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Max van Dam
(1910-1943)


BiographyWorks

Max van Dam was born on 19 March 1910 in the small Dutch town of Winterswijk, beside the German border. He was born into a typical socialist Jewish family. His father, Aron van Dam, held a number of public positions and was a member of municipal and national councils.

Van Dam began drawing while still a boy, mainly portraits and landscapes. After graduating from the Winterswijk high school, his teacher, Dr Hemelrijk, encouraged him to register for art studies in an institute of higher learning. His parents were not very happy with their son's plans, but agreed that he could study to become a drafting teacher, thereby acquiring a profession. Van Dam's first commissions came through his father's connections - he decorated the socialist's Theater Tent, used for plays and other cultural event.

From 1933-1937 Van Dam studied at the Art College in Antwerp, where one of his teachers was the famous artist, Isidor Opsomer. After completing his studies he exhibited his works in various exhibitions in Antwerp, Amsterdam and The Hague, although his debut exhibition took place in his home town of Winterswijk.

From 1936-1937 he spent long periods in Bergen, in northern Holland, as the guest of the Hemelrijk family. While there he was exposed to various artistic circles. Van Dam was very sensitive to anything connected to anti-Semitism and sympathized with the Zionist idea. As a gesture to the Zionist movement he painted a portrait of Theodor Herzl. He was also close to the Dutch Zionist-Socialists, including the famous graphic artist Fré Cohen.

In 1938 van Dam moved to Amsterdam to prepare himself for the prestigious Prix de Rome competition. He took second prize for his oil painting Hagar and Ismaël (there was no first prize that year). Van Dam also won another prestigious prize - Arti et Amicitiae (Art and Friendship).

He took three extended trips - to Venice and the Spanish Pyrenees - which were a source of inspiration to him. Sketches he made in Venice served as the basis for an exhibition which took place in Winterswijk. When he returned to Holland he became friends with the Jewish couple Hans and Alice de Jong-Weyl, who lived in Hengelo. They were art lovers and commissioned many works from him.

Van Dam painted with different techniques - oils and watercolors - and his subjects included portraits, landscapes and still lifes. They were painted in romantic and expressionist styles. He won important prizes for his works and in 1939 was exhibited in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

After Holland was occupied by the Germans (May 1940), he lived for a period in hiding in Bergen, assisted by his friend Dr Hemelrijk. In the fall of 1942 he tried to escape to Switzerland, along with Alice de Jong and her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Jacqueline (Hans de Jong had been living in hiding for a while). At Montalier, beside the French border, van Dam was captured and sent to the French camp of Drancy. From there he was deported to Sobibor extermination camp. In Sobibor van Dam became a "conscripted" artist, and was ordered to produce paintings of the SS officers in beautiful landscapes. He was probably sent to his death on 20 September 1943, when he completed his last "commission".

After World War II, van Dam's works were exhibited in Holland, in group exhibitions and in a solo show. Almost all the artist's family perished in the Holocaust, except for his sister Roosje. In his memory a street was named after him in Winterswijk.

Some of the works van Dam produced while in hiding are in the Beit Lohamei Haghetaot (Ghetto Fighters' House Museum) art collection. They were brought there by the collection's founder and first curator, Miriam Novitch. She writes:

    I heard [...] that Mme Alice de Jong was living in Switzerland [...] and she related that several years previously a woman had come to her asking her to give her the paintings of the artist Max van Dam from Drancy camp [...]. I had several of van Dam's paintings in my possession, which he painted in the forest [...] where he found refuge [...]. I came to Mme de Jong. At this meeting I received four important paintings from her, produced by the artist while in hiding, before leaving Holland in the hope of reaching Switzerland.

Mme de Jong had acquired the paintings through a Swiss Jew called Adler, who had been with van Dam in Drancy. Upon his liberation, Adler brought these works with him to Switzerland. As mentioned above, Mme de Jong fled to Switzerland with van Dam and her daughter, and she lived there for the duration of the war, later settling in Ascona, Italy.

This story illustrates the complicated and tortuous routes along which the art of the Holocaust travelled. The establishment of Beit Lohamei Haghetaot's unique collection required a firm will, perseverance, and a worldwide network of contacts, all of which Miriam Novitch possessed.


(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)


References

Miriam Novitch. Acquisition report of paintings and art objects. Ghetto Fighters' House, no date.

Max van Dam - joods kunstenaar 1910-1943. Het Museum, Winterswijk, Netherlands, 1986.

Miriam Novitch. Spiritual Resistance: Art from Concentration Camps 1940-1945 - A selection of drawings and paintings from the collection of Kibbutz Lohamei Haghetaot. Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981.

Miriam Novitch. Report on acquiring new paintings and art objects. Ghetto Fighters' House, no date.

P.M.J. Jacobs. Beeldend Nederland: Biografisch handboek. Uitgeverij drs. P.M.J. Jacobs BV, Tilburg, Netherlands, 1993.