How Chagall’s Daughter Smuggled His Work out of Nazi-Occupied Europe

Karen Chernick
Sep 12, 2019 4:38PM

Headshot portrait of artist Marc Chagall and his daughter Ida Chagall, 1945. Photo by University of New Hampshire/Gado/Getty Images.

Marc Chagall arrived in New York in June 1941, bearing a hefty art-world reputation but light luggage. His folkloric artworks were coming separately on a ship from Spain—or so he thought—as supporting actors in a ruse that enabled the Jewish artist to escape an increasingly Nazi-occupied Europe.

Alfred H. Barr, director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, invited Chagall to have a solo exhibition as a ploy for obtaining a United States visa. Supported by Jewish-American organizations and collectors who paid for their passage, the artist and his wife, Bella, seized this ticket out and departed France as fast as they could. They took what they could, but inevitably left some cherished treasures behind.

Marc Chagall
Hommage au Passé ou la Ville, 1944
Stern Pissarro

One of these was the couple’s only child, Ida, who couldn’t get a visa under Barr’s invitation. The other was the stock of the artist’s paintings.

Before fleeing Europe, Chagall tried to ship trunks of his colorful canvases featuring cows, fiddlers, and Russian villagers to the United States. “Chagall’s major capital was his paintings,” explained Susan Tumarkin Goodman, curator emerita at New York’s Jewish Museum who organized the 2013 exhibition “Chagall: Love, War, and Exile.” The artist hadn’t, however, made arrangements for 25-year-old Ida and her husband, Michel Gordey, to cross the Atlantic to safety.

“It was too urgent to make any other plans,” noted Galya Diment, a Russian literature professor who has researched Chagall’s relationship with Ida, of the chaotic circumstances under which the artist (who was briefly arrested by the Vichy police in Marseille) left France. “They were definitely concerned about Ida’s well-being but felt that Chagall, because of his visibility, was in real danger of being re-arrested and sent to camps,” Diment continued. Not only was Chagall Jewish, but the Nazis had also labeled him a “degenerate” artist.

So Chagall and Bella exited fast, concluding two years of dodging the Third Reich. The couple left Paris in 1939, migrating further and further south as German troops neared France’s northern border, transporting their crates of artwork again with each move.

When the Chagalls landed in America, they discovered that Spanish customs had impounded their crates. A distressed Chagall wrote to Ida, still stranded in southern France. She began a heroic effort to salvage her father’s work from being lost to the war, traveling to Spain by herself to try to release the crates.

Michel, following a few days later, was arrested at the Spanish border, compounding Ida’s efforts to liberate Chagall’s paintings from customs with the need to spring her husband from jail. She ingeniously succeeded at both. “Ida played the bureaucratic harp with skill and persistence, pulling all the proper strings,” writes Chagall biographer Sidney Alexander.

Then another seemingly impossible hurdle surfaced: Barely any ships were leaving Europe.

By the late summer of 1941, vessels like the Mouzinho refugee ship that carried the Chagalls to New York were scarce. With some luck—and money from his parents—Michel bought two pricey $600 tickets, worth roughly $11,000 per ticket today (the Chagalls did not contribute), aboard a ship for Jewish refugees. The couple ambitiously attempted to embark not only with their lives, but also a sizable crate of Chagall’s paintings.

Smuggling paintings out of Europe during the frenzied onset of World War II wasn’t simple, even with means. Jewish-American collector Peggy Guggenheim frantically bought paintings from top contemporary artists in Paris leading up to the German occupation; in 1941, she got them out of Europe by tucking rolled-up canvases in a shipment of linens and blankets.

Those cozy conditions were far superior to the circumstances that Ida, Michel, and a 6-by-6-by-3-foot crate of artwork ultimately faced aboard the Navemar steamship in August 1941. The steamer, built to accommodate cargo and up to 15 people, was hastily outfitted to fit 1,180 passengers (plus 4 live oxen serving as the ship’s meat supply during the 40-day voyage, since the ship had no refrigeration facilities). Conditions were gruesome, but this was the last way out for the refugees, some of whom died at sea and were thrown overboard.

The headline-making Navemar left Lisbon on August 17th. In New York, the Chagalls soon read descriptions of the journey in the newspaper. “We read today…that ‘Navemar’ is a floating concentration camp,” Chagall exasperatedly wrote to Morris and Ethel Troper, European director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee aid organization, in a letter offered this month at Guernsey’s auction house. In another message to Troper, Chagall describes a letter Ida sent when the ship docked in Lisbon. “They were ill, with 40-degree [Celsius] fever, no medication, no water, no food,” Chagall lamented. “We do not sleep nights. We cannot eat, thinking how the children in worst conditions live like animals.”

Ida and Michel were indeed living like animals, among animals. The couple opted to ride on deck—which also housed a makeshift stall full of oxen—to avoid moisture damage to the paintings. It’s unclear how much artwork Ida brought on the Navemar; regardless, it would have been a challenge on a ship arranged to utilize every inch of real estate to salvage human lives.

Still, Ida, Michel, and the paintings survived the journey. Her intuition to ride on deck proved wise, since all the luggage in the ship’s hold rotted and was thrown out in New York.

Ida may have resumed her heroics after the war, in 1945, according to descendants of Konrad Kellen, an American soldier serving in Europe that year. In Kellen’s unconfirmed story, Ida approached him in a Parisian café and asked if he was going home. When he answered yes, she convinced him to transport a large stack of her father’s canvases (reserving one for himself, as a token of appreciation). Kellen reluctantly agreed, conveying the paintings through rain (and other surely dicey) conditions over a month before arriving in America.

The following year, in 1946, Chagall did have a solo exhibition at MoMA, just like the one Barr described in his initially less-than-truthful invitation to the artist at the beginning of the war. It was likely a welcome return to career normalcy after years of global and personal chaos. In the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, the show highlighted a thriving Jewish artist—and prismatic paintings of floating lovers, larger-than-life roosters, and pensive rabbis that would have perished were it not for Ida’s bravery and determination.

Karen Chernick