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Max van Dam

socialist artist
Zelfportret Max van DamPainter Max van Dam was born in Winterswijk on 19 March 1910 into the Jewish SDAP-milieu (Dutch Social Democratic Workers’ Party). His father Aron was the director of cooperative De Dageraad, a thriving company that exploited several bakeries. Aron van Dam was furthermore on the town council for the SDAP, and later became a member of the Provincial States of Gelderland. Son Max received art training in Amsterdam and in Antwerp he attended Isidoor Opsomer’s Academy of Fine Arts of. As a beginning artist Max van Dam placed his talent in the service of the socialist ideals and in 1934 he designed a poster for large-scale regional demonstrations that the SDAP organized against all forms of dictatorship. He was a great admirer of the social realism of German artist Käthe Kollwitz, whose work was considered ‘entartet’ (depraved) by the Nazis.




travels and zionism for inspiration
Tekening Max van DamIn the spring of 1936 Van Dam travelled to Italy by bicycle, where he visited the Biennale in Venice and studied Italian art history. The many sketches he made during his journey formed the basis of his first solo-exhibition, which took place in his place of birth, Winterswijk. He also exhibited work from his Antwerp days. Despite a fair amount of publicity and a positive reception in the local press, sales were disappointing. One year later Van Dam was in Paris where he visited the Salon de l’art des Independants, where works by modern artists like Picasso and Dufy were shown. In the French capital he was often in the company of a young, unidentified, fiercely anti-Nazi German woman, with whom he discussed political developments in Germany at length. He displayed a strong compassion for the fate of the Jewish refugees from Germany. After Paris he moved further south and settled temporarily in the French fishing village of Collioure, where he tried to find a way out of an artistic impasse.

In the Netherlands he had met Jewish artist Fré Cohen, a confirmed socialist who was also very interested in Zionism. Van Dam also became fascinated, read The Jewish state by Theodor Herzl and became convinced that Zionism was an inner need for the Jewish people. But unlike Herzl, who prophesied in 1898: ‘In Basel habe ich den Judenstaat gegründet, in 50 Jahren ist er da’, Van Dam was pessimistic about the possibility of establishing a Jewish state. In 1938 he was commissioned to paint a large portrait of Herzl for a congress of Dutch Zionists in Amsterdam. In this painting he first and foremost tried to capture the - in his own words - ‘great mind’ of the Zionist leader.

Prix de Rome
Portret Max van DamIn 1938 Van Dam was also preparing for the examination of the Prix de Rome, the prestigious incentive prize for young artists and architects. The compulsory theme of that year was taken from the Old Testament: the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael from the house of Abraham. Van Dam won second prize and received the silver medal. The press was also favourable and spoke of a talented, although not quite mature artist. Encouraged by the positive reactions Van Dam resolved to try out other genres than the portrait and he started exploring the compositional possibilities of the still life. After he settled in Amsterdam he was inspired by Breitner and he started practicing townscapes. In 1939 he met art-loving Alice De Jong-Weil and her husband, who commissioned several paintings from him.




into hiding and on the run
Portret Max van DamIn the first months of the German occupation the persecution of the Jews was barely noticeable. But behind the scenes the occupier was feverishly preparing measures aimed at gradually removing the Jews from public life: from business, government, and also cultural life. From 10 January 1941 compulsory registration came into force and ‘persons wholly or largely of Jewish blood’ were obliged to report by order of the occupier. Max van Dam registered in March, but not much later went into hiding in the town of Blaricum, where Alice De Jong-Weil had also sought refuge. Her husband was in hiding elsewhere. In his place of hiding Van Dam managed to get some work done; he made sketches of the surrounding area and painted portraits. When the situation became too dangerous, they both decided in the autumn of 1942 to flee to Switzerland, Alice’s country of birth. However, the refugees were betrayed and caught by the Sicherheitsdienst near the Swiss border; Max was put on a transport to transit camp Drancy, the French equivalent of Westerbork. His companion was eventually released.


painter in Sobibor
Portret Max van DamOn 25 March 1943 Van Dam was put on transport to Sobibor, where he made it known he was an artist and winner of the Prix de Rome. There was a painting room in the camp, where Moshe Goldfarb from Poland worked, as well as two Dutch female artists, including Li van Staden. Max van Dam was also put to work here and he painted many a picture for the SS mess. After the war Frenzel, one of the camp SS, told Jules Schelvis, who has described the history of Sobibor, that Max van Dam had enjoyed preferential treatment: ‘He [Van Dam] did not have to attend roll call, and his food was brought to him by other prisoners. I asked him to make paintings for the SS mess that were not about the camp or war, they were only landscapes.’

According to Kurt Thomas, a Czech survivor of Sobibor who worked in the camp as a Sanitäter, Van Dam also had to paints portraits of the SS. In April 1943 he was working on a portrait of Frenzel, when Germans to successfully - due to betrayal - thwarted an escape from Lager III where the gas chambers were. In response all 150 prisoners who worked in this section of the camp were shot. In addition, because the brains behind the attempted escape was said to be a Dutchman, Frenzel had all Dutch men who worked in the camp as Arbeitsjuden murdered in retaliation. All except Van Dam - the artists first had to finish Frenzel’s portrait. It was only a temporary reprieve; eventually Van Dam was also killed in Sobibor, probably in September 1943.


Portret Max van Dam








Zelfportret Max van Dam

Zelfportret Max van Dam


















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