Esther Lurie: The Holocaust's living witness

Lurie’s art is on display is in the Yizkor Room, the special exhibit hall at the heart of the museum.

Artist Esther Lurie, Living witness (photo credit: AMIR YARCHI)
Artist Esther Lurie, Living witness
(photo credit: AMIR YARCHI)
In a place where people were forced to live together in a courtyard and cook on stones, artist Esther Lurie found her calling. She knew she had to sketch what was happening there, in the Kovno Ghetto, where 29,000 Jews – most of whom were later sent to concentration and extermination camps – were struggling to survive.
Lurie drew on scraps of thin paper and pieces of wood, using bits of charcoal and pencils, and immediately after her liberation in May 1945, she became one of the very first artists to publish work depicting what Jews endured during the Shoah. She became what she called a living witness, the title of one of her books.
Lurie’s poignant works are now on display in an exhibit at the Lohamei Hagetaot (the Ghetto Fighters’ House) Museum until January 27, 2020.
More than even her own survival, Lurie wanted her art to survive the war and serve as documents of history. And today, in a digital age when instant portraits can be done with a tap on a phone screen, it is hard to imagine how difficult it was to document events during the War. In the Kovno Ghetto, and later on, in the Stutthof concentration camp and the Leibnitz forced labor camp, women used to barter food with Lurie to sketch their portraits, perhaps to prove that they were alive, they existed, and this was what they were forced to endure. In Leibnitz, one of the camp guards found Lurie drawing and asked her to do a sketch of him. In return, the guard brought Lurie paper, pens and China ink.
Lurie was born in 1913, one of five children to a religious Jewish family in Liepaja, Latvia. By kindergarten, she already showed artistic talent and was sent to study theatrical set design at the Institut des Arts Décoratifs in Brussels, and then drawing at the Académie Royal des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp.
When she was 21, most of her family immigrated to Mandatory Palestine where Lurie became involved in the artistic, bohemian life of Tel Aviv, recounted Yaara Galov, Chief Curator of the Beit Lohamei Hagetaot Museum. During those years, Lurie especially liked depicting musicians and dancers. In 1938, an exhibit of her work opened at The Cosmopolitan Art Gallery in Tel Aviv, including her large painting, “Dancing,” which art critics praised, saying it highlighted her budding artistic talent.
A few months after the gallery exhibit, Lurie returned to Europe to continue her art studies. Lurie’s works were even purchased by the Kovno State Museum until the Nazis confiscated them as Jewish art. She planned to return to Palestine but she got trapped by the outbreak of World War II. She could have left – she had a British passport – yet she wanted to stay with her sister, Mouta, and Mouta’s five-year-old son, Reuben. (Both eventually perished in Auschwitz.) For the next six years, Lurie served as a clandestine documentarian of the Shoah. Her work, says Lilach Efraim, director of Museum Exhibits, was an expression not only of her own humanity but also the wider humanity of the Jewish community. It was art, and it was also spiritual resistance.
“Nazism wanted to make Jews animals,” says Efraim, “who did nothing but search for stale pieces of bread. But Lurie’s work proves the Nazis wrong. Her art made the Jews human.”
Lurie’s art is on display is in the Yizkor Room, the special exhibit hall at the heart of the museum. It is a dark space, almost a void, where Hebrew letters float up along a wall, rising and forming names of more than four thousand Jewish communities that vanished during the Shoah. The letters appear for a moment in time and then disappear into thin air.
Visitors press a light on one of the exhibition boxes and the drawing comes into view, and then the space goes black once more. The special effect not only helps preserve the art but is also a reminder that all slips away into darkness. The darkness of the unspeakable loss. But, said Efraim, for the moment, “we give life to these artworks, we don’t let them die.”
When Lurie was in the Kovno Ghetto, she remembered that despite all the horrors, “Life was going on everywhere, in every corner; conversations and quarrels, some folk attending to various things while others just sat doing nothing or studied a book.”
“Everything that was happening all around was so strange,” Lurie wrote, “so different from all the ideas and practices of our lives” before the war. She felt compelled to record it all in sketches.
The Ghetto’s Jewish Council, acting as the local governing body, found out what Lurie was doing and encouraged her to continue to commemorate everything that happened there. Lurie hid her artwork, approximately 200 drawings and watercolors, in large ceramic jars made by Jews in a pottery workshop. After the War, some of her drawings were recovered, surviving with the Jewish Council’s archive. Lurie never discovered what happened to the remainder of her works.
Sometimes Lurie sat at the Jewish Police station and sketched from a window on the second floor. Other times, she painted near the Actions Square, the spot dividing the Jews who were sent “right,” from those who were sent “left.”
Some of Lurie’s sketches bear simple titles: “She Was Once Beautiful,” is one; another, “Winter in a Summer Coat.” One display is Lurie’s striking self-portrait, “Girl With Yellow Badge,” which would go on to win the Dizengoff Prize in 1946. The yellow badge is her Jewish star sewn in on her heart and on her back.
Lurie also depicted the landscapes, whose beauty was in direct contradiction to the terrors of life in the ghetto. Every season, she painted the road that went from the Ghetto to a hilltop called the Ninth Fort where tens of thousands of Jews were shot and killed. Lurie said the road “remains etched deep in my memory as a Via Dolorosa.”
After Lurie survived the Shoah, her painting, “Dancing,” survived a different war. It was purchased by Shlomo Lipsky (Tamir) who hung it on the wall of his café in Talpiot, Jerusalem. When the War of Independence broke out in 1948, Lipsky fled, leaving the painting behind. After the War, he returned and found it with a bullet hole in the bottom right side of the painting.
That bullet hole is still visible today, where it is on temporary display in the main exhibit space of the museum.
Lurie died in Tel Aviv in 1998. But in 1961, she said, “I am a local Israeli painter. It’s time I stopped being the Ghetto Painter.” Therefore, the painting, “Dancing,” a portrait of dancers full of movement and expression, is a reminder of pre-Shoah times, when Lurie’s life as a painter – what she might have had – was radically severed.
The museum staff decided to honor her desire to be known not only as a ghetto painter,” Efraim says. “This painting is a tribute to her work.”
Esther Lurie’s exhibition runs until January 27, 2020.
Beit Lohamei Hagetaot (Ghetto Fighters House) is open Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Kibbutz Lohamei Hagetaot, Western Galilee (04) 995-8080