What’s in a wall?

Layers of paint reveal a treasure of art beneath – painted by British Army artist Gerd Rothschild

Gerd Rothschild poses in front of one of his paintings (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gerd Rothschild poses in front of one of his paintings
(photo credit: Courtesy)

We all read from time to time about amazing finds in the art world – someone finding a lost Van Gogh in their attic, or someone out for a stroll with his dog coming across a priceless cache of ancient coins. When Shay Farkash was called in to take a look at what is now the Old Railway Station (Hatahana) complex in Tel Aviv, to check whether there may be some decent works of art lurking beneath the outer coats of paint on the interior building walls there, and to restore the walls to their former glory, he did not have the slightest notion what he might find there, nor who might be the person behind the aesthetic gems.

The “Wall Club Story 1942-1946” exhibition, which opens at the Israeli Cartoon Museum on October 10, shows that Farkash indeed came across a delightful find there – even if we are not exactly in the Van Gogh valuation league here.
Farkash, a mural and wall decoration restorer by trade, was mainly brought in to investigate the walls of the Wieland Villa building in the compound. The structure has a checkered history. It was constructed by the Wieland family of Germany, which was part of the Templer community here at the beginning of the 20th century. The Wielands decided to make their home near the recently built railway station, as the proximity to the station would facilitate shipping the wares of the cement factory they also built on the site. The family home was constructed using the materials produced in the factory.
As German subjects the Wielands were forced by the British to relocate to Egypt near the end of World War I, returning here in 1922, and thereafter lived and worked in pre-state Palestine until World War II – when the British once again expelled the family, this time to Australia.
And this time there would be no way back here for the German family. The compound was turned into a British army base, and was subsequently used for a similar purpose by the IDF.
When Farkash began scratching away at the top coat of paint in the former Wieland residence, he soon found some murals that were painted by IDF artists.
However, he kept on carefully burrowing into the walls and he suddenly spied some fetching endeavor of a very different ilk. He began researching the matter and his inquiries eventually led him to a senior citizen resident of Holon by the name of Ruth Rothschild.
“I have no idea how he got to me, but he got to the right place,” observes Rothschild. Farkash certainly did. The artist behind the Wieland Villa murals was none other than Rothschild’s late husband, Gerd, who died in 1991 at the age of 72. “Shay Farkash found lots of layers of paint and paintings and he eventually got to my husband’s paintings, which Gerd made when he was in the British Army and served as mural artist to His Majesty’s forces.”
“There was a painters’ unit in the IDF,” adds exhibition curator Dorit Goren, “the Samson’s Foxes Unit [of the Givati Brigade], and they painted the first murals Farkash found. They didn’t see Gerd’s work because it had been painted over.” Had the IDF artists seen Rothschild’s efforts, presumably they would have left them intact.
Gerd’s figures are a delight and, despite his German origins, he seems to have imbibed much of the British sense of humor of the time and there is a typically mischievous spirit to many of the designs. Some of them feature military scenes, while others depict couples dancing in all manner of comical poses, and there are various entertaining portrayals of soldiers enjoying their off-duty hours.
Farkash had absolutely no idea who the creator of the quality murals might have been, and someone recommended that he go see Mrs. Rothschild – he doesn’t recall who made the referral – and when he entered her apartment, he saw some examples of Gerd’s work hanging on the walls. He immediately recognized that they were in the same style as the murals at the soon-to-be renovated Hatahana/Templer building.
When Farkash inquired about the artist behind Rothschild’s paintings, she told him Gerd had made them.
“Farkash is chairman of the International Council on Monuments and Sites-Israel organization, which is responsible for preserving murals in Israel,” continues Goren. “He found his way to Rothschild, and told her what he does for a living.”
“He came to ask me if I knew anything about the murals [at Hatahana],” interjects Rothschild, “and I showed him some of the treasures I have here, Gerd’s paintings.
My husband was a real yekke [Jew of German- speaking origin, considered to be very methodical and punctual] and he was pedantic about keeping things in order.”
By all accounts, Gerd appears to have led a colorful and eventful professional life. He was born in Germany in 1919 and made aliya in 1933. In 1935, he enrolled in the inaugural year of the new Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem. The institution was oriented towards the Bauhaus school of thought and Gerd opted for the graphic design department. He won his place at Bezalel primarily by virtue of his talent, yet there was a certain amount of parental pushing in the desired academic direction, well in advance of his move to Jerusalem.
“Gerd’s mother was very ambitious for her son and registered him for Bezalel while they were still in Germany, before the school came into being,” explains Rothschild. “But they were very careful about who they accepted to the school.”
After graduating, Gerd relocated to Haifa and embarked on a career as a graphic designer. He set up a graphic studio together his good friend and fellow German- born artist, Zeev Lipman, today 92 years old, and Shlomo Zavadin. “They called the studio Hashlosha [The Three], and Gerd believed that Haifa was the city of the future and would become a prosperous, industrialized place. The studio did very well.”
HOWEVER, WITHIN a year or two, the outbreak of World War II put a spanner in the trio’s professional works. “No one was advertising during the war, so Gerd had less and less graphic design work orders,” continues Rothschild, adding that he considered helping the British fight the Nazi enemy. However, he was not a free agent in this regard, and it appears he required official approval before he could don His Majesty’s khaki.
“He wanted to join up straightaway, but his superiors in the Hagana said they would tell him when he should do so,” Rothschild explains.
Meanwhile, Gerd realized he needed to find another way to make ends meet and enrolled in a chef’s course. Upon finally receiving Hagana permission to become a British soldier in 1942, he duly became an army cook. Several thousand servings of porridge and spuds later, the young soldier’s artistic talents reached the right eyes and ears, even though he had to go through some pain to get his military gain. And it was all due to his pristine moral upbringing.

“He was a real yekke, and very straight,” says Rothschild, “Apparently there was some wheeling and dealing going on at the camp, whereby soldiers profited by falsifying documents of deliveries of food and the like. So when a soldier tried to rope Gerd into the business, he objected forcefully and actually slapped the soldier.

That wasn’t very good for his military career. Her ended up in Sarafand [a British Army detention facility] and, as you can imagine, he wasn’t very happy.”
But things began to look up as the festive season approached. “He was pretty bored so he decided to make some paintings, as sort of Christmas decorations,” Rothschild continues. “One day he showed them to the camp commander, and he was very impressed. He said there was no point in Gerd sitting there and doing nothing, and he assigned him to the Furnishings and Equipment Unit, as a mural artist.”
That led to four years of peripatetic artistic activity for the Jewish soldier.
“He was sent all over the Middle East, to British Army camps in Lebanon, Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Egypt and Palestine, to paint murals and brighten up army officers’ mess halls, NAAFIs [British Army recreational facilities], canteens and that sort of thing,” says Rothschild.
Hence Farkash’s discovery at the incipient Hatahana in Tel Aviv. “Gerd would report to the commanders of the various army camps and he would paint different themes at each facility, and that’s what you’ll see in the [“Wall Club Story”] exhibition.”
FOUR YEARS of military mural making on, Gerd was demobbed and returned to civilian life in Palestine. He rejoined his erstwhile partner in graphic endeavor, Lipman, and together they set up the Roli graphic studio. The name of the enterprise was a fusion of the first letters of each partner’s family name.
Shortly after the war, cooking once again played a part in Gerd’s fate, and led to a happy union which lasted over 40 years. “Gerd’s mother, a wonderful woman, worked as a cook. She had been very wealthy in Germany, but lost all her money and came here penniless,” recounts Rothschild. “At the time she worked for my mother’s cousin, Grete Ascher, who had a guest house on Ibn Ezra Street in Jerusalem. Gerd was already 28 so the pressure was building for him to get married.”
Help was at hand. “Grete told Gerd’s mother that her cousin had a lovely daughter who was also a talented artist. So they came to meet me and my mother.”
As an ice breaker, Rothschild’s mother suggested to she get some of her drawings and show them to the young suitor. Rothschild was a bit put out when he didn’t respond too enthusiastically to her work.
“But then I saw his stuff and I was speechless.
It was wonderful,” says Rothschild.
Creative inequality notwithstanding, the two hit it off. “We had a 45-year honeymoon,” she says, though she notes that her husband’s talent put a stop to her own artistic pursuit. “Since then I have not painted or drawn anything, other than as an art teacher at Gordon High School here in Holon.”
Gerd’s postwar career went well, and he achieved official recognition when, over the years, he and Lipman were awarded contracts to come up with suitably appealing and dignified designs for various national postage stamps and even coinage.
The latter include the five-lirot coin and the delightful one-agora coin of old.
Gerd and Lipman also produced some of the country’s most iconic and enduring advertising graphic material. “There’s the aharai latzanhanim [follow me to the paratroopers] poster and the haval al kol tipa [every drop is precious, save water] campaign poster,” says Goren.
“And he designed the official emblems of towns around Israel, like Eilat,” adds Rothschild. “You could say that Zeev and Gerd were responsible for forming part of the visual consciousness of generations of Israelis.”

For more information: Call (03) 652-1849 or visit www.cartoon.org.il