Miracle painter

Artist Yitzhak Pressburger survived the Shoah through a series of fortuitous incidents.

Jerusalem scenes play an important role in Pressburger’s art. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Jerusalem scenes play an important role in Pressburger’s art.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Many Holocaust survivors talk about miracles that happened along the way to their eventual rescue. One of them is Yitzhak Pressburger, who says his road to survival was paved with numerous lucky escapes and propitious turns of events.
The 80-year-old artist was born in Bratislava – known for centuries by its German name of Pressburg – but the outbreak of World War II found him and his family in Prague. His father realized they had to escape from the Nazi occupiers and tried to get the family across the border into Hungary. However, they were caught near the crossing point, arrested and incarcerated overnight at the nearby railway station.
“My father wasn’t with us. It was my mother, myself and my four siblings,” recalls Pressburger. “They told us we’d be taken away the next day, but the Czechs put us on a train to Hungary early the next morning. That was the first miracle in our quest for survival.”
The mother and five children managed to get to Budapest, and Pressburger’s father joined them there some time later. They survived with relative ease until late 1943, when the father was taken away to a forced labor camp. He subsequently died in a death march. Things became even more precarious in early 1944, when the Holocaust made its full-blown presence felt in Hungary.
“It wasn’t the Germans, it was the Hungarian Nazis who did the dirty work,” Pressburger points out. The family lived in so-called “safe houses” that were protected by Switzerland, Finland and Sweden. The havens were dismantled in late 1944, and the Pressburgers moved into one of the two Jewish ghettos in Budapest.
There was clearly an angel or two watching over the family.
“One day the Nazis started marching Jews toward Vienna, but we hid away,” he recalls. As night fell, after the mass evacuation of the Jews, his mother tried to find a refuge for her children. She had an amazingly keen sense of where to turn.
“She tried one house, which she thought might contain Jews, and it was jam-packed with Jews. We hadn’t eaten or drunk anything all day, and we hid in the house. We stood up because there was no room to sit.”
Mrs. Pressburger knew the family could not stay there for long and, under cover of darkness, moved her children on to what she hoped would be a better place to hide.
“From time to time we, the children, would complain and tell our mother we couldn’t go on, but she’d hit us and warn us to keep quiet. She was very determined,” he says.
Things were extremely dicey outdoors.
“There was a curfew, and there were soldiers roaming the streets who shot anyone caught outside after dark. My mother wanted to get to the place where her sister was hiding, and somehow – I have no idea how – she found the house where my aunt was,” continues the artist.
“The next day we heard the Nazis had found two houses with Jews, including the one where we had been, and took them all out and shot them next to the Danube. Today there is a monument by the river [called Shoes on the Danube Bank]. We should have been with the Jews who were killed by the river,” he says.
But his mother and her five children survived, although another daughter – a triplet along with the artist and another sister – had died at the age of four in an accident.
After the war, Pressburger and his siblings were farmed out to various orphanages run by the Jewish Agency, and things took a decidedly better turn.
“We finally had food to eat,” he recalls. “After a while we were put on trains that were protected by the Jewish Brigade [of the British Army], and we were sent to Austria, and then to Germany.”
IN GERMANY, he could finally enjoy some childhood adventures and also give vent to his innate artistic skills. He recalls being housed in a palatial residence, along with American soldiers who showered the children with chocolate and other goodies.
“We lived in a palace,” he says with a smile. “We each got ski equipment and all kinds of amazing things we couldn’t even dream of before.”
He also obtained paper – a rare commodity during the war – and crayons, and began rattling off drawings by the dozen. His artistic tendencies first came to light when he was only four.
“My uncle was a famous artist, and I learned a lot from him,” he says. While in Germany, Pressburger also took some lessons with a local artist.
Naturally the fun and games in these comfy and spacious surroundings in Germany could not last forever, and his mother managed to get him and two of his siblings berths on the Exodus, which set sail from Marseilles for Palestine in July 1947. Pressburger was 13 at the time and clearly recalls the aborted attempt to get to the Promised Land.
“It was so crowded on the boat. This was a ship that was made to ply rivers in the United States, with a few hundred people on board, and we had over 4,500 passengers crammed in.”
As we know, the British prevented the Exodus from docking in Palestine, and the passengers were shipped – in three far more seaworthy vessels – back to France. After the French government refused to cooperate with the British, Pressburger and the others found themselves back in Germany. The teenager eventually made it here in 1948, just one month before the Declaration of Independence.
After a short furlough in Tel Aviv, during the first lull in the fighting in the War of Independence, he moved to Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, where he worked in the cowshed. All the while he continued feverishly drawing and honing his artistic skills, which he says came in handy when he joined the IDF.
“I was the first of my group to join up. I volunteered for the navy at the age of 17½. I’d do portraits of people on the boat, and I’d get candies and all sorts of things in return, like chocolate or soap. Back then soap was in short supply.”
But it was more than about just producing a likeness of the subject. He was already well on his way to defining his artistic ethos.
“You have to capture the truth about the person you are drawing or painting,” he states. “You can’t fool people. If you don’t approach them in a sincere way, they will see that. That is basic to my work.”
After completing his military service, which included a spell as one of the founding members of the Flotilla 13 naval commando unit, he worked in Sdom for a while at the Dead Sea Works before starting his formal arts training in earnest.
I was in the first group of students at the Avni Institute [in Tel Aviv],” he says. “There was quite a famous bunch of students and teachers like [Moshe] Mokadi and [Isidore] Ascheim and [Aaron] Giladi.”
WITH SUCH illustrious company, one might have thought Pressburger was set to unleash his burgeoning talents on art connoisseurs across the globe, but it was a while before that happened.
“I was not in a good state after my studies,” he recalls. “I couldn’t find my place in the world, and I wasn’t even sure that being an artist was a good thing to do. I burned all my work and I worked at Tara and other dairy companies for a while. I wanted to be a ‘normal’ person.”
After a while, he came to the understanding that art was, indeed, what he was meant to do. “I realized that I was not a ‘normal person,’ and that I was going to be an artist, and I traveled to Paris.”
He says he received “a lot of help and encouragement from a woman who had been the secretary of [Revisionist party leader Ze’ev] Jabotinsky. She said I needed to get out into the world. She was right.”
Pressburger arrived in the French capital in 1964 and spent close to 15 years there, with a short interlude in Germany, before returning to Israel. His time in Paris was a professionally rewarding period of his life, and he also found love.
“[Avni Institute teacher] Yochanan Simon gave me the name and address of a French-Israeli family in Paris, but when I got to the house, a young woman opened the door and told me the family was on vacation in Israel,” he explains. Despite missing his expected hosts’ welcome, he and the German-born young lady who greeted him soon fell for each other, and romance quickly led to wedding bells.
By all accounts, Pressburger did well in Europe. He secured a rare three-year berth at Cité Internationale des Arts, where artists are normally provided with accommodation and studio space for between two months and a year. He was also accepted to the prestigious Beaux Arts academy of fine arts, mounted solo exhibitions, and took part in group shows all over Europe.
One of these last was a group exhibition at Rathaus Charlottenburg in Berlin in 1966 – the first exhibition of Israeli artists in Germany after the Holocaust. When he arrived in Berlin, the lineup for the Israeli show was already signed and sealed, but somehow his work came to the attention of the German culture minister, who arranged for him to join.
Today, he prefers to share the fruits of his artistic skills via his website and arts dealers rather than having exhibitions.
He and his wife, Geula, lived in Germany for a year before returning to Paris.
“People have asked me how I could live and work in Germany, after all I went through in the Holocaust. I tell them the Germans may have started the destruction of European Jewry, but everyone contributed to the Holocaust, including the English and the Americans who could have done things to stop it.”
The Pressburgers’ year-long sojourn came to an abrupt end following an encounter he had one day while walking through the crowded Berlin streets.
“There were thousands of people on the streets, and out of the crowds stepped a man dressed in black, with a hat, and said to me in German: ‘I didn’t know there were Jews here.’ After that, he repeated the sentence in Yiddish and vanished,” the artist recalls. “I was shocked and went home shaking. We decided it was time to leave Germany and return to Paris.”
He duly resumed his studies at Beaux Arts and gradually developed an intriguing approach to abstract painting. He has moved on significantly since then.
“Look at these three paintings,” he says, pointing to a wall in his living room. The three works chart sharp transitions from abstract painting, to something of a more figurative character, to his current realistic approach to portraying life around him.
“I wanted to return to reality, to realism,” he explains.
As with his return to France from Germany, his decision to come back to Israel in 1979 was also prompted by an unpleasant experience.
“I saw some graffiti in Paris which read, ‘Next time you won’t make it to Auschwitz.’ That was enough. It was time to return to Israel. We were already thinking of coming back, but that sealed it for us. Things were going very well for me in Paris, but it was time to come home.”
Yitzhak Pressburger’s work can be viewed at http://eladzagman.wix.com/pressburger#!about/ciaa.