When art not only imitates life - but saves it

The story of a sketchbook and its creator, Israel Alfred Gluck, who survived the Nazi death camps due to his ability to draw.

It was the fall of 1943. An emaciated and weakened 23-year-old named Alfred Gluck lay in a makeshift hospital in a Nazi labor camp near Auschwitz, where he had just been operated on. Days earlier, he had been slated for extermination in the gas chambers of Auschwitz due to his having fallen ill. But as fate would have it, a Czechoslovakian doctor was able to perform surgery, in a last-ditch effort to save him from certain death. As Gluck was in the ward recovering from the operation, an SS commander entered the room and asked if someone could draw sketches from photographs. "I can," Gluck replied. So impressed was the officer with the sketches Gluck presented that he showed them to the camp commander. Gluck was saved. For the next two years, until being liberated by French soldiers, Gluck's artistic skills would repeatedly save his life in various concentration camps. "The interesting thing is that by drawing I survived," Gluck, 85, recalled in an interview from his home in Kfar Saba. Gluck was born in Vienna in 1921. When Hitler entered Austria in 1938 following the infamous Anschluss unifying it with Nazi Germany, Gluck was sent by a Zionist group to Germany and then to Denmark to study agriculture in advance of his planned immigration to Palestine. "At the time, everyone thought that whoever wanted to immigrate to Israel had to be a farmer," he recounted. While working at a Danish farm in the months preceding the outbreak of World War II, Gluck briefly took private drawing lessons. As word of the mass extermination of the Jews of Nazi-occupied Europe reached Denmark (Gluck's own family would be murdered by the Nazis - except for his brother, who was sent to England in a children's transport), Gluck and a group of other young Jews tried to escape capture by taking a train to Turkey and then continuing on to Palestine. But he was apprehended by the Germans near the Swiss border in 1943 and sent to Auschwitz. There he passed the "selection" process, and was transported to the labor camp where he became seriously ill from malnutrition and overwork. Gluck's fortuitous encounter with the SS commander in the camp's sick bay did not end his misery but merely postponed it - as he was allowed to work in a construction office there, in what was considered a relatively secure job. The following year, Gluck was sent on a "death march," to Buchenwald, where he arrived "almost dead, without being exterminated by the Nazis." At Buchenwald - and subsequently at a different camp he was transferred to in southern Germany - Gluck's talent for drawing again saved his life, as he was able to trade sketches to non-Jewish prisoners and SS commanders for desperately-needed scraps of food and clothing. After his liberation in April 1945, Gluck ended up in a DP camp in Bergen Belsen. There he began to draw. Observing the young artist at work, a Jewish Czech officer gave him an album in which he sketched scenes from the Holocaust: the entry of the Nazis into Vienna, the Death March, a self-portrait with his daily portion of food, forced labor in the Coal Mines and the "selection." Shortly thereafter, the opportunity arose for Gluck to go to Palestine. In his rush to embark on the journey, he left the album behind with the Czech officer, who promised to get the works published in England. GLUCK ARRIVED in Palestine in 1946. He fought in Israel's War of Independence, after which he studied industrial design, eventually becoming the secretary of the Israel Designers Association. For nearly half a century, Gluck put the album out of his mind. In 1991, he received a phone call from a cousin in Australia telling him that she had seen one of his sketches in an Australian newspaper. Incredulous, Gluck asked her to send him a copy of the paper - which she promptly did. The story of the travels of the album over the years - it turned out - was as follows: After Gluck left the DP camp, the Czech officer passed the album on to the Czech embassy in London, which then transferred it to the Israeli embassy. It then made its way to Yad Vashem in the 1970s. Certain that the artist of the sketches was dead, Yad Vashem stored the album in its archives. It was only 20 years later - around the time that Gluck heard from his Australian cousin - that Yad Vashem's chief art curator, Yehudit Shendar, came across the album in the archives. Shendar decided to find out whether the artist was still alive and, if so, to track him down. She eventually located Israel Alfred Gluck in a retirement home in Kfar Saba. Six decades after he made the sketches, Gluck's album is now on display at Yad Vashem's Art Museum. A smaller selection of his sketches is also available at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. "It was like the closing of a circle," Shendar said.