The Holocaust, during which some six million European Jews and others were systematically exterminated by the Nazi German regime during World War II, was one of the most gruesome war crimes ever committed. Joseph Johan Cosmo Nassy, an Afro-Jewish artist, survived it. Nassy was living in Belgium when World War II started and was arrested as an enemy national (he held a U.S. passport) and confined in German internment camps during the war.
Being a Jew and a Dutch national by virtue of birth in a Dutch colony, he could have been killed during the Holocaust but for certain dubious actions that he took before entering Europe. He would later be behind one of the largest series of artworks created by an individual artist incarcerated by the Nazis.
Born on January 19, 1904, in Paramaribo, Surinam (Dutch Guiana), Nassy was one of nine children born to Adolf Philipus Nassy, a prosperous Jewish businessman who was a member of the Surinam Parliament, and Elisabeth Carolina Natalia Nassy, a Surinamese woman of African descent. Even though Nassy was not a practicing Jew, his family was descended on his father’s side from Spanish Jews who were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition. He thus did not let go of his Jewish identity.
Growing up, Nassy received private art lessons before moving to Brooklyn in 1919, finishing high school there and then attending the Pratt Institute, where he earned a degree in electrical engineering. In 1928, Nassy was hired by Melotone Corp. of America, a subsidiary of Warner Bros., to install sound systems for talking pictures in London, Paris and Brussels, according to The Washington Post. But in order to travel abroad, Nassy had to get a passport. He pretended that he was born in San Francisco in 1899 in order to obtain an American passport.
“On his passport application, Nassy changed his birth date to 19 January 1899, five years before 1904,” historian Sybil Milton said. “He claimed that his place of birth was San Francisco to qualify for his American passport. Why was this significant? The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 had destroyed the city’s records and this enabled Josef Nassy to secure a passport by written affidavit of an identifying witness, his brother Alwin.”
Since San Francisco’s public records had been destroyed in the earthquake, officials issued the passport without further investigation. He renewed his passport in Brussels in 1934, and that implied that he was registered as an American national with the U.S. Embassy. What also saved him from death during the holocaust was the fact that he did not list a religious affiliation on his residency application with the Belgian police.
Before being arrested as an enemy national during World War II and being placed into a series of concentration camps with other Americans, Nassy enjoyed his stay in Brussels. He attended the Royal Academy of Fine Arts to study painting and got married to Rosine van Aerschot, a Belgian citizen, in 1939. In May 1940 when the Germans occupied Belgium, Nassy had to report weekly to the police as a foreign national.
On April 14, 1942, four months after the U.S. entered the war, Nassy was arrested and first sent to Beverloo and then to the internment camps in Germany. About 2,000 American citizens were held in German internment camps during the war. While in the Laufen Camp and Tittmoning Subcamp in Germany where 500 foreign nationals were being held including 30 Jewish prisoners, Nassy and his fellow internees were given better treatment because officials knew that they could exchange them for German captives held by the Allies.
Nassy was able to get art supplies from the International Red Cross and the Swiss YMCA which he used to sketch portraits of his fellow prisoners, creating a visual diary of daily life in the internment camps. His over 200 paintings and drawings featured steel bars, gates, walls, barbed wire fences, guard towers, and grim-faced men who did not know what fate had in store for them.
In a letter to his wife from the Laufen camp in November 1942, Nassy wrote: “We miss Beverloo very much. It appears that we may send three letters and four cards a month. I hope that’s true. I am still in good health. We are near Salzburg, but we can’t see much of the mountains, even the terrain is high. We receive fewer packages here and we cannot send anything home, to my regret. I hope that you can manage for yourself, for I fear that I can no longer help you and only God knows for how long.”
Indeed, most of his works reflected despair and boredom. One of his paintings, titled “Laufen,” however shows an excited group of prisoners around a map of Europe on which they are monitoring how the war was progressing. “Berlin is surrounded and their faces and body language, which are subdued and depressive in all the other pictures, reflect a sense of anticipation. After years of confinement, their liberation is at hand,” The Washington Post wrote.
On May 5, 1945, Nassy was liberated by the U.S. Army and he reunited with his Belgian wife, Rosine van Aerschot. He was able to get all his works out of Germany and in subsequent years participated in a number of expositions of Holocaust art.
Following his death of cancer in Brussels in 1976, Severin Wunderman, a California businessman who also survived the Holocaust, bought Nassy’s collection in 1984. He donated the Nassy collection to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1992. Today, his works are not used as examples of great art, but as artifacts that document an era, according to curator Susan Bachrach.