As a researcher and the initiator of the platform The Future of Memory, I focus my activities on rediscovering forgotten or ignored works about the Holocaust in Romania, a country on the periphery of Europe. It is objects like these that communicate to future generations the identity and memory of the deceased. We call them memory objects.
In this post, I will be discussing a memory object that almost lost its memory over the course of multiple decades, three political contexts (fascist, communist and democratic), and the recklessness with which curators, owners and art institutions that should have been more diligent, approached it. Through various means, I managed to piece together the fragments of a young man’s tattered biography and reclaim the object’s forgotten memory.
In 'Testimonial Objects', Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer describe how objects manage to transmit the experience of their former owners: “Indeed, for anyone willing to subject them to informed and probing readings, material remnants can serve as testimonial objects enabling us to focus crucial questions both about the past itself and about how the past comes down to us in the present.”
The memory object in question is a portrait made in 1927 by the Jewish-Romanian artist Risa Propst-Kraid, who was well known and highly appreciated in interwar Romania. It is of a child staring fixedly at the viewer, with a black bob haircut, short red overalls or apron on top of a long-sleeved white shirt, holding a sword on their lap.
First included in a 2019 exhibition called Women Power in Art at Cantacuzino Castle in Romania, which featured female artists from fourteen private collections, the portrait was titled Child with Sword. At the exhibition, the artist’s biographical information was listed incorrectly: both the year and place of birth were wrong. The work appeared again two years later on the Romanian auction house website Vikart, where it was sold for 850 Euros, this time entitled Little Girl with Sword. Here, too, the biographical information of the author, Risa Propst-Kraid, was slightly incorrect, but differed from the information listed at the 2019 exhibition. Besides the title of the painting having been changed and attributing a feminine gender to the child, the artist’s year of birth was again wrong. Who is the child? What happened to this painting and how did it get here? What does this journey say about transmission, identity, remembering and forgetting? What does it say about art institutions in Romania and how art history is told, created and destroyed – who is included and who is left out?
For me this search for answers began last year. When I was seeking to add to my collection of rare books featuring cultural works produced in camps and ghettos during the Holocaust with the aim of advancing my doctoral project, I found a small publication on a website for second-hand books containing texts by someone named Erwin Kraid. I knew this name. Ervin Kraid had been one of the prisoners in the Vapniarka camp that I am studying for my thesis. He was a young man, a little over 20 years old when he was sent to this Transnistrian “camp of death” in 1942, along with more than 80 other Jews from Romania’s political prisons. Another 1100 Jews were also deported here from various other locations. Surviving unspeakable horrors in Vapniarka, he was transferred in late 1943 to the Ribnita prison where he and the rest of the group were shot by retreating Nazi troops on the night of 17 March 1944, despite the repatriation of Jews occurring elsewhere within this Romanian-occupied territory.
The introduction to the booklet was written by his mother, Risa Propst-Kraid, in 1976 in a moshav, a cooperative-agricultural village in Israel. She explains that she had managed to receive these writings and news of Ervin’s demise only 30 years after the fact, i.e. in 1974. “As if through a miracle, a manuscript written by him reached me and, through the publication of at least one part of it, I feel that he hasn’t disappeared entirely”. This desperate attempt to hold onto the only traces left by her massacred son, to keep his memory, and to resist his erasure, moved me profoundly.
Cover of Crimpeie de Viata, Erwin Kraid, with his portrait made by Risa Propst-Kraid. His name is spelled either Erwin or Ervin.
One day, while digging through my library of books, a typewritten manuscript fell on the floor, opened to a page titled Ervin. It was the journal of Leon Misosniky, an artist and former student of Risa’s in the 1930s, who, late in life, began painting his memories of the Holocaust in a psychedelic style. I had included his work in one of The Future of Memory exhibitions. Ervin, in Leon’s eyes, was a paragon of intelligence and moral standing.
“Ervin was a model for me. He became for me a goal. Even today I think of him like of a miracle. I admired him with all my heart, I also contributed fees as much as I could (to the Red Aid), and in this way, we got more time together. “
Encouraged by this find, I once again started the search for Ervin’s family. And after calling more than ten people listed in the phone book as living in that particular moshav, and emailing the secretariat of the community over the course of a few months with no reply, I finally found someone who still knew Risa’s family and promised to put me in touch. So, one day I found myself with an email from the three daughters of Risa’s youngest child, a son who managed to escape wartime Romania in 1941 before his oldest brother, Ervin, was arrested later that year, sealing his fate forever.
We communicated by email and since I was making plans to go to Israel to interview several survivors’ children, I organized to meet them too. Before arriving in Israel, I continued to read memoirs of survivors of Transnistria and the fascist years. Among these survivors, a few wrote about Ervin – all of them had been deeply impressed by this young man, his loyalty to his comrades and his courage in the face of torture and persecution.
Of course, it was a very emotional encounter – the sisters shared with me their father’s peripatetic lone journey across more than five countries, including Syria and Turkey, and two continents, to get to Mandate Palestine and start a new life alone at the tender age of 15. Their grandmother, Risa, arrived in 1951, when Romania had become a communist state. After speaking a long time and seeing the works that Risa left behind, I told them about the beautiful memories I had read in these autobiographies.
Photo of Olga Stefan and the Kraid sisters in Israel, by Yaniv Berman
They represented the only real portraits remaining of this young man – who he was and what he stood for. He survived through the eyes of others. It was then that they showed me two portraits of Ervin’s face: one was a photo of the painting they had seen in 2019 in Bucharest, and that they only later realized it was of Ervin based on a photograph kept by their grandmother. The other was an actual painting of Ervin and his two other siblings made by Risa in the late 1930s. So, it is thus that I found out that the portrait at the Cantacuzino exhibition was of Ervin – not of just a generic “child” or “little girl”, as it had been mis-labelled several times by collectors and the curator alike.
I decided to find the portrait and correct its history, for the sake of Ervin, Risa, and the Romanian art historical canon because unfortunately, existing art historians and art institutions had failed to properly do so. I reread Leon’s journal and in it he had written: “I still have the painting painted by his mother: Ervin is six years old with a little apron and a toy sword on his knees.”
Leon’s granddaughter informed me that after Leon’s death, the portrait had disappeared from their home in 2016 under suspicious circumstances. Through my inquiries in the next few days, I found out that the auction house, Vikart, sold the portrait in 2021 for 850 Euros and as they told me on the phone, did not care that the information was wrong because they considered Risa a forgotten artist that no one was interested in. According to them, my desire to correct the information about the painting and artist was pointless. Another few days later I got in touch with the original collector who told me that he had initially purchased the painting from an antique shop and he was the one who offered it for the exhibition in 2019. How it got from Lala’s grandmother’s home to the antique shop, who stole it and to whom they sold it, are still open questions. Sensing my enthusiasm for the portrait, the collector offered to find the buyer for me – he did, it was his friend, he wanted 2000 Euros now. The price had more than doubled because of “inflation”.
Potrrait of the three siblings, children of Risa Propst-Kraid, with Ervin on the left and the Kraid sisters’ father on the right. The photograph on the chest is of Risa in the process of painting the painting above.
This portrait of Ervin, the painting of Risa´s three children that hangs in the house of the sisters in Israel, along with the few but loving testimonies about Ervin made by those who knew him, as well as the small 1976 publication of his texts and drawings, are the only remnants that attest to his existence. Scattered across continents and owners, it was only by chance that these few fragments and pieces were brought together to complete at least a portion of the puzzle that was Ervin’s short and painful life. Through my search for this painting of Ervin, the biographies of Leon’s and Risa’s granddaughters became intertwined like Leon’s and Risa’s had been two generations before. Thus we reinfused the portrait with the function it had almost lost, that of a memory object.
Through these artefacts, we may transmit to the future that there once was a young man, not much more than 20, an example of integrity for many, who spoke several languages and studied Japanese, the only one known at his age to be doing so, taught these to the poor for free, and was a devout communist, believing that it offered the only chance to defeat the fascist war machine, and grant equality to all. For these beliefs he was tortured mercilessly, but never divulged any incriminating information about his friends or comrades. He was then deported to one of the worst concentration camps the Romanian regime succeeded in creating, surviving heroically only to be shot at the end of the war. The name of this young man was Ervin Kraid – it is also the name of the portrait Risa made in 1927 that several of those who owned and exhibited it tried to efface. But as Leon declared in his journal: “Ervin, Ervin cannot be forgotten. He lives in us and in so many others.”
This research was made possible by the support of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe.
Olga Stefan is a researcher, documentarian, and curator, founder of The Future of Memory, a transnational platform for Holocaust remembrance through art and media, and currently a PhD student in Sociology at the University A.I Cuza, Iasi. Her films include Gestures of Resistance, My Illusions, Daniel Spoerri: The Wild Child of Iasi, and Fragments of a Life. Her most recent short video is called Vapniarka: The Camp of Death. She was a fellow at Kunstlerhaus Buchsenhausen for the year 2021-2022 and at New Europe College with a Landis &Gyr Stiftung grant in 2019-2020
 Fascist (1937-8/23/1944), communist (1946-1990), democratic (1991-present)  Marianne Hirsch and Leo Spitzer, Testimonial Objects, Poetics Today 27:2 (Summer 2006) doi 10.1215/03335372-2005-008  b.1894, Poland – d.1983, Israel  Vapniarka and Ribnita are two villages or small towns in the former region of Transnistria, an area between the Dniester and the Bug Rivers occupied during WW2 by Romania. In this region, Romania deported more than 180,000 Jews from Bukowina and Bessarabia as well as several thousand from the Old Kingdom and either shot them, or left them to die from hunger or illness. Another 200,000 Ukrainian and local Jews were also massacred by Romanian authorities and their German allies. Vapniarka was categorized a concentration camp for political prisoners that operated from late 1941 to October 1943.  Erwin Kraid, Crimpeie de Viata, Tel Aviv, 1976, Tipografia Lahav. Translation by Olga Stefan  Unpublished journal, Leon Misosniky, courtesy of Lala Misosniky, now also part of The Future of Memory archive www.thefutureofmemory.ro/archive Translation by Olga Stefan