Friday, December 23, 2011

Artwork: Greetings from Bessie

In doing my oral history project I had the opportunity to interview a number of survivors.  Walter charmed me immediately with his faint accent and gentle manner.  A tall courtly gentleman of 90, Walter had a story that was different from many.  He was able to get out of Eastern Europe with his immediate family and then joined the army and went back as a Ritchie Boy, a unique unit from Camp Ritchie where German speakers, often Jews who had escaped Eastern Europe, were trained to interrogate prisoners of war.  (for more on the story of the Ritchie Boys).

I was going to school on March 15, 1935 on the day Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, I was there.  My parents were in Romania. I went to school on that day.  They had sentries in front.  I walked up the steps of the school.  By the entrance were a bunch of hoodlums with swastikas on their sleeve.   “Juden raus”.  They wouldn’t let any Jews into that school.
I went and packed my bags.  The railroads were already run by the German army so I had to get permission to buy a ticket.  There happened to be a sympathetic officer so I was able to buy a ticket.  I believe that was the last train that left Czechoslovakia for (Romania).

My mother’s history is that at age 5 her family moved to the US so my mother was brought up here.  At that time in 1939 the war started already and Czechoslovakia was already occupied and Romania was going to be next.  So my parents made frantic efforts to get out. They were on a quota system, so many but not more.  Because of her background in America, she went to school here.   She had to show evidence to the American consulate that she had been in America.  By chance her sister who lived in America was a good friend of her former teacher and she once met her and asked her, ”Is there any evidence that my sister Bessie was your student?” She says she has a class picture.  So my mother had to show that picture to the American Consulate and said, “This is me, I was there”.  And on that basis she was able to get a visa to get the whole family in.

When my family got out we boarded a ship in Genoa, Italy.  That was the last refugee ship that left Italy.  On the way to the United States, Italy declared war on France in 1940.  And from then on they dropped the refugees off in New York and the ship went back empty back to Italy and there was no more trafficking.
Walter was able to join the Army after Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Prior to that non-US citizens were not admitted.  He became a "Ritchie Boy", trained in interrogation techniques for German prisoners.  After the war he was stationed in Czechoslovakia, ironically the place he was when the war first broke out.  

Every time we went by jeep through a town I saw in the middle of town there was a big bulletin board.  This was a time when the concentration camps were being liberated and the International Red Cross published the names of the people who were released and they put them on the bulletin board.  My mother had a lot of relatives who were sent to the concentration camps and she got hold of one of those lists and she found a name that she knew, that was a second cousin of hers.  He had just been released from Theresienstadt and he was coming home.    My mother wrote to me, "Would it be possible for me to visit that family?"   I was anxious to meet a relative.  I found the address and I knocked on the door.  The people came to the door slightly opening it. What is a man in uniform doing here?  They were suspicious of people in uniform anyway.  So they opened the door and I said, “Bessie Schwartz my mother is sending you greetings”. 

Walter then told me that the cousin who went to Theresienstadt was Jewish, but his wife was not.  He had gotten a divorce in order to save her and they re-married upon his return.  Walter became good friends with the family and later in life reconnected with the daughter.  

 The image of the half-cracked door stayed with me and I decided to include it in the painting.  The connection with the family was an important element in Walter's story as well as his experience as a Ritchie boy.  I was also struck by the chanciness of his escape, the last boat, the last train and a school picture all figured in the story.  There is also a circular motif to reflect the oddity of his story coming full circle back to Czechoslovakia.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Artwork: Fallen Leaves

When I do an interview I begin with a basic history.  One of the questions is when their parents died and at what age, normally a routine question.  When I asked Boris, a Russian immigrant and survivor, when his mother died, I got the response "She was shot when she was 39."   With that, I knew this was not going to be an easy interview.   He then elaborated and told me that his mother, father and two sisters were in a concentration camp and building a bunker for Hitler.  When they finished, they were executed.  Boris was a child at the time.

How this child survived was a tale of chance. Through an interpreter he told me that when the war broke out they were put into a ghetto.   They had to survive somehow in the ghetto and the Nazis, the Germans warned them that if they make one step outside of the ghetto they will be instantly executed.  His father had many friends among the Ukrainians.  They helped them.  They brought food to help them survive. From there they were taken to the concentration camp.

We were scheduled to be shot because we were useless. My aunt who was pregnant and the older people, but my parents were driven to the site of construction every day.  We were loaded onto open trucks and as we were leaving to be shot one of the officers, a German officer stopped the truck and said the site was not ready for the execution. 

She (his aunt) realized that they had to run.  Someone pointed her to a man who helped to lead people out of the camp.  She had coins, golden coins sewed in and she made arrangements paying with those coins and that man who would take them out.  When they got unloaded from the truck because the site wasn't ready this man who was paid with the gold coins took them out of the concentration camp.

Boris was unconscious because he was beaten severely and lost consciousness.  The aunt couldn’t carry him so she paid for a woman to help, for him and for herself to be taken out of the concentration camp.  They were taken outside of the camp.  There was another family. The man gave directions to everyone who he had taken out and they just started walking. It was in the middle of the night. They started walking and they asked some peasants around the area to be hidden for the day or two.  It wasn’t far from their town.  There were small towns. That’s how they made it to Mogilev Podolsk. 

They were subsequently caught and sent back to the camp.  By that time the Germans did away with everyone in the concentration camp and the Red army marched in and they were freed.

After the war he searched for a picture of anyone in his family.  This painting is based on the one image he located, a sepia colored school picture of
his sister set in the shape of a leaf.  I decided to echo that form in additional leaves with the names of his family members who perished written in Russian.  I wanted the image to be muted as if seen through a glass.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Loss of a Leader

I recently received word from friends in both Poland and Israel of the death of Haim Kincler, a key figure in the worldwide community of Jews from Radom.  Kincler was the head of the Radom Society in Israel and was instrumental in the creation of the cemetery restoration project in Radom, Poland.  The original cemetery was destroyed by the Nazis who used the tombstones to pave roads. As I’ve written in prior entries, he facilitated the creation of a Lapidarium in 2010, a curved wall in which 70 previously hidden tombstones from the former Jewish community were embedded.  These had been hidden by a Polish tombstone maker during the war.  The Polish tombstone maker had hoped to sell them after the war, but was unable to due to Communist constraints on holding something of historic value. They remained hidden for many years. Kincler learned of them and got the children of the tombstone maker to contribute them to the city.  Ultimately they were returned to the cemetery as part of the newly constructed monument, a joint effort between Israel and Poland.

Kincler had survived the war in the East.  Later he arrived in Palestine on the ship Exodus.  He was blinded during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.  Despite this handicap, he finished law school and subsequently owned and managed a successful business.  Early this year I was in Radom with my friend Dora.  Dora was a school girl in Radom when the war broke out.  She was deeply touched that on this visit there were so many commemorative efforts around the former Jewish community.  Many of those efforts came about through Haim Kincler.  He was 93 and had lived a full life, but his loss is a loss to the broader Jewish community with ties to Radom.