When the Germans occupied Lithuania in June 1941, Alexander Bogen took with him a pistol, grenades, pencils and paper, and set off to fight. Bogen, who was an art student at the University of Vilna, became the commander of a unit of Partisans in the forests. He blew up bridges and railroads used by the Germans and smuggled himself into the ghetto to rescue Jews. In between such exploits, he drew what he saw.
“All the time, in the worst conditions, I had a pencil and paper and I drew,” he later said. “When we returned from an operation we would sit by the fire and drink vodka, and everyone would talk about what happened. I sat there and drew the characters – their experiences, their clothing.”
'I am not a Holocaust artist, but an artist who was in the Holocaust,' claimed Bogen
That was 80 years ago. Bogen survived the Holocaust and became an acclaimed artist in Poland right after the war, and then in Israel, after he made aliyah in 1951. His works were displayed at (and some were acquired by) Yad Vashem; the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.; the Ghetto Fighters’ House' the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and other venues. But since his death 12 years ago at age 95, his estate, which comprises thousands of works – some that survived the Holocaust and others that were inspired by it – has become embroiled in family discord and legal and bureaucratic wrangling, which has made it less accessible to scholars and art lovers.
Money should not have been an obstacle in preserving his artistic legacy. His will indicates that he left behind millions of shekels in assets. But several issues complicated things: First and foremost being the fact that concern for his artistic estate was not clearly expressed in his will, most of which is devoted to the financial welfare of his only son, Michael.
He left conflicting instructions regarding his artworks. On the one hand, he instructed that “all of the pictures and paintings created by me, all the art objects that belong to my estate… shall be sold via art dealers.” On the other hand, he also instructed: “Should a museum named for me be built and/or a museum wing dedicated in my name, the aforementioned shall be annulled and all pictures and paintings created by me shall be donated to that museum for the commemoration of my name.”
Bogen was not represented by an art gallery or art dealer. He appointed attorney Aminadav Kossowsky-Shachor as the executor of his estate, and the attorney says his impression was that Bogen “preferred commemoration over the sale of his works.”
Bogen’s granddaughter Tali was convinced of the same. However, this is where an ugly legal battle began, with Tali Bogen accusing the managers of her grandfather’s estate of neglecting the artworks he left behind, and proposing a plan to preserve his legacy. They contend that she raided his studio, seized control of his works and is trying to extract money from the estate contrary to the will.
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Did I get the smile right?
Bogen, whose original surname was Katzenbogen, was born in 1916 in Estonia. Both of his parents were doctors; his father was killed in World War I, and his mother was murdered in the Holocaust. He grew up in Vilna, where he studied painting and sculpture at university up until the German occupation. At that time he was 25 and married to Rachel, and he decided to join the partisans, for whom he commanded a special operations unit. Before the liquidation of the Vilna Ghetto, he smuggled himself in and helped train 150 members of the Jewish underground before they escaped into the forests. “I distributed primitive weapons and copies of maps of the forest that I’d prepared. I taught them how to fight the enemy, how to find food, read a compass, hide – all the tactical information a partisan needs,” he said.
Interviewed by Michal Sternin and Merav Jano of Yad Vashem, Bogen described how Abba Kovner introduced him to Jewish artists in the ghetto. “We walked through the alleyways and climbed up to the third floor. The door opened and we saw painter Roza Sutzkever, who was one of the leading artists in the city before the war, standing by her easel and painting a portrait. And she asks me, 'Alexander, tell me, did I capture my model's smile?' She was very happy despite being hungry. And I asked myself: "Damn it… how can this be? How is it possible that in a person about to die this yearning for artistic expression is stronger than life?”
Another memory from the Holocaust found expression in his artwork. "When I was in the ghetto, I saw a little girl with a doll standing next to a wall. I asked her where her parents were. They had already been taken to concentration camps and she was standing like that, not crying, and holding the doll's hand," he said. "And I, a man armed with a handgun and two grenades, a strong man, stood in front of that miserable creature, and I couldn’t help."
His granddaughter Tali says, “He understood that if he did something, it would endanger the whole mission he'd been sent on, and that the only thing he could do was to draw her. Ever since, this girl became the formative narrative in his life, like his compass.”
As Bogen told it: "I took out my pencil and drew her, almost subconsciously. After the war I asked myself, 'What have you done? How could you do such a thing and act so instinctively?' Maybe it was a feeling of… let's say, a sense of survival."
On another occasion, he said, "We saw abandoned children, we saw people being led to slaughter, and I never put my pencil down. An artist who is sentenced to death would immortalize people who are doomed to destruction.” He wondered: “Was this purely an aesthetic experience? Was I at peace with my conscience? Turning a bereaved mother, an orphaned girl and a dying old man into models?”
Since 2011, Tali Bogen has been living in her grandfather’s studio on Ben Shaprut Street in Tel Aviv, alongside hundreds of his works that were left there and thousands of archive pages documenting his work. A court has asserted that she is “squatting without permission,” but she says that from a legal standpoint, she is “not yet squatting,” explaining that she is staying there in order to act as a human shield for his works.
When we heard that the Germans were approaching… I took a tin box and put all my drawings under a pine tree and marked the spotAlexander Bogen
She speaks of “severe neglect, both externally and internally” at the studio, which is on the building’s ground floor. Until the summer, the Tel Aviv municipality had classified the building as a dangerous structure. Even after renovations, Tali Bogen says that some parts of it are still crumbling. “One day, a cement block fell on me. It’s endangering the estate,” she says. Regardless, the structure will eventually be demolished to make way for a new building.
In 2014, Dr. Doron Luria, the former chief art restorer at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, examined the studio and the works that are kept there. “For years, the storage conditions of the works were terrible. They were crowded together amid dirt and dust, and at risk of moldering,” he wrote. He says that thanks to Tali Bogen’s efforts, “their condition is immeasurably better today.”
In 2013, several hundred works were moved from the studio to a storage facility, Tali says, “after I had adamantly insisted that everything be professionally catalogued and archived – a labor that I had started myself.” Later on, she says she catalogued another 2,000 items left by her grandfather, but that despite her efforts, they were only moved to the storage facility in 2017. Luria warned that in the storage room, too, the works are not being properly cared for. “It is inadvisable to leave pictures wrapped up for a long time – more than a few months – because it may develop bacteria.” She warns that “irreversible damage has been done to some of the works.”
In her grandfather’s archive, Tali found several treasures, including things that were written about him by his colleague, the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, who was rescued from the ghetto with Bogen’s aid. Sutzkever compared Bogen to an eagle “that with the strength of his two wings alone can overcome lightning and thunder,” adding that Bogen’s “partisan commander wing protected his other artist wing.” Sutzkever detailed how Bogen kept on drawing even under the impossible conditions of the forests. “I followed my friend with suspense and love when his artistic eye saw and heard, when he drew with bits of charcoal that he saved from a branch that had finished burning and with a rusty pen dipped in an ‘ink’ made from blackberries. A kindly angel brought him sheets of paper from the villages in the area.”
During his time in the forest as a partisan, Bogen sometimes had to part with his works. “When we heard that the Germans were approaching… I took a tin box and put all my drawings under a pine tree and marked the spot – so that when the Germans left I could return and take it. Of course, I didn’t find the tree,” he said. But some of his works were saved when Sutzkever took them with him on a plane that extracted him from the forest in 1944 on orders from Stalin. Other drawings were hidden by a Russian commander among the partisans, who returned them to Bogen in Poland at the end of the war. Other works disappeared.
“I don’t see it as art for art’s sake. It’s not like being an artist who sits in his studio and thinks about composition and color and an idea and expression,” Bogen said of his artistic output during the Holocaust. “It was a spontaneous reaction to facts you were facing. Suddenly, when you see something horrible, you feel that from here, from the heart, an electric current comes to your head and you do this thing. Each person reacts to the horrors and to what is happening. One with tears and another with a rifle, and I reacted with a pencil in one hand, and with a rifle in the other.”
Revelation on Mount Meron
After the war, Bogen completed his artistic studies and after gaining acclaim as an artist in Lodz and Warsaw, was chosen as an art professor in Poland. “I had commissions from the government, I had a large studio and a nice apartment,” he said. He painted and sculpted, and also did illustrations and set design. His frescoes adorned the walls of many public buildings.
In 1951, he moved to Israel with his wife Rachel and their only child Michael. When he wanted to take his paintings with him, he found out that the Polish authorities would not allow it. Only later, thanks to the intervention of Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, were some of his drawings returned to him. “I emerged from the grave into the great light, in Israel. Here I discovered myself. A liberated person, full of enthusiasm for the light, the sun, the air, the landscape, the people. I was reborn,” Bogen said at the time.
“I am not a Holocaust artist, but an artist who was in the Holocaust,” Bogen stressed. Despite his attempt to fight the nickname "the partisan artist" he was called that until his dying day.
"For us, in Yad Vashem, he's a very important artist, almost one of a kind," says Dr. Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, a curator and director of the museum's art department. "There are other partisan artists, but not like that and not with such an impressive body of work. The way in his he adhered to art, in those conditions, is inspiring. I'ts simply a marvelous story of physical and spiritual resistance."
In Israel Bogen painted landscapes and people. At first he was particularly impressed by "Eastern people," as he put it, "types from Morocco, from Tunis." Although he missed the greenery of Europe, in the end, he said "I was happy with the blue sky of Israel," even if at first it looked to him like a jungle. "When I climbed Mount Meron for the first time, I didn't believe what I was seeing," he once said. "In Europe, the further you get, the more distant the colored stain becomes. Here I saw Lake Kinneret as a spot of color on my hand."
Later, alongside figurative art, he also experimented with abstract art. Five years after his aliyah, artist Pesel Friedberg wrote criticism about him: "He is graced with that same sensitivity to color that is the unique quality of a modern artist. His works give an impression of an abundance of means. He obtains wonderful effects and he knows how to use colors sensually."
In the public space, he designed the partisans' memorial in Latrun, and he also sculpted in wood the entry gate to the Jabotinsky Museum in Metzudat Ze'ev in Tel Aviv. He established and directed the art department in the WIZO France Art School in Tel Aviv, and served as the chairman of the Israel Painters and Sculptors Association.
Is the estate a 'burden?'
After Bogen's death, his granddaughter Tali returned to Israel after living abroad, and tried unsuccessfully to become executor of his artistic estate. For over 20 years, she has taken part in art projects in Israel and abroad, and at present she serves as the resource, parnerships and digital development officer for the Tel Aviv Artists House.
Twice, in 2017 and 2019, she took the managers of her grandfather's' estate to court. "If the manager of the estate is not concerned about the fate of the estate, who will be?" she wrote. She described her repeated requests of the managers of the estate "to save the collection of pictures and works of the deceased." During one of the proceedings, executor Kossowsky-Shachor said that he sees his main job as financial concern for Bogen's son rather than his artistic legacy. "I understand less about art," he confessed. "The artistic assets are a burden on the estate, in my opinion."
Tali Bogen is upset by the reference to her grandfather's works as a "burden." She claims that the manager of the estate does little to execute the will when it comes to this artistic treasure. For this part, he described her claims as "insulting," claimed that they are "a complete distortion of the factual situation" and that he is "meticulously following the desire of the deceased in his will."
Kossowsky-Shachor told the court that he "is constantly working in an attempt to find a suitable arrangement for the works." The only concrete offer that the mangers of the estate were able to present was to transfer a few of Bogen's works to the Hechal Shlomo Museum in Jerusalem, an offer which Tali Bogen describes as "negligible and marginal."
Tali presented her own plan for preserving her grandfather's legacy, which includes establishing a foundation in his name that would be involved in research, documentation and the dissemination of his work. The plan, which received a blessing from her father, Bogen's son, also involves creating a virtual museum.
For that purpose Bogen has recruited leading figures in the art world. One of them, Galia Bar Or, the former director of the art museum in Ein Harod, wrote that "the importance of the research, documentation and preservation of his extensive work is inestimable," and that "with the death of Bogen and the generation of artists who worked with him, we must demonstrate responsibility for what remains." On the matter, she warned: "Many of the artists' estates in Israel have been scattered in all directions and their work has been forgotten and irretrievably lost."
Bar Or supports Tali's plan for starting a foundation, and got the impression that she is entirely committed to perpetuating his legacy. The same is true of Luria, who wrote that Tali "does her work devotedly, out of a sense of purpose to perpetuate her grandfather's memory and his artistic legacy," while using "knowledge that she has accumulated throughout her years in her grandfather's company."
Prof. Avraham Novershtern, director of Shalom Aleichem House, joined the fray, expressing his personal interest in Bogen's close ties with Yiddish-language writers and poets. Bogen illustrated the books of Haim Grade, Abraham Sutzkever and Abraham Karpinowitz, among others. "He was lucky that his granddaughter, who has acquired great experience in directing many and varied cultural initiatives, is now devoting herself to nurturing his work."
But the managers of the estate rejected Tali Bogen's plan and her request for budgets to implement it, and said that her grandfather did not order in his will the establishment of a foundation to preserve his artistic legacy. The plan, they claim, "opposes and contradicts the instructions of the will to a very high degree." They claim that she is trying to "take possession of all the activity required to perpetuate the deceased's works, in return for a considerable salary," and that the real intention behind her plan is to "withdraw money from the estate in considerable sums in opposition to the will, and empty out the estate."
They warn that accepting her plan would be a "dangerous adventure." Tali Bogen claims in response that her proposal includes the establishment of a public fund and appointing her to its committee, so that, in any case, she would not be able to receive money personally from the fund.
The court rejected Bogen's claims and left the management of the estate in the hands of its directors. "In spite of my repeated requests, the plaintiff continues to make remarks to me, is trying to harm the managers of the estate and it seems that my requests of her to keep quiet are falling on deaf ears," the judge reprimanded her.
Her brother, journalist Amir Bogen, also sees things differently and believes that there is no interest in Israel in commemorating his grandfather and promoting his artistic legacy. "Tragically, my grandfather's value and reputation as an artist has not been preserved," he says.
As opposed to Tali, Amir does not take issue with the managers of the estate. "It's impossible to expect the lawyers, who are responsible for managing his assets, to perform miracles and once again make Grandpa the hottest thing in Israeli art," he says. He says that museums, galleries, curators and art dealers have not expressed interest in acquiring or displaying the works in the estate.
"Grandpa didn't want to be labeled a Holocaust artist, but the museums are interested only in his Holocaust works and not in his later oeuvre," sums up Amir. "He felt that he was unable to leave this ghetto, in both senses of the word."
Meanwhile, Tali continues to commemorate her grandfather despite the limitations. Along with a catalogue of some of his works, she created a website about her grandfather and even spoke to the Tel Aviv Municipality, which led to erecting a commemorative sign at the entrance to his home in 2018. Her connections with Yad Vashem contributed to the selection of a painting by Bogen to be featured on the poster for the official Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in 2010.
Bogen also established ties with researchers from all over the world who are interested in her grandfather's work, and some of whom have begun to study it. "He really was larger than life. He was the most loving and embracing and smart and learned and inspiring and challenging and sensitive grandfather and person," she says.
Among the papers of note that she found in his estate was a letter hand-written by current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid when he was a child. "Thank you very much for coming and for your beautiful present that pleased me very much and opened a certain path for me to types of painting that I was unfamiliar with," wrote Lapid to Alexander Bogen. "For me, your painting is a kind of gateway to another world." His parents, Yosef (Tommy) and Shulamit, added a comment: "Because we – the parents – enjoy the painting even more than Yair, we will add our thanks to his!"