A tremendous demonstration of vitality

A new exhibit at Yad Vashem shows how Holocaust survivors played a part in building the country.

new yad vashem 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
new yad vashem 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Television crews dangled microphones in front of a world-class fashion designer, while an abstract artist described the meaning behind his work. A reasonable backdrop at a cosmopolitan glitterati get-together, but this was not the opening of a Soho gallery. The location of the glitzy gathering was Yad Vashem. The designer was Leah Gottleib, co-founder of the Gottex clothing firm, and the artist was Yaacov Zym who, aside from modern art, has had a prodigious career in graphic design. Both are Holocaust survivors. The tone of the exhibit "My Homeland: Holocaust Survivors in Israel," hosting the work of Gottleib, Zym and others, is very different than one might expect from the somber halls of Yad Vashem. The exhibit carries a message of hope and pride, and it showcases the work of Holocaust survivors who came to Israel, as well as the challenges they faced adapting to a new country, climate and language. One attendee, Shlomo (Sasha) Meizlich, himself a Holocaust survivor, says it warmed his heart to finally see the contribution of survivors to the State of Israel. "For many years we would not lift our heads because everyone thought that Holocaust survivors were just about suffering and depression. Now, all of a sudden, there is this exhibition, and you can see that we have been full partners - from 1948 on," he says. "The only difference between us and the other fighters," recalls the veteran of such bitter engagements as the Battle of Latrun, "was that those who fell who had been born in this country had someone to visit their graves." The showcase of designer clothing and consumer products lining the hall were far more upbeat than Meizlich's grim memories. Exhibition curator Yehudit Shendar explained that the idea behind the exhibit was to show how survivors of the Holocaust put their personal traumas and family tragedies behind them, making an indelible imprint on the young Jewish state. Brooding thoughts over her personal tragedy seemed far from the mind of the smiling Gottleib as she viewed glittering gold pieces from her 40-year career in design with Gottex, which she founded with her husband after arriving in Israel from Hungary after World War II. The vivacious octogenarian spoke of her use of color in design as a function of her eternal sense of optimism but told a Russian TV reporter that her bright red nails were "just for business." One person who certainly had as much - if not more - effect on the way Israel has looked and felt over the years but whose name has attracted much less attention is Joseph Bau. Referred to by the press as the "Israeli Walt Disney," Bau was a pioneer of Israeli animation, in addition to being a caricaturist, comic poet and artist. Bau, who passed away six years ago, had studied art in Poland before the war, and his skills were put to good use during the Holocaust when he was able to forge documents and identity papers for fellow inmates. But Bau never employed his talents on his own behalf, feeling he was needed in the camp. Later, Bau was rescued by Oskar Schindler, and he and his wife Rebecca were married while still in Nazi labor camps, an event portrayed in the film Schindler's List. Immigrating to Israel a number of years after the war, Bau was recruited by a secret unit of the Intelligence Corps that dealt with technical covert operations, which used his talent for art and graphics. His daughter, Hadassah, says her father never mentioned any of his secret activities, putting the good of the country before his own personal publicity. In civilian life, Bau worked as a graphic artist, drawing the titles for many of the Israeli movies of the time, including Salach Shabati and Kazablan. Bau's daughter recalls how her father constructed his own animation studio, which included equipment that he built by himself for the making of short films and commercials. The studio has since been converted into a museum about Bau's life and work. Bau's granddaughter Nili, who is an officer in the IDF's Education Corps, was also at the opening ceremony of the Yad Vashem exhibition. "I walk through this exhibit and I can't believe my eyes. I see the name of my grandfather written here, 'Joseph Bau,' and I say to myself 'My grandfather was connected to all this, to the foundations of this country.'" The exhibit's importance lies in showing how Holocaust survivors picked themselves up and were able to lead lives that contributed to the state, says Hadassah Bau. That is a message of hope that must be passed on "to a thousand generations." That optimism, together with quite a bit of nostalgia, was clearly visible on the walls of the exhibit, which were papered over with the styles and insignia that have become so familiar to Israelis - from the bills of Israeli currency designed by Paul Kor to the familiar logos of major Israeli companies, such as El Al and the Carmel sticker found on much of Israel's produce designed by Dan Reisinger. Reisinger, who won the Israel Prize in 1998 for his work in design, once wrote: "My personal history can be divided into three colors: Yellow is the badge I was forced to wear as a child in the Holocaust; red is the color of the Soviet army which freed me; and blue is the color of the skies of Israel." Indeed, Reisinger's career was marked by an intuition toward color, usually bright and vibrant hues which he worked into posters for art exhibits, calendars and the design of the IDF's medals of honor. Another important graphic artist, Zym says he has left the world of currency and stamp design, or "crinkle and lick" as he calls it, and now focuses on abstract, modern art. A smiling, cheerful man with bright white eyebrows arched over twinkling, mischievous eyes, Zym recounts that it was only after visiting Poland after 44 years that he was induced to take up the Holocaust as a theme of his artwork. Until then, his work had kept to more optimistic hues, heavily influenced by his mentor Mordechai Ardon - famous for the Ardon Windows of the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. (Ardon was also an influence on Reisinger at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design.) A survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto and a number of concentration camps, Zym now imbues his work with a dark theme. His Lament for My Father, on display at the exhibition, is filled with swirls of somber colors. Pasted in the corner of the display is a document showing Zym's father's identity papers. Another anomaly amid the swirls of dark blacks and reds is a small window. Asked whether the window was looking in or out, Zym replied that it was neither; rather, the walls were looking on. "I have always believed that the walls see and hear everything; they witnessed everything that happened to us." Budapest-born Kariel Gardosh, or Dosh, was an award-winning graphic artist and caricaturist. His cartoon character Srulik, in his sandals, shorts and signature hat, became the quintessential symbol of the young nation for more than half a century. Dosh passed away in 2000. It is not coincidental that the character of Srulik, referred to as "Israel's Uncle Sam," was chosen as the exhibition's lead character. Created in 1956, Dosh's Srulik was the antithesis of the anti-Semitic caricatures employed by Nazi propagandists, including Josef Goebbels. Srulik was ambitious and pioneering, embodying the Zionist ethos and defying the stereotype of Jews as moping and weak. In his time, Dosh was considered a member of what was known as Ma'ariv's "Hungarian mafia," a group of some of the country's sharpest wits, all of whom were born in Hungary (or its sphere of influence in neighboring countries) and all were Holocaust survivors. The others included Yosef "Tomi" Lapid, Ephraim Kishon and Jacob "Ze'ev" Farkash. Lapid, who after a career as a columnist at Ma'ariv founded the Shinui party and served as an MK and cabinet minister, is the current chairman of the Yad Vashem commission. At the ceremony, he spoke of the survivors' crossing a "bridge of tears" to reach the Promised Land. "These people came here with a tremendous demonstration of vitality," says Lapid, whose father perished in Auschwitz. In the Knesset, Lapid saw himself as the representative of survivors, alongside his controversial pro-secular political stance. "We built a democratic state, a pluralistic society and a united nation, where none of the three had existed before. All the arguments about immigration and absorption are nothing compared to the true achievement of [Israel's] melting pot," wrote Lapid in an article for Israel's 50th anniversary. Kishon, who passed away three years ago, was also featured at the exhibition. The famous comic writer and film director, who escaped from Nazi hands while being transported to a death camp, was wont to use his sharp humor to critique the absorption process he and fellow survivors underwent upon their arrival in Israel. On display is a page from Kishon's early attempts at Hebrew writing, filled with childish script and basic grammatical errors. "Andrush, my friend, I am writing to you in Hebrew because you must have already forgotten your Hungarian. I have no important news to tell you, and I am only writing this letter to see if I will be able to complete it without too many mistakes," reads the correction-filled clip. He would soon master the language, writing a daily satirical column for 20 years, as well as dozens of books, plays and screenplays. According to exhibit curator Shendar, Israel's 60th anniversary is the right time for this sort of exhibition. "We never really gave a full and honest account of the contributions the survivors made and are still making to the State of Israel," she says, adding that the opportunity to do so must be seized before the aging survivors are no longer with us. Shendar says the museum made a conscious decision to focus the exhibit on art, particularly on popular visual images such as advertisements and corporate logos. Stories of IDF generals and members of the Knesset were specifically left out, she explains, so as to focus on a visual experience which would incorporate the message of recovery and rebuilding. "There is no overt connection between the pieces on display and the Holocaust," she says. "But then visitors become interested in the people behind the art, and they can read the biographies that appear beside them. There is a story behind each piece."