Art in Exile: The Leo Yeni Collection (Curators Corner #35)

Art in Exile: The Leo Yeni Collection (Curators Corner #35)


My name is Kyra Schuster, and I’m a
curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Leo Yeni was born in
Milan, Italy, to Greek Jews who had immigrated to Italy. He studied art as a
child and ultimately hoped to be an engineer and go to engineering school. In
1938 the Italian racial laws that were put into place completely disrupted Leo’s
education, and so he was no longer able to apply for engineering school and
university because he was Jewish and the laws that were in place. The Yeni family moved to a small town near
the border of Switzerland and went into hiding because they thought it would be
safer for them, and eventually as things got worse, Leo’s mother Pia decided it would be,
he would be safer if he was able to get into Switzerland, and perhaps he could
continue his education or ride out the war there. In early December 1943, Leo was
able to successfully, illegally cross the border into Switzerland. It was a few
days hike, I believe, through the mountains. He presented himself to the
authorities, but he was told that he couldn’t stay. They were only accepting
the elderly or very young children, and Leo was around 20 years old at the time, so
he had to go back. When he returned to his home village, though, he noticed that
the neighborhood around his home was rather empty. In the time that he was
gone, which was very brief, maybe a week a couple weeks at most, the authorities
came and arrested his parents. It was quickly decided that the best thing for
Leo to do would be to return to Switzerland. He ended up in the town of
Lugano, and once he arrived there he got in touch with some people who were able
to help him get in touch with his cousin who lived in Zurich. His cousin, who I
believe was named Isaac, couldn’t help him immediately. Really the only thing Leo could do at
that point was turn himself in to the proper authorities again, so there was no
fear of being arrested and caught and being sent back. After being interviewed by
the police, Leo was escorted to the Bellinzona camp,
where he joined other refugees. From the Bellinzona camp, Leo and a number of
other refugees were sent to the Unterwalden Castle, where they had set up a second camp for the
refugees, an internment camp. While he was in the camp, it became known that Leo was an
artist, and he kept journals the entire time, but he also specifically writes, “I
was inspired to pick up a brush, to draw to do, create art again.” When they
discovered his talent, some of the other people in the camp actually commissioned
him to do a drawing of the camp, and he, he drew a scene of the barracks in the,
in the forest and things like that, and they actually made arrangements to have this
drawing printed on postcards when in Zurich so that everybody could get a copy of it. While
he was in the camp, Leo was able to get day passes to leave the camp either to
visit with his family, his cousin, or for doctors’ appointments, but he also took
advantage of this opportunity, and in one of the times that Leo left the camp, he
actually, instead of going to the town that he had the pass to visit, he actually
visited an art school, and he met with the director of the art school, presented
his portfolio, and applied to be in the school, basically did an interview. The
tractor was very impressed with Leo and his body of work and said “I will do what
I can to help you.” In January 1945, January 15th, Leo found out that he was being released, and
within 48 hours, he was in a new apartment, he was attending art school, he
started classes, so he was so thrilled to finally be free from the camp after
having been there since December 1943. Leo passed away in 2011, and I’m very
fortunate that I got to meet him and know him before he died. He was a very lovely man,
and his estate finalized the donation of his collection to the Museum. Leo’s collection is
actually quite extensive. Leo was a lifelong journaler. He kept diaries his
entire life. They were beautifully written, and so we have the three diaries
that he kept from 1943 to 1945. We also have a lot of his artwork and his sketch books,
because he drew the entire experience, and so there’s drawings that were in the
camp, but we also have his notebooks and journals from art school. So you go from
seeing these drawings of life in the camp, the landscape, the other prisoners,
what their daily life was like, and then towards the end of the collection you
have these art school drawings, you know? They’re architectural details, or floor
plans, or wallpaper samples, or, you know, random caricatures, and so it’s really
the scope of his talent is very evident in the body of work that we have
here at the Museum. There’s one piece in particular that I always remember, which is
kind of a nighttime scene, and you see people walking through the, you know, down
this path in the, in the forest, or an evening scene with the barracks and their
life in the camp. He was so, so talented. You can really see the detail and the
beauty that went into his art even though he was not at all in a beautiful
situation.

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