Friday was the 22nd anniversary of the death of Ida Chagall, the artist’s only child. While correcting some of the misinformation about Ida found in biographies of her father, Galya Diment discusses the circumstances of her birth and infanthood, her father’s at first ambivalent attitude toward her, and his paintings of her during her early years:
Ida Chagall was born May 18,  in Petrograd, where her parents had moved from their native Vitebsk in the autumn of 1915, after their summer wedding and honeymoon. . . . The severe restrictions against Jews residing in big cities were relaxed during the war years, making it possible for the Chagalls to live in Petrograd legally. They could not, however, escape the general anti-Jewish violence raging in the country. Many unhappy citizens, soldiers among them, found the customary outlet for their frustration by attacking Jews. Chagall claimed that he himself barely escaped being killed one night in such a pogrom and saw other Jews being murdered: “Gunshots. Bodies falling into the water. I run home.” . . .
[At the time] the food situation in Petrograd—because of the catastrophically deteriorating economy of the war years and the increasing difficulty with transportation to this northwestern corner of the vast country—was becoming grimmer by the day. It caused bread riots, many of which would then erupt into anti-Jewish pogroms. Bella was apparently not producing much breast milk, probably due to her own poor diet, while commercial milk was very hard to come by. . . .
When summer came, the family went to a dacha not far from Vitebsk, around Liozno, where Chagall’s parents were originally from and where his grandparents still lived. They went there to make sure that Ida could have milk, they all could improve their health by eating the fruits and vegetables that still grew there in abundance, and so that Chagall could paint.
And paint he did, often on paper and cardboard because there was not enough canvas. In one of the paintings from that summer we see Bella greedily eating strawberries, gathered from the garden in sufficient quantities to fill three large plates, no doubt trying to compensate for the lack of vitamins suffered in wartime Petrograd. Ida, with her face largely blurred, looks on.
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