Young painter's art saved her from Nazis

Sonia Gurfein drew greeting cards for concentration camp guards, earning her suvival through the war.

sofia gurfein 88.298 (photo credit: Courtesy)
sofia gurfein 88.298
(photo credit: Courtesy)
By her own admission, Sonia Gurfein has somewhat of a rebellious streak. It was this impertinent behavior that saved her life during World War II. Now in her mid-80s, Gurfein laughs as she recalls how as an inmate in a concentration camp she marched up to a guard and asked him if he'd like her to draw some greeting cards for him and his colleagues to send to their friends and families back home. Instead of getting herself killed, Gurfein's defiant act and artistic talents impressed the guard and she was able to escape the deadly physical labor of the camp and get a job in a warehouse just outside the perimeter.
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The German soldiers would commission her to design cards for them. They called her "The Little Painter" and gave her extra food and clothes that helped her to survive the concentration camp for the next four years. "I have always been a bit of a rebel," said Gurfein, an artist and sculptor who paints portraits of people who did not survive the Holocaust. "Even if something is dangerous, I will not hesitate to do it if it is what I want," she said. Gurfein's paintings, which are based on photographs of people who did not return from the camps, are part of an exhibition opening Monday at the Holocaust museum in Upper Nazareth. "I put my resistance to one side," said Gurfein, explaining how she managed to curb her rebellious nature and summon the inspiration to create colorful drawings of birds and flowers for the people who had killed her father. "It was not an emotional act. I had to keep that inside, the drawings just came out automatically." "If someone holds a gun to your head, what choice do you have? We had to do a lot of different things in order to survive," she said. Born in Vilna, then part of Poland, in 1927, Gurfein was just 12 years old when the war broke out. She remembers perfectly the day in 1941 when the Gestapo took her father to the edge of town and shot him. Six months later she was sent to a forced-labor camp and not long after, her mother joined her. In 1942, they were transferred to the Stutthof concentration camp in Germany and it was there that Gurfein succeeded in convincing the Nazis she could be of use to them. She managed to stay with her mother for most of the war, but they were were separated when she escaped from the camp late in 1944. After liberation, Gurfein, then 18, joined a group of young people heading to Palestine. In 1947, she married Jacob Gurfein, another Holocaust survivor and a witness at Adolph Eichmann's trial. Six months after the wedding, Gurfein was reunited with her mother. Gurfein said that after the war she was unable to draw or paint. Even after she started painting again, it took many years before she could focus her artwork on her experiences in the camps. "I was not really ready to tell the story," said Gurfein. "Later on I began to draw the views of Jaffa, nature or flowers, but never people." It was only after her children were grown that Gurfein sought to enhance the natural talent that had saved her life by studying art in a formal setting. She studied at the School of Plastic Arts in Bat Yam, at the Avni Institute in Tel Aviv and at the Art Teachers College in Ramat Hasharon. Even today, more than 60 years after her experiences in the Holocaust, Gurfein said she sees the faces of the victims in many different forms. She talks of one art she called "The Mountain of Blood," which was inspired by a trip she took to Yellowstone Park in California. "The mountains reminded me of Holocaust victims standing together in a group," said Gurfein. "Even though I do not think about it all the time, it [the Holocaust] always comes out in my drawings." Gurfein's art will be on display at the Museum of Holocaust and Martyrs on Rehov Hagivah in Upper Nazareth through May 15.