Veterans: Artist and teacher

Yitzhak Pugacz, 90; from Ukraine to Jerusalem, 1939.

March 11, 2010 08:59
4 minute read.
Ukranian-born Yitzhak Pugacz

yitzhak pugacz. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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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.

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Reflecting 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 again.

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, which 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.

His 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 was released.


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 Jewish history.


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.


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 is 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.

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