Gela Seksztaj-Lichtensztajn in the Ringelblum's Archive

Portret neiznanej kobiety, wykonany techniką akwareli, w kolorach brązu i beżu. Namalowany przez Gelę Seksztajn-Lichtensztajn. Dar Piotra Setkiewicza.
"Portret kobiety" pędzla Geli Seksztajn-Lichtensztajn, dar Piotra Setkiewicza, fot. Muzeum Historii Żydów Polskich

We owe the memory of Gela Seksztajn-Lichtenstein’s life and work to the conspiratorial archive of the Warsaw ghetto, today known as the Ringelblum Archive.

In August 1942, when Germans began the mass genocide of Jews in Treblinka, over 300 watercolours, drawings, photographs, catalogues and documents of the young artist and her husband Izrael Lichtenstein (1904–1943, a member of Oyneg Shabes and associate of Dr Emanuel Ringelblum) were secured and hidden away as part of the Warsaw ghetto underground archive. The first part of the Archive — ten metal boxes — was recovered on 18 September 1946 from the ruins of a school at 68 Nowolipki Street.

Sekstain’s watercolours and drawings preserved in the Ringelblum Archive testify to her being a conscious talented artist with master skills in the difficult technique of watercolour painting. She was able to bring out subtle and powerful psychological truth out of the people she portrayed by the use of mere colour splashes.

"Portret kobiety" [Portrait of a Woman] from the POLIN collection is one of Gela’s few works to survive outside of the Ringelblum Archive. She painted it probably during her stay in Krakow where she allegedly studied at the Academy of Fine Arts (the Academy’s archive mentions her only as auditing Wojciech Weiss’s classes in 1935–1936).

The artist debuted in 1931 during the Annual Event of the Jewish Society for the Advancement of Fine Arts, while the last exhibition she participated in was the 5th Jubilee Salon organised in February 1939 by The Association of Jewish Fine Artists in Poland. Since her return to Warsaw (her home town) in 1937, Gela often visited the famous Buda—a club for Jewish writers and journalists (located on Tłomackie and later on Graniczna Street) whose portraits painted by her survived in the metal boxes.

In her testament-letter attached to the works deposited in the Archive, Gela Seksztajn confided: "Standing between life and death, convinced I’m going to die rather than stay alive, I want to  say goodbye to my friends and my work.
Ten years of work—I collected, tore to shreds and worked again. I was preparing an exhibition of my paintings, and especially an exhibition of my portraits of a Jewish child. Now I try to save what I can and as much as can fit into that space. I leave the rest at the mercy of fate […]."

The painter perished together with her husband and 3-year old daughter Margolit in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943.

Renata Piątkowska