrants from the Soviet Union, who are longingly awaiting the moment the premises are vacated, currently living in very difficult housing conditions".

George's purchased plane tickets are forfeited. Eventually the two ladies board the ship and set off for the New World. The shipping documents state that there are only three Polish women on board: them and Izabela "Czajka" Stachowicz, née Schwarz. A famous scandalist, a regular at pre-war raves and balls of knobheads at the Academy of Fine Arts, described by Witkacy, adored by the gentlemen, less so by the ladies. Before Władysław Stachowicz, she had two husbands: the first was the pre-war freemason, PPS sympathiser and sociologist Aleksander Hertz, and the second was the Warsaw architect Jerzy Gelbard. The war found her in Poland. She ended up in the Warsaw Ghetto, from which she managed to escape under the assumed name of Stefania Czajka. She wrote about her experiences in the book " I was saved by a blacksmith" (1956), and devoted a volume of poetry to the ghetto, with a foreword by Władysław Broniewski. The question is, had two of the three Polish women on the ship never met before? Izabella Czajka Stachowicz studied painting in Paris and blossomed in the artistic circles of pre-war Warsaw. Elżbieta Hirszberżanka was a member of the capital's artistic milieu at the same time, also studying in Paris. The paths of these women may have crossed.

It is certain that Dormontowa and Malinowska reach the United States via Canada. Thanks to this, we can learn that Elisabeth is 154 cm tall, with beady eyes and grey hair. The meticulousness of the immigration authorities is somewhat frightening.

Ignacy, Stefania, Elżbieta lived together the three of them in California. They changed addresses (the US electoral registers track them), phones. George changed jobs, then retired, Stefania was housewife and Elizabeth dependent on her. Then they were laid to rest together in the San Diego cemetery. First Ignacy Dormont died (18 June 1984), then Elżbieta in 1991. Stefania outlived her by five years. American records of the deceased state that Stefania was born on 1 August 1901. Her mother's maiden name was supposed to be: Malinowska. Father's surname: Staszewski. She died on 12 August 1996. And this is the only certain date.

A biography of Elżbieta Hirszberżanka can therefore be completed. She was born on 1 February 1898 - died on 5 December 1991. She is buried under the name Elżbieta Malinowska in San Diego.

"She lived almost a hundred years. Until the end under an occupation name. On the Aryan side," comments PhD Renata Piątkowska.

And a painter to the end. The inscription on her tombstone reads: "artist painter", but will we ever know her post-war works? And do they even exist?

– Beata Modrzejewska
– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Pre-war 'Autoportrait' by Elżbieta Hirszberżanka. Photo: NAC/Koncern Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny, reference: 1-K-3161
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