Chana Kowalska (1907-1941)

Artist Chana Kowalska was born in Poland. She moved to Berlin and later Paris where she worked for the Resistance. Arrested by the Gestapo, she was first imprisoned with her husband, then deported and murdered by the Nazis.

Shtetl by Chana Kowalska

Shtetl (1934) by Chana Kowalska

The Bridge by Chana Kowalska

The Bridge (1937) by Chana Kowalska

Chana Kowalska biography

Chana Kowalska (1907-1941) was an emigre artist and the daughter of a Rabbi from Wloclawek, Poland. She emigrated to Berlin in 1922 after training to become a school teacher, later moving to Paris with her husband, the writer Baruch Winogora, where she became active in Jewish communist organisations while working as a journalist for Yiddish publications.

What marks Chana Kowalska out as a female artist is the context in which she lived, as a Jewish communist in France during the German Occupation, and how her response to this is expressed in her work.

Both she and her husband became involved with the French Resistance, which led to their arrest by the Gestapo. Kowalska’s life was cut short brutally when she and her husband was deported and shot by the Nazis in 1941.

Chana Kowalska’s painting Shtetl (1934), which is part of the Ben Uri Collection, holds great significance as it depicts a traditional Jewish small town, a shtetl, the kind of which were common in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

It is these settlements of close-knit Jewish communities which were eroded by the violence of the late 19th and 20th century; their populations emigrated, moved to industrial cities or were brutally eradicated.

In 1941, less than 10 years after this painting was produced, the Nazis began to round up entire Jewish villages and to deport them to labour and concentration camps. The Holocaust wiped out any trace of these villages from Eastern Europe, and Kowalska’s painting is a meditation on this fact as well as a stark reminder of a lost way of life.