Holocaust survivor Shelomo Selinger’s sculptures celebrate triumph of life

At the age of 13, he was deported to a concentration camp. During the liberation of Theresienstadt on May 12, 1945, a Russian officer discovered him still breathing atop a heap of corpses.

Shelomo Selinger in his studio (photo credit: Courtesy)
Shelomo Selinger in his studio
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“What is a sculpture? A thing bathed with light that contains spirit,” answers Shelomo Selinger with a smile, as I sit beside him in his Parisian atelier in the freezing cold of January 2010, tape recorder in hand.
 Selinger was born on May 31, 1928 in Szczakowa, Poland. At the age of 13, he was deported to a concentration camp. Nine concentration camps later, during the liberation of Theresienstadt on May 12, 1945, a Russian officer discovered him still breathing atop a heap of corpses slated to be burnt.
 Closer to death than life, a Jewish doctor in the Red Army revived him and transferred him to a military field hospital. He recovered his health but was diagnosed with PTSD and for seven years was completely amnesic.
In 1946, Selinger left a displaced person camp in Germany with a group of young concentration camp survivors, and clandestinely crossed the frontiers of Holland, Belgium and France until reaching the French port of La Ciotat. There they boarded the Tel Hai, a boat of illegal immigrants bound for then-British Mandate Palestine. The boat was seized by the British near Haifa, and the passengers were interned in the Atlit detainee camp.
After his liberation from the camp, Selinger joined Kibbutz Beit Ha’arava near the Dead Sea and fought in the War of Independence while his kibbutz was destroyed. “Since the destruction of Sodom, this land had remained barren.” he said during a speech at an award ceremony in Paris in 1993. “With 18 percent salt, nothing could grow on the soil. In order to bring the soil back to life, we washed it and it became fertile. The rebirth of the Land of Israel coincides with my personal rebirth.”
In 1950, he and some friends established a new kibbutz in the Galilee by the name of Kabri. A year later, he met his future wife, Ruth Shapirovsky, who visited the kibbutz when she was 16 and still in high school. Selinger started sculpting to please his future bride and soon after, his memory started coming back, along with recurring nightmares.  In one of them, his wrists are tied and he is about to be hanged in the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. 
 In 1955, Selinger was awarded the Norman Prize for young sculptors. He had carved in stone a cow nursing a calf, a symbol of the promise of life in symbiosis with nature. With this award, he left with his wife for Paris in 1956 to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, becoming a student of Marcel Gimond – considered to be France’s last great sculptor of the bust – while regularly returning to Israel.
That same year, their son Rami was born. For Selinger, his birth was a triumph of life at a time when nightmares regularly assaulted him. Childbirth became a source of inspiration for his work, as he began sculpting pregnant women and a number of sculptures entitled Mother and Child. In 1958, one of the mother and child sculptures won the Neumann Prize for Sculpture, which targets Jewish European artists. Today that sculpture can be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris.
The theme of family structures and reconstruction and identity through them emerged again in his work with the birth of his two daughters, Vered in 1963 and Hana in 1966. Still, memories of the Holocaust always loomed.
What enabled your “rehabilitation” or return to life, I ask him. “The State of Israel made my return to life possible”, he says, adding: “France enabled me to develop my art.”
 Selinger’s material of choice was often granite, a particularly hard stone requiring strength and mastery. Inspired by his war experiences and hardships, he took part in the competition for a memorial in Auschwitz, but his sculpture got lost during the journey!
 He sculpted The Last Prayer (Shema Yisrael) at the Petit Palais in Geneva. By adding his own emotional experience to meaningful events and characters in Jewish history, he kept the chain of Judaism unbroken in spite of the major cataclysmic event that had destroyed his inner world. This effort toward continuity was followed by several sculptures on deportation of Jews and rebellion in the ghettos.
SELINGER TOOK me to a favorite Parisian bistrot around the corner, where he regularly drank his café crème. In its warm, smoky atmosphere, he would meet friends and make new acquaintances. The bistrot struck me as a substitute family as well as an office even though he had a proper office where his drawings and sculptures were carefully kept. There, horrific scenes of everyday life in concentration camps are eternalized in stone.
That winter, Selinger’s workshop in Paris was biting cold yet the sculptor seemed as impervious to the cold as the granite with which he worked. Although his art maintained him in Europe, his heart dwelt in Israel, where his return to life took place.
 Selinger shared that he felt he had survived to transmit the memory of the genocide of the Jews through his art, a mission that was to be performed worldwide. He confessed that all these years he had suffered from the guilt of being alive while his mother, father, sister, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins had been murdered. It was only when he took part in the competition for the erection of a French National Deportation Memorial, for which he won first prize in 1973, that he realized he had lived through it all in order to sculpt in granite the eternal memorial of the darkest internment camp in occupied France.
It took him two years to erect an imposing monument dedicated to commemorating the Drancy prisoners. He expressed the hope that some of the emotions he felt while sculpting would be felt by future generations.
Can sculpting bring psychological relief, I ask him. “It gave me a form of psychological balance. It became the fabric of my life,” he admits.
His work is displayed in several prominent galleries and he has received government commissions for sculptures in public places. In Germany, in the Sarre region, he sculpted a Requiem for German Jews (1980), upon which he inscribed in Hebrew “El Male Rahamim,” (Merciful God) a funeral prayer recited for the ascension of the souls of the dead.
How does Selinger perceive himself? “As an atheist-mystic,” he says, playing on the paradox.
Aware that many of his works are linked to his past, he insists that his creations also turn toward life, freedom and love. Once established as a talented sculptor in Paris, Selinger had the courage to temporarily give up the chisel to work with charcoal and ink. He published 60 drawings depicting some of the horrors he had witnessed during his concentration camp experience.
His great talent coupled with his modesty and his humor saw him knighted in 1993 to the French Legion of Honor and he also became a Knight of the Arts and Letters. Many more honors were bestowed on him all over the world, including the Peace Prize of the Republic of China in 1994.
A couple of years ago, he sculpted a huge granite Holocaust memorial, which was erected in Luxembourg in June 2018. It commemorated the 75th anniversary of the departure of the last convoy of Jews from Luxembourg heading to the death camps of Eastern Europe on June 17, 1943.
Selinger has no doubt shown the world what a man condemned to death at a young age can do with “untied wrists.”
Dr. Françoise S. Ouzan is Senior Research Associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is entitled: ‘How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, The United States, and Israel’ (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2018), Studies in Antisemitism