Sari Kingsley never got to meet her mother's brother, Mendel Schleifer, but all her life felt a strong connection to him. Her connection was embodied by a painting that her Uncle Mendel painted as a handsome young man and which he sent to her mother in New York in 1938. Less than one year later the Nazis invaded Poland, murdering 90% of the three million Jewish inhabitants, including this promising artist.
Mendel Schleifer was born on June 1, 1913, to Abraham (Leib) Schleifer, a clock-maker, and Sara. He was one of seven siblings, four of whom died before the end of the first World War. Mendel’s sister, Ruth (Rachel), emigrated to the United States in 1920, followed by his sister, Rose, in 1927. The sisters settled in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
Mendel was 17 and living in his hometown of Ottynia, a province of Galicia, Poland when he painted The Judgement of Solomon. . He based the painting on a famous work by the Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens, indicating Mendel’s awareness of European art history. The city of Ottynia, where he lived, held about 1100 Jews, or one-third of the town’s population, in 1930, the year the work was painted.
Mendel had sent the work just in time; By late 1941 he was imprisoned in the Lvov (Lviv) Ghetto, located in present day Ukraine, alongside 136,000 other Jews. From March of 1942 until June of 1943 the Jewish inhabitants of the ghetto were deported to the Janowska concentration camp or to Belzec death camp. Thousands of others died of starvation, disease, overwork or random violence.The last 4,000 prisoners were transferred to Janowska and “exterminated” in the Piaski tract, a killing site behind the camp complex. In the three years of its existence, 250,000 Jews from the Lvov ghetto perished.
Mendel and his parents’ names are remembered on the memorial to the victims of Ottynia at the Beth Moses Cemetery in Farmingdale, New York and at Yad Vashem in the Valley of the Communities. We do not know exactly how or when Mendel died, but we have this reminder of his life. It was held by his sister Ruth Dulberg, and after her death it passed to Mendel’s sister, Rose. Rose later passed the work on to her daughter (Mendel’s niece), Sari Kingsley. We are deeply indebted to Sari for donating the work to the Wagner College Holocaust Center, where Mendel’s painting allows us to remember his short life, and to mourn the loss of all the artists who perished in the Holocaust, whose works will never be created.
* Information on the Lvov ghetto and the imprisonment of Mendel in the Lvov ghetto comes from the Museum of Jewish Memory and the Holocaust in Ukraine, and the Holocaust Survivors and Victims Database of the USHMM.
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Home of Rabbi in Ottynia, c. 1905
Home of Rabbi
Sara Kingsley, niece of Mendel Schleifer, and Laura Morowitz, Senior Research and Programming Associate of the
WCHC stand before The Judgement of Solomon, 1930, by Mendel Schleifer