Nelly Toll was 8 years old when she and her mother went into hiding from the Nazis occupying Lvov, Poland, in 1943. Confined for 13 months to a small, stark apartment, the slight Jewish girl escaped into a world she created for herself, using a set of watercolors to paint tranquil scenes of happy families, children at play and beatific Polish peasants. “If I should be killed,” Nelly confided to her diary, “I hope that my art will reach the whole world so they can see what really took place and remember.”
Thanks to her father’s persuasiveness and a gentile couple who sheltered her from the Nazis, Toll, now 63, survived the war. But for decades she couldn’t bear to part with her postcard-size paintings and kept them locked away in the laundry room of the home she eventually made in New Jersey. “There was an attachment, a very strong one,” Toll says. “I couldn’t let anyone have my art. But now the inner clock said I’m ready.” She has found an eager audience. Hallmark incorporated 36 of the artworks in a newly released line of greeting cards, and on June 26, Sotheby’s in New York City auctioned six others for $12,000 to an anonymous private collector. “They are part of history,” says Marsha Malinowski of Sotheby’s. “They tell an extraordinary story, how this child survived in all this.”
That tale began in 1939, when Russian troops entered Lvov and Nelly’s father, Sygmunt Landau, an affluent landlord who feared they would persecute him for being a capitalist, went into hiding. He left wife Rose, Nelly and her younger brother Janek in the family’s spacious apartment. In June 1941, Nelly’s family celebrated the German success at driving the Russians out of Lvov. “The Germans were so educated and refined,” says Toll. “Nobody believed the stories [of German atrocities].”
But a new and terrifying reality soon set in. Watching from a balcony as the German soldiers paraded below, Nelly saw a group of Nazis yell, “Goddamn Jew” as they beat an old man in the street. In the coming weeks the city’s 150,000 Jews—including Nelly, her father (who had returned to Lvov) and the rest of her family—were herded into the Jewish ghetto. Fearing for her, Nelly’s father sent his daughter to live with a sympathetic Catholic family outside the ghetto. But feeling endangered there too, she returned home, to devastating news: The Germans had taken away her 4-year-old brother, Janek, an aunt and a cousin—none of whom Nelly would ever see again.
Desperate to save his wife and daughter, Landau—offering money—persuaded a Polish couple, Krysia and Michaj Wojtek, to hide them in their tiny ground-floor apartment. As the building’s owner before the war, he knew that the apartment had a window that was boarded up on the outside. Inside he transformed its sill into a secret compartment entered through a door in the wall, which was covered by a hanging rug. (Landau planned to join them later, after he’d secured safe places for the rest of his relatives.)
Six weeks after Nelly and Rose Landau moved into the apartment, Nelly’s mother prevailed upon a trusted neighbor to risk bringing the little girl a gift: a set of watercolor paints, a brush and a stack of paper. “Once I got the watercolor box,” says Toll, “I embarked into another world.” Over the next 11 months she painted a fantasy vision—64 watercolors with stunningly sweet-natured, tranquil subjects: children playing dominoes, a girl and her dog, a classroom of children. “I walked with them. I silently talked to them,” Toll says. “They became part of my life, and it was a happy life.”
But her real life was harrowing. At every knock at the door, Nelly and Rose swiftly gathered up every scrap of evidence of their existence—brushes and paints included—and stole into the narrow window space where they clung to each other. “There were many scary moments,” Toll recalls.
There were also some tender ones. For Rose’s birthday in January 1944, Nelly painted a card (which Hallmark has reproduced) showing a bunch of red flowers in a brown vase. “Mama was touched. She kissed me and held me tight, and I could feel her swallowing tears,” she wrote in a well-received 1993 memoir, Behind the Secret Window, which has sold 20,000 copies. “She said it was the prettiest pot of flowers she had ever seen.”
Liberation came at long last in July 1944, when the Soviet Army invaded. But there was no sign that either her father, brother or any other relative had survived. Rose Landau married old family friend Herman Ostrovsky, and the family eventually emigrated to the U.S., settling in Vineland, N.J., in 1951. Three years later, Nelly, then 19, married 31-year-old Ervin Toll, an accountant, and raised a son and a daughter. After her children were grown—both are now lawyers—she earned master’s degrees in counseling and art education, began teaching literature at a New Jersey college, and wrote her memoir and two books on the art of the Holocaust.
Though she had put her old life behind her, Toll quietly kept the paintings and diary with her, hidden relics of her distant past. “I traveled, and I always kept my box with me,” she says. “Nobody carried it for me. I didn’t trust anybody.”
Then last December, after a long struggle with herself, Toll decided that the time had finally come to sell her art and contacted Sotheby’s. “The story pulled on my heartstrings,” says Sotheby’s vice president Marsha Malinowski, whose own father, a member of the Polish resistance, spent four years in Nazi camps. Toll plans to use the proceeds to buy contemporary art. “My art was done during very dangerous times,” she explains. “It gave me pleasure, it let me forget the danger. My new art will mean a safe and beautiful time.”
As the nightmare of half a century ago fades, she hopes the optimism of her pictures will have the kind of lasting impact she imagined for it in her diary as a little girl: “So that the same mistakes will not happen again and through my art, a better world will emerge.”
J. Jennings Moss in New Jersey