(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ukrainian-born Yitzhak Pugacz could not have had
any idea what life would hold for him when he left his parents and two
half-sisters for British-controlled Palestine in 1939. The normally
one-week trek stretched into six as the rickety clandestine immigrant
boat on which he traveled barely made it to its destination.
on the journey 70 years later, he remarked that he still can't believe
that he survived the trip. Landing in Haifa Port in late spring and
registered as an illegal immigrant by the British, he ultimately made
his way to Jerusalem, where he still lives. Over the ensuing decades,
he was both a participant in and witness to the tragedies and triumphs
of transforming the Zionist dream into reality.
Glad that he had made Palestine his new home, but desperate to
see his family, he enlisted in Britain's Jewish Brigade. He would fight
the Nazis in France and Italy and see the relatives he left behind. The
first part of his plan came to fruition, but he never saw his relatives
When World War II ended and Pugacz finished his
military stint, he was entitled to a university education courtesy of
the British government. He liked to paint and draw and developed an
appreciation for the master European artists during his service, so he
pursued a degree in art. Armed with a college education, he came back
to Palestine only to fight again, this time in the War of Independence.
But finally in 1948 he could embark on his career. He started and ended
his career at the prestigious Bezalel Academy of Design, ultimately
rising to director of its painting department. Hundreds of Israelis owe
their careers to the man who built the fledgling department into the
national heavyweight it is today.
The spirit of immigration infused much of Pugacz's work including the painting HOPE,
he ultimately transformed onto the face of a coin commemorating the
50th anniversary of Keren Hayesod. Although faceless, the men and women
holding hands in this painting exude the fierce determination the
artist and his generation needed to build a modern country. In 1962 he
was awarded the Jerusalem Prize and in 1964 he went to Paris at the
invitation of the French government.
ability to capture the beauty, stillness and mystery of Jerusalem made
him a natural choice for an artisan to create coins celebrating special
occasions. His metalwork included a unique coin designed for use at a pidyon haben
(ceremony marking the redemption of a firstborn son).
Pugacz displayed the rare gift of a man who could teach as well
as paint, and paint as well as teach. A journalist described the scene
of the instructor Pugacz playing maestro to his Bezalel students
painting empty wall space in Jerusalem to the psychedelic tunes of Pink
Floyd during a 1970s all-nighter.
On a trip to Paris, he ran to buy paints and accidentally
grabbed the wrong bag as he left the crowded store. Although not his
usual choice of colors, he and his friend, poet Yehuda Amichai, had an
idea. Pugacz would use the black and gold to create a series of
paintings that served to illustrate a series of Amichai's poems
capturing the beauty of Jerusalem, and in 1970 a limited edition of Pictures and Songs
CIRCLE OF FRIENDS
Thumbing through pictures in Pugacz's personal album is like
looking at a history book of Israel's early leaders. Pictures of him
sitting at a table with Zalman Shazar share space with pictures of his
daughters, Chana and Michal, as well as his late wife, Ruth.
Discussions with Golda Meir and Jerusalem mayor Mordechai Ish-Shalom
and education minister Zevulun Hammer were common for a man who
collaborated on a book with Amichai and counted journalist and TV
personality Yaron London among his early students.
Though not his first language, Hebrew is clearly his language of
choice. When being interviewed he made it clear that he wanted it
conducted in Hebrew. After all, "Why speak in a foreign tongue?" was
his first comment.
While he is an avowed secularist, Pugacz knows his Bible and can
place current events in historical context, easily referring to
Simeon's and Levi's destruction of Shechem and battles throughout
BEST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
Pugacz always wanted to come to Palestine and build a country.
His dream came true, and now he can see his great-grandchildren reaping
the fruits of his labor.
WORST THING ABOUT ISRAEL
Wearing shorts and sandals in his fourth-floor walk up
apartment, Pugacz typifies the old-style Jerusalemite. He's a gentle
curmudgeon who still fiercely loves this country and believes that
Jerusalem, in particular, is the best place to live. But he possesses
little patience for a romanticized view of the country. He's aggravated
by the greed and fraud displayed by some of today's leaders and looks
back longingly to a time when people were more concerned with
collective, as well as personal, survival.
Recently, Pugacz learned that a his 1956 painting Neveh Sha'anan, Emek Hamatzleva
now hanging in Washington Hebrew Congregation, the only American
synagogue founded by an act of Congress. Shortly thereafter, his
daughters threw him a surprise 90th birthday bash attended by friends,
students, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Letters received from
students going back as many as 50 years show just how many lives he
touched and how his art captured the beauty of the country. A young boy
from Ukraine has spent a lifetime capturing and sharing the beauty of
his adopted homeland.