Mom’s Portrait – Story of the Artist, Malva Schalek

One of the top rules in genealogy is to avoid BSOs – “bright, shiny, objects.” I break that rule all the time and as a result I learn some pretty cool stuff. Ok, maybe I lose focus and don’t finish the actual task I was working on but honestly, life’s more fun this way!

Today’s post is a good example of my recent fall “down the rabbit hole.” As you may know, I have been researching the life my great-grandfather, Sigmund Lichtenthal (yes, the EXPERT) and his quest to obtain reparations for the losses the family sustained in 1938 Vienna, Austria. I have also been participating in Amy Johnson Crow’s newest challenge “4 Weeks of WANDER,” in which we are learning about her new research process. (More on that another time.) The “A” stands for “analyze what you have.” Considering I have reached that point in researching Sigmund’s life where I think I have pretty much all I need to start writing, I thought it would it be an appropriate time to stop and analzye what I have collected.

My focus this week was to review everything I had gathered about my part in getting reparations for my mother – to complete the journey Sigmund started in 1939. That involved reviewing all the documentation I received from the “Nationalfonds der Republik Österreich für Ofer des Nationalsozialismus.” (The General Settlement Fund, which was set up to assist victims of Holocaust persecution in obtaining reparations.) One of the letters informed me about a website that opened in 2007 – the Art Database. (www.artrestitution.at) The database catalogues several thousand objects, many of which had been expropriated by the Nazis. The aim is to determine the provenance of the items with the goal of possibly returning them to the rightful owners. Of course, I had to check out the website!

The site is easy to use – simply type your search term into the box. Sadly, but not suprisingly, all my searches were negative. But then I remembered a beautiful portrait of my mother that was painted by a Viennese artist, Malva Schalek. I decided to search the artist’s name. No hits.

Most people might have stopped there. This portrait is one of my favorite family heirlooms. It always had a prominent place in the living room of our childhood home. After my mother’s passing in 2011, my sister Jeanne drove it home to her house, where it hangs proudly today. I vaguely remembered my mother telling me the artist might have died in the Holocaust. I decided it was time to find out.

1937 portrait of Doris Lichtenthal – painted by Viennese artist Malva Schalek

I discovered some interesting but quite sad information about Malva Schalek. According to an article posted on the website for Niki Thobi (a singer-songwriter) Malva Schalek was born in Prague on February 18, 1882, into a cultured, German-speaking Jewish family, which came originally from Bohemia.1 To nurture her outstanding artistic talent, she was sent to Munich, where she studied art at the Frauenakademie (The Women’s Academy) for a year.  Afterwards, she moved to Vienna , where she continued her art studies with the well-known woman artist Hasek-Rosenthal. Schalek’s uncle Peppi, Joseph von Simon, set up a studio for her on the top of the building of the Theater an der Wien, which he owned. Schalek had by this time acquired a reputation as a portrait artist. The subjects of her paintings were often from the middle and upper class Jewish society.

After the ‘Anschluss’, the annexation of Austria to Germany in March 1938, Schalek fled Vienna, leaving behind her studio full of works. She took along her widowed aunt, Emma Richter and moved to Leitmoritz in Czechoslovakia, where Malva’s brother Robert was a judge. In 1942, Malva was forced to enter the Theresienstadt ghetto. Despite her age (60) and poor health, Malva created more than 100 works in which she depicted scenes of life in Theresienstadt. As quoted from the website: “These works, done in pencil, charcoal, and watercolours, were found after the liberation of the camp by the Red Army.  They are an accurate testimony to various aspects of the living conditions in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. The art curator Tom L. Freudenheim, Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1978 and later deputy director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin, has referred to them as “perhaps the finest and most complete artistic oeuvre to survive the Holocaust.” Some of her work is shown on the website.

Malva Schalek was deported to Auschwitz on May 18, 1944 reportedly after refusing to do a portrait of a collaborationist doctor. She died less than a week later on May 24, 1944.

I am so glad I allowed myself to get distracted by the website in that letter. We always knew our mother’s portrait was important. Now that I know what happened to the artist who created it, it has an even deeper significance.


1 “Malva Schalek”. 2020. Nizza-Thobi.Com. http://www.nizza-thobi.com/Malva_Schalek/malva_schalek.htm.

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