A name, and finally, a face

Artist Gil Gibli creates portraits of Holocaust survivors' perished relatives. For those who remain, the pictures provide something tangible to cling to as the memories fade.

November 2, 2006 11:27
pavel sketch 88

pavel sketch 88. (photo credit: )


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The elderly Holocaust survivor sits opposite the newspaper portrait artist. More than six decades after Rachel Herczl was parted from her parents on a fine spring day in Auschwitz as a young girl of 15, never to see them again, she is being coaxed by the illustrator to describe the moment as best as she can remember. The Hungarian family had just arrived at the Nazi death camp in 1944 after spending a month in a ghetto. The 77-year-old Holocaust survivor vividly remembers the selection process, how first her father was separated from her, and then her mother. She recalls his final parting words, spoken to her in Yiddish - "Do not forget one thing: God is the Father of everyone." She remembers being separated from her mother, who had called out to her daughter using her Hungarian name. As she tried to join her mother in the "elderly" line, a Polish Jewish worker at the camp held her back. It was only much later that Herczl realized that the Polish worker had in fact saved her life. Both of Herczl's parents were murdered at Auschwitz. For 62 years, their daughter has lived with this and other clouded and fading memories, without even a single photograph of her parents to remember them by. Now, that is about to change. The portrait artist sitting with her, Gil Gibli, 49, is about to recreate the image of her parents as she remembers them from six decades ago. For years, Herczl's own daughter, Tova, 53, had urged her mother to try and get an artist to draw a composite sketch of her late parents as an everlasting memory. But Herczl didn't think she was up to it, and repeatedly balked at the suggestion. "I simply thought that I was unable to do it after so many years," she says. But Gibli, chief portrait artist for the Israeli financial daily Globes, is not about to take no for an answer. The Tel Aviv native, who studied painting and drawing in New York before embarking on an illustrious two-decade career as a leading Israeli newspaper illustrator, recently started an unusual after-work project of drawing composite sketches of Holocaust victims based on the memory of their surviving family members. Herczl, who heard of the unusual portrait artist from her daughter, has already gotten very positive reviews from another Holocaust survivor who Gibli worked with, and first met the illustrator just days earlier. The drawing session, held at Herczl's living room table in her modest flat in the Old City of Jerusalem, gets off to a rocky start as the artist begins by drawing one triangular and two circular figures of a head, which he asks her to choose from, as well as what looks like a chest of drawers. "What does he want from me? I told you I could not do this," Herczl says to her daughter, who is observing the session with her nephew in the adjacent living room. But Gibli is not about to be deterred. "Tell me about a moment you remember them by," he urges her. "I can't," she responds. "You parted from them at Auschwitz," he tells her. Slowly, Herczl thinks back, and the faded pre-war memories return. She starts with her father, whom she thinks she remembers better. She was a girl of 15. Her father had come to pick her up at school. He was talking to her principal, and she wanted him to come inside. "I'll be there in a little bit," he told her. Then, she moves on to her mother in the synagogue. Slowly, the descriptions Gibli is looking for emerge. Later, Gibli pulls out a book of sketches from the FBI's Most Wanted list in order to show her various eye sketches. "Their eyes were not the eyes of criminals," she responds. The session continues. Over the next several hours, Gibli works assiduously on the sketch, offering the Holocaust survivor a glance at his work for the briefest of seconds in between strokes. Then, after another session, a series of corrections - made back and forth via e-mail - and a consultation with other relatives, the composite sketches of her late parents are completed. "They were not a 100 percent match, but they were awfully similar," she says. GIBLI STUMBLED into the world of forensic art almost by accident. Several years ago, he was approached by a large advertising agency that asked him to draw a famous model into a "Wanted - Dead or Alive" poster for a TV commercial. The father of five was eager for the extra job, but frankly admitted that he did not know how to draw a composite police sketch. The agency sent him to the Tel Aviv police headquarters, where he became acquainted with their facial parts kits. In the end, he never got the job, but after a two-decade newspaper career in which he drew some 9,000 sketches, he was suddenly introduced to the world of forensic art. For their part, the police were quickly convinced of Gibli's skills, and he began to draw composite sketches for police of wanted men. Over the past decade, he has drawn dozens of composite sketches for police, including those of serial rapists and murderers who were later caught. A mug shot drawn by Gibli that was shown on the Israeli television equivalent of America's Most Wanted recently helped track down a killer. In addition to Gibli's ongoing work at the business paper, he also serves as the police's chief composite sketch artist, drawing with a pad and pencil in a time of hi-tech computer technology. Several years ago, Gibli was approached by a TV production crew doing an investigation into an unidentified victim of a suicide bombing. Seventeen people had been killed in the bus bombing. But the 17th victim, whose body had been badly mutilated, had not been identified for six months, and had become the first terror victim to be buried in Israel anonymously. The award-winning documentary, Number Seventeen is Anonymous, included Gibli's composite sketch of the victim, which he drew based on the testimonies of the three surviving witnesses that he garnered in often-grilling interrogations. Gibli's composite sketch of the unidentified victim, which was published in the Israeli press ahead of the screening of the documentary, led to the identification of the victim. His services were also enlisted by former defense minister Moshe Arens, who was interested in having a portrait drawn of Pavel Frankel, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising from the Betar movement, for a book he was writing. There were no known existing photos of Frankel, so the drawing was based on the eyewitness testimonies of two people. "I was very impressed by his work," Arens says. Gibli's connection with Holocaust survivors began just three years ago, when he was approached by the son of elderly Holocaust survivors who were interested in having a sketch done of a family member who perished in the Holocaust. "These are people who do not have any pictures of their loved ones, any graves to go to, and they are eager to commemorate their loved ones," Gibli says. He has since done six composite sketches of Holocaust victims. The sketches, which take him about two several-hour sessions to complete, cost between $500-$1000 each. They are, he says, his contribution to the memory of Holocaust victims. GIBLI GREW up on a kibbutz in northern Israel, where he was brought up by an adopted family after his parents divorced. After a stint in the Israeli Navy, he moved to New York in 1982, where he studied painting and drawing at the New York Studio for a year, and then continued his studies in etching and lithography at the Pratt University Graphic Center. He graduated from Manhattan's Empire State College in 1987 and joined the prestigious Cartoonist Association. He worked under the syndicated columnist Raanan Lurie, who served as his mentor. He began working at Globes in 1988, where he developed a technique of monochrome realist portraiture, employing the fine cross-hatching technique that has become his trademark. While in New York Gibli turned to religion, and now lives a haredi lifestyle in Bnei Brak, working full-time at the paper's offices in a Tel Aviv suburb. Back in Jerusalem, Rachel Herczl says that friends who see the portraits Gibli drew immediately ask if those were her parents. "I have lived for 62 years without any pictures of my parents, and now I finally have some," she says.

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