Muse of the past

Martin Kieselstein sculpts his painful memories.

The bronze piece entitled ‘Musicians in Auschwitz’ 390 (photo credit: Rachel Marder)
The bronze piece entitled ‘Musicians in Auschwitz’ 390
(photo credit: Rachel Marder)
Every night before Dr. Martin Kieselstein falls asleep, he conjures up an image of his mother from the deep recesses of his mind. He imagines her dressed in white, sitting on her bed and praying out of her worn prayer book.
“That I can’t forget,” says Kieselstein, 86, a Holocaust survivor, speaking in his home in the Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. Though the retired doctor-turned-artist says he does not know how to pray, he talks to God each night, expressing his still fresh anger that the Nazis murdered his mother and sister among the six million, and admits that he does not understand and doesn’t event want to know the exact circumstances of their deaths.
As for the prayer book, Kieselstein returned to his childhood home after surviving the war and found it strewn on the floor. Today he cherishes the precious possession of his mother’s and intends to incorporate a page from it, as well as a photo of his mother and a photo of his sister into a sculpture he is working on.
“I am two people,” he says. “One who lives, raises a family, and one who lives in his past.”
Kieselstein is among 62 artists displaying their work in the Muse exhibition, which opened last month and runs through December, at the outdoor Alrov Mamilla Avenue. Kieselstein’s elegantly sculpted bronze piece entitled Musicians in Auschwitz recalls the gaunt musicians who played for the prisoners on their way to work each morning and entertained the German soldiers with song in the evenings. Kieselstein’s sadly sweet drummer, clarinetist and violinist play with vacant expression, frozen in time and for no audience.
“I don’t know why exactly they did it,” he says of the band. “This remains in my head.”
A husband, father of two sons and grandfather of six, Kieselstein says his glass, wood and bronze sculptures are rooted in the cruelty he witnessed. They express an unwavering desire to preserve and honor the memory of his family and all the Jewish lives lost in the Holocaust. He says he works in glass as an ode to his father, who worked with the material in his store.
Kieselstein, who lives with his wife, Eva, in the Ahuzat Beit Hakerem retirement residence, works largely in a studio at the facility, where he also teaches other residents how to sculpt and work with glass.
In the studio stand some of Kieselstein’s poignant glass sculptures, many brilliantly colored. Scenes of mothers and children standing before the crematorium; Josef Mengele, the so-called Angel of Death doctor in Auschwitz leading selection; men crying out in fiery agony; and fathers carrying their young sons are featured among his pieces.
He recalls with horror the soap he used in Auschwitz in a sculpture that depicts people being churned through a yellow machine to turn them into soap.
Born in Romania in 1925, Kieselstein was an active member of the Zionist youth movement Shomer Hatzair before the war. He says he intended to make aliya, but he and his family were deported to Auschwitz in 1944.
Kieselstein attributes his survival to luck – he could speak German, was young and friendly, and won a potato-peeling contest against other kids, securing him a spot in the kitchen cooking for the German officers.
After the war he returned to Romania, where he studied medicine, completing his degree in 1952. He made aliya in 1959, seven years after his father. In Israel Kieselstein took a position at Kronim hospital as a geriatric doctor so he could be by his father’s side every day after he suffered a stroke. Kieselstein served at Kronim for 30 years, and in 1996 was honored with the Worthy Citizen of Jerusalem award by former mayor Teddy Kollek for his extraordinary service to his elderly patients.
“I did things in the hospital that no other doctor did,” Kieselstein says, such as bringing chocolates, flowers and art supplies to patients, helping them stay warm during the winter by bringing them down to the bottom-floor synagogue where the heat worked well, and significantly increasing their physical and creative activity.
Kieselstein’s wife recalls one patient who would never speak to anyone.
She had wanted to be an artist. Kieselstein gathered flowers for her on his way to the hospital, and she began to paint them.
“She started to paint flowers, and it returned her to life,” says Eva.
Unexpectedly, Kieselstein himself turned into an accomplished artist. “I’m a doctor, I’m not a sculptor,” he says. “But suddenly a new path to art opened.”
Through sculpture, Kieselstein found an avenue for freezing his memories and conveying truth. “I learned the suffering of people,” he says.
Kieselstein has exhibited widely in Israel and abroad, in countries such as Germany, Spain and Hungary. He says he has Muse exhibition curator Tzipi Vital largely to thank for making him an artist. “Tzipi actually raised me from being a simple man to an artist,” he says.
All 120 works featured in Muse, including drums, bells, wind, string and percussion instruments, relate to music and motion and are made from stone or bronze. Other Israeli sculptors featured in the exhibition include Roth Golan, Betty Moller and Reuven Scharf.