On the Trail of a Purloined Painting | Feature | Chicago Reader

On the Trail of a Purloined Painting 

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In 1935 ICOR embarked on what was perhaps its most ambitious project: acquiring a collection of contemporary art that would be used to start a museum in Birobidzhan. One hundred and twenty American artists--including William Gropper, Max Weber, Jose Clemente Orozco, and many of the Chicagoans who two years later contributed to "A Gift to Biro-Bidjan"--donated more than 200 oil paintings, watercolors, sculptures, prints, and drawings to this gesture of cultural solidarity. The ICOR art committee proudly announced that the works would form "one of the best and most complete collections of American art to be found anywhere outside the United States." The collection was displayed in New York City and Boston, and in late 1936 it was shipped to Russia, where it was exhibited in Leningrad and Moscow. Then it vanished.

For the past few years Efrem Ostrowsky has been trying to track down one piece of the collection. Now retired and living in Highland Park with his wife, Thelma, he grew up on the southwest side, where his father, Sam, had a small studio behind the family's house on Central Park Avenue. Sam, who was born in Ukraine in 1885 and trained at the Kiev Conservatory of Art, came to the United States in 1903 to be an artist. He got a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute, married Anna Israelson, a Lithuanian-born schoolteacher, and studied for a time at the Academie Julian in Paris, before World War I forced them to return to the States. In 1916 he began to design stage sets for the Yiddish theater, first in Chicago and Milwaukee, then as the principal designer for Maurice Schwartz's Jewish Art Theater in New York, a leader during the golden age of Yiddish theater. (Forty of his oil and watercolor stage designs were exhibited at the Spertus Museum in 1987.)

In 1929 Sam Ostrowsky gave up theater to concentrate on painting, and spent the rest of his life shuttling between his studios in Paris, the Catskills, and Chicago. He died in 1946, and today his landscapes, still lifes, and portraits are in the permanent collections of museums and universities in the U.S., France, Russia, and Israel. A 1936 French monograph on his work casts him as a prototypical "wandering Jew," forever aesthetically torn between realism and liberating fantasy, and compares him to De Chirico and Pissaro. His crowning work, says the monograph, is Efrem, his "luminant portrait" of his 14-year-old son, "a hymn to the sun and to the joy of life."

Among the Ostrowskys' friends, the fate of European Jews and the question of a Zionist state in Palestine was a matter of great concern. "I'm 83 years old," says Efrem. "My childhood was in the 20s and 30s, and I was on the fringe of all these happenings, but I absorbed enough to know what was going on. My father was never political. He was interested only in his art. But my mother was interested in the world situation, and she felt that [a Zionist state] would be a difficult thing to establish. She was very--what's the word?--prescient. So when this thing happened with Birobidzhan, it was announced as a way to get the Jews out of trouble at the time, even though it was way out in the boonies, next to China, and almost impossible to imagine."

In 1935 Sam was teaching art at the Jewish People's Institute on Douglas Boulevard when he and his wife met a woman involved with the Chicago chapter of ICOR, who helped persuade him to donate one of his works to the Birobidzhan collection. "It was," says Efrem, "something to be done for the cause."

The three-by-four-foot A Worker depicts a man wearing a red beret and posing on a ladder with a handsaw. The model for the portrait was photographer and designer Nathan Lerner, then Sam's teaching assistant at the JPI and later the successor to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy as the head of IIT's Institute of Design. He and Efrem were close friends until Lerner's death in 1997, and at his memorial service at the Art Institute a photograph of the portrait Sam had done was prominently displayed.

Efrem Ostrowsky served in the infantry during World War II, seeing six months of frontline combat and taking part in the liberation of Dachau. After the war ended in Europe he was sent to England to teach at a technical college for occupation troops. He landed in London on V-J Day, and when his buddies dragged him out to join the thousands celebrating in the streets, he struck up a conversation with the girl standing next to him, who'd lost a brother in the RAF and a sister in the London Blitz. Five months later they were married.

After the war the pair lived in Chicago for a couple of years, then moved to Paris, where Efrem studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and Thelma studied French at the University of Paris and took care of the first of their three daughters. They returned to the Chicago area in 1953 and have lived here ever since. An accomplished sculptor, painter, and oboist, Efrem made his living for many years as a product designer and holds patents for such devices as a prosthetic heart valve and a soda-bottle cap.

He says he'd always been interested in recovering his father's painting, but it wasn't until the Birobidzhan exhibit at Spertus in 1999 that he made a serious effort to find it. The catalog for the missing ICOR art collection was included in the exhibition, and Olga Weiss, with whom he'd worked to mount the 1987 exhibit of his father's theatrical work, recognized Sam's name in the list of contributors. She had a bad copy of the catalog and called Efrem to see if he had a better one. He didn't, but he did have a photograph of the original painting--was she interested in that?

After the exhibit ended he began making inquiries about the painting, almost all of which led to dead ends. Last March, for instance, he got in touch with Stephen Feinstein, the director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, who forwarded a color copy of the photo to a colleague in Moscow. They still haven't had a reply.

"I would dearly love to find out more," says Ostrowsky, who believes that since the Birobidzhan museum was never built and the painting never reached its intended destination, it should be returned to his family. The portrait, he wrote in a letter to Feinstein, "is truly one of [my father's] most important works and it represented a major sacrifice by my parents in letting ICOR have it."

The opening of archives in the former Soviet Union and recent international interest in restoring art lost during the Holocaust to the original owners' heirs have made Ostrowsky more optimistic. Recently a cache of art and documentary information on Birobidzhan came to light in the basement of a Saint Petersburg museum. Money is scarce, and it could be months or years before the material is inventoried. But the more than 100 watercolors, drawings, and sculptures are believed to be part of the missing ICOR collection. How they got there and the whereabouts of the oil paintings that were also in the collection remain a mystery.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.

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