Friday, November 9, 2012

My Grandfather's Portrait: A Reflection for Remembrance Day

The Portrait of my Grandfather, Frank Rason
Sketeched during the Second World War
at the Astoria Club in Amasterdam by
W. Sealtiel, 44 Paramaribost
On my wall hangs a portrait, sketched in charcoal and coloured pencil.  It is a portrait of my maternal grandfather, Francis James Rason (1923-1997).  During the war he was stationed in Belgium, the Netherlands and in England (the latter being where he met my grandmother).  In the 1940s, while in Amsterdam, he had his portrait done, twice in fact.  I first learned of this portrait when I was a teenager and began to ask my grandmother about our family history. She began to show me old photographs, particularly photographs of her family back in England, photographs of her parents and grandparents, some of which have now come into my possession.  Then she told me she wanted to show me something special that she thought I’d find interesting.  She reached into her closet and pulled out a cardboard paper towel roll.  Out of the roll she slipped two original sketches, very similar to each other, of a man in profile, in military uniform. His slim features were elegant and fine and he had a forward hairline that was combed skyward. “Do you know who this is?” She asked.  I was not sure. “It’s your Grampy,” she said. Grampy, my grandfather, had had since gone bald and while he remained a very good-looking man, aging had reshaped some of those finer features of his youth. My grandmother told me that he had the picture done while he was in Amsterdam, taking great pride in telling me that it was done in the Astoria Club.  She carefully read the name of the artist to me, “W. Sealtiel,” as if it should have meant something, and told me that he had two pictures done, one for her and one for his mother.  There was no love lost between my grandmother and her mother-in-law, and clearly my grandfather’s mother’s drawing never made it to her.  My grandmother asked me to have some colour copies made and that she would share with other family members.  Being charged with this sacred task and the care of these valued artefacts, I did as told and returned them to her.  The originals were dutifully rolled back in their cardboard roll and remained hidden away until she died in 2001.

Frank Rason in the late 1980s
After my grandmother’s death, my mother found the two original portraits, still in their roll where they had lived with a few sparing exposures for nearly sixty years.  My mother framed one of them and it hangs on her wall to this day.  She trusted the other original into my care and I had it framed and matted and now I enjoy looking at it on a daily basis.  When I look at the portrait I like to imagine what the world must have been like for them – a young man who lied about his age to serve his country; his nineteen-year-old bride who was sent to Canada to live with in-laws she didn’t know; and the unknown future they chose to travel into together. 

There is one other thing that has always stirred within my imagination about this picture, though, and that is the signature and inscription placed by the artist:

“This picture was drawn
in the
Astoria – Club
Amsterdam Holland
W. Sealtiel
44 Paramaribost

 Who was W. Sealtiel?  And what were the circumstances under which this portrait was executed?  In my mind’s eye, I have always imagined a young man, perhaps a gifted teenager, eking about a living for himself, perhaps for his aging mother or orphaned siblings, by drawing portraits of soldiers for them to send home.  I often wondered what became of this “W. Sealtiel,” and if he were still alive, or if his family still lived in Amsterdam.  I wondered how many other portraits of soldiers by “W. Sealtiel” existed, hanging on the walls of soldiers’ children and grandchildren, or remained rolled up in cardboard rolls in the cupboards of aging war brides.

 One day, as I had few spare moments, and at the instigation of my best friend, Darryl, I decided to do an internet search for “W. Sealtiel,” something that surely would not have yielded a result when the portrait first came into my possession.  Darryl suggested that maybe, just maybe, I might learn something of this mysterious artist. Perhaps, just perhaps, he was an illustrious character with a colourful story.  To be honest, while I thought I might find some shred of information on the artist, and perhaps even another portrait or two of some long-forgotten soldiers sketched by W. Sealtiel on eBay, I did not expect much.  Within minutes of searching I had found another sketch, of a woman, available through a Dutch art dealer, and after digging a bit deeper, I found a biographical sketch of the man himself in a periodical dedicated to family history research on the “Shealtiel” name.   

Walter Sealtiel was a secular German Jew, born in 1890. His family were of the upper class set in Berlin, but Walter saw the writing on the wall and in 1935 decided to make haste and leave Germany.  Being able to speak fluent Dutch, he fled to Amsterdam where he tried to blend in to life there.  But even in blending in he maintained something of a profile!  He was a performer of sorts.  He had mastered the art of pick-pocketing as entertainment. Apparently he was even styled by the Amsterdam press as “the king of the pickpockets!”  He traveled to England, France and even New York to perform his “magic,” not limiting himself to pickpocketing alone, he apparently practised telekenisis and read minds, as well! An interview exists from the early 1930s, now translated into English, in which Sealtiel explains how he became a pick-pocket and shares a secret or two of how the magic is done.  At some point he earned his living working for the Bijenkorf Warehouse (one of the great Dutch department stores that still exists) working as a portrait artist.   I have yet to discover a connection with the Astoria Club, though.  Perhaps he happened to be there by chance when the portrait of my grandfather was done, or perhaps he was engaged by the club to do such work. During the later years of the war he was sent to a work camp, which broke him physically. After the war he returned to Amsterdam, to his wife and their residence there.  And where was it that they lived?  44 Paramariboststraat.  This is the address on my grandfather’s portrait.  If I had any doubts that the Walter Sealtiel about which I was learning was the same as the W. Sealtiel who sketched my grandfather’s portrait, these were now laid to rest. 

 There may be another connection, though. It is said that after the war broke out, Sealtiel’s son Hans actually joined the Canadian Army and fought in the battle of the Ardennes. Was Walter Sealtiel more than a simple portrait artist who crossed paths with my grandfather? Or were they actually known to each other?  Did my grandfather serve with his son? Would this have been how they met? What is even more intriguing is that after a time, the son, Hans Sealtiel began spying on behalf of the Canadian military because he spoke fluent German without an accent. 

 This discovery, made in a few short minutes by a small amount of internet research, was more than I could have ever imagined.  Walter Sealtiel was clearly a remarkable man!  The portrait is one of my most valued possessions and anchors me to my own family history, but now with the knowledge of the artist and his family, I also feel anchored in a special way to the world of this remarkable man who was a stage magician, portrait painter, prisoner-of-war, and father of a spy!

 Walter Sealtiel died in 1948, a man broken by his incarceration.  It is said that his son resented the fact that he had never revealed to him that they were Jews.  It is hard to judge the motives of the men of another age.  Even with this freshly-discovered story as a new insight into the story behind this portrait, it seems such a distant time.  It remains hard to understand a young Canadian who lies about his age to serve his country; it is unfathomable to me that a young bride should leave her family, to come to a new country, sight unseen, while her husband is still fighting in Europe; and it is just as hard to imagine what it would have been like to have been Walter Sealtiel, hiding his ethnicity, fleeing is homeland, and sketching portraits and performing magic to make a living during those war-torn years.  We dare not judge; but oh how wonderful it is to let our imaginations sketch portraits of their nearly-forgotten lives.

Information for this piece was gleaned from “A Family Shattered by Persecution,” by Vibeke Sealtiel Olsen in The Shealtiel Gazette: The International Journal of the Family Network (Vol. IV, no III, May 2000): 20-22. In the same issue, the above-mentioned interview with Walter Sealtiel is also to be found on page 25, entitled, “How I became a Pickpocket.”


Darryl Andrews said...

One of the very best "reflections" yet! Truly a treasure!

Kathryn Ross said...

I also have portrait of my father drawn by W Salteil. My father was also in the Royal Canadian Airforce and his profile portrait was drawn at the Astoria Hotel in Amsterdam 19 September 1945 and also includes the address of the artist.

Thank you for the insight on the artist. I too had my dad's portrait framed - much like yours.

Daniel Graves said...

Thanks for sharing this. I would love to see the portrait of your father! If you would be willing to share it you could email me.