Portraits of the past and the present

Sara Melzer’s ‘Counterpoint’ exhibition shows haunting, untitled papier mache faces alongside colorful paintings representing today’s world.

Sara Melzer (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Sara Melzer
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
One could say that S a r a Melzer’s life has been a mirror of the past 85 years of tumultuous Jewish history.
The soft-spoken artist – whose work has appeared in both group and solo exhibitions at the Mishkan L’Omanut Museum of Art in Ein Harod, the Nahum Sokolov Journalists House in Tel Aviv, and the Ra’anana Conservatory – has not only lived through but actively participated in the major events of the Jewish people’s epic narrative, both the triumphantly good and the horribly bad.
In her latest exhibition, “Counterpoint,” Melzer confronts the realities of her painful past and the complexities of the present, taking her inspiration from a telegram she recently found in a package of papers belonging to a relative in pre-World War II Palestine.
Her eyes become misty as she recalls the details of her early life in Eastern Europe.
“I was born Sara Weinfeld in Poland in 1928, near Krakow, to a traditional Jewish family,” she begins. “It was a very Jewish house, with a very interesting intellectual life. I was always with my brothers. They were geniuses.
One was a big Bible scholar. I wanted so much to be like my big brothers.
This was my childhood, before the war.”
When the war came in September 1939, the family had to flee.
“Our father put my mother and six of us children on a wagon with two horses and sent us to the Russian border.
My mother had a sister in the town of Belzec, where later the first death camp was built, and the first crematorium.
But this was still just a town near the Russian border. My mother had a sister there, and so my father sent us there. He stayed behind, to follow later.
“As we went east, we were caught up in the movement of soldiers from the Polish army, while German Messerschmitts were already flying in the skies over our heads. We came at midnight to the place where we were supposed to meet my father. There was a big fire, and we were not able to find him.
“When we came to Belzec, to my aunt, it was Shabbat. A battle was raging between the Polish and German armies. We left the house and ran into the forest. By morning, we saw that we were completely surrounded by the German army. My mother went to an SS officer and asked, ‘What shall we do?’ She was with six children, alone, without her husband. She asked the SS officer [whether she should] stay in Belzec, or go home. The SS officer was very friendly, and he said to her, ‘Madame, it is only the beginning of the war. We don’t know what will be.
I cannot give you advice.’” In the end, they stayed in Belzec, through one month of the German occupation.
“Then there was an agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union to split Poland. And the border was to be near Belzec. So the Germans withdrew to the west, and the Soviets moved in. But then later, there was an alert from the Russians that they were moving out again and that the Germans would be coming back. They told everyone who wanted to go east with them to get ready to leave. But my mother... had no strength to move again.
“We didn’t know then who was better or worse, the Germans or the Soviets. The Germans were cultured, and the Soviets were so primitive! We stayed and watched the Soviet army retreating in the night. Then there was a Soviet truck that broke down and entered our yard while the soldiers made repairs. My mother came out with some coffee for the Soviet officer while the truck was being fixed. And I saw the two of them talking.
I wondered how they were communicating, because my mother didn’t know Russian.
“It turned out that the officer was Jewish, and they were speaking to each other in Yiddish. And he said, ‘What is a Jewish woman doing here, staying here and not m o v i n g ? T h e G e r m a n s will be here in just a few hours.’ And she said, ‘I am exhausted, alone with six kids.
I’m staying.’ And he said, ‘No way! I will not let you stay here. I’m taking you with us.’ And they put us in the truck, and moved us 20 km. to the east, into Soviet territory, just hours before the Germans came. It was a miracle.”
However, Melzer’s family was still split.
“We had no idea where my father was. My mother tried to find him. She knew that the place to go find him was the big city, Lvov. So she went every evening to the train station there looking for my father. After three months, one night when... she was about to go home, she heard my father’s voice calling her. The family was reunited. This was December 1939.
“Then, in June 1940, the Russians wanted all of the refugees from Poland to become Soviet citizens. We didn’t want to, because we thought we would be going back to Poland soon.
One Friday night, the Soviets came and took us to the train station, telling us that because we refused to become Soviet citizens, we were being sent back to Poland. They put us all on the train in Lvov, and we thought, ‘Okay, we will go back to the German side of the border.’ We still didn’t know what was happening there.
“But the Soviets tricked us. Instead of sending us west, the train went east. We didn’t know until the train had been moving for a long time that we were going to Siberia. Stalin tried to punish us, but instead saved our lives.”
THE WEINFELD family ended up in far eastern Siberia, where they remained for a year. Following Hitler’s invasion of Russia and the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union in June 1941, the refugees were released from exile, and the Weinfelds slowly began to make their way west.
Life was hard, but they survived.
Moving westward through Russia and eventually Poland, they entered Germany at the end of the war and found themselves in a displaced persons camp, where they soon learned that all of the rest of their family – 15 in all – had been murdered at the Belzec extermination camp in 1942.
“We spent two years in the DP camp in Germany, waiting to come to Israel,” Melzer says. “We could have gone to Belgium, to America, but we didn’t want to go anywhere but here.
We came, and five of the six children – the youngest was still only 13 – volunteered for the army.”
Their timing could not have been better. The young volunteers arrived in Israel just in time for the War of Independence.
At the end of this second war in her life, Melzer was just 20 years old. Life went on – marriage to Holocaust survivor Nahum Melzer in 1954, the birth of two sons, studies in general education and employment as an elementary school teacher. As the years passed, her focus shifted to art education and the use of art in teaching. She received a master’s degree from the University of Haifa in 1983, became a regional Education Ministry supervisor of art instruction, and achieved a Ph.D. in education from Haifa in 1999.
It was after her retirement that she began to paint. Her work went on display in various venues, and her life was a more or less comfortable world of art, exhibitions, children and grandchildren.
Then, in 2008, she received a package of papers from a cousin, the son of a long-deceased sister of her father’s who had immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1925, long before the war.
While she was rummaging through the pile of old letters, documents and photographs, Melzer’s attention landed on an old telegram, marked SOS, that one of her uncles had sent from Lvov to this sister in Palestine in June 1940.
In the now frayed, yellowed telegram, Melzer’s uncle Mendel Weinfeld was desperately begging his sister to help arrange entry permits to Palestine for him and his family. The entry permits never came, and the family eventually perished in the death camp at Belzec, along with Melzer’s other relatives.
Not surprisingly, the emotional jolt that the artist received from reading this telegram uncorked a flood of emotions, flashbacks and, most of all, pain. Memories that she had repressed for years came bursting back to consciousness, triggering a long process of coming to terms with the past and having to reexamine the present.
Ultimately she decided to undertake this process as an artist, and the result of this decision was “Counterpoint.”
In imitation of the Jewish custom of tearing one’s garments when in mourning for the dead, Melzer began to tear paper. Spurred by recent experiences of making papier mache puppets with her grandchildren, she now began to make papier mache memorials to a world that no longer existed.
After molding the paper pulp into vague images of nameless, faceless human beings, she put them into her oven – to bake, smolder, char and burn. She then glued the burned images onto flat surfaces of white paper, producing dark, haunting portraits in basrelief of people with blurred faces and hollow eyes.
The portraits have no titles, and the faces have no names.
Melzer insists that the portraits are of no one in particular – “only imaginary,” she says. The viewer is free to take this statement at face value, or to assume that these portraits are in fact coming from somewhere deep within the artist’s psyche.
Are the images purely generic representations of Jews lost in the Holocaust, or are they spirits of actual people who populated the artist’s past? “This exhibition is a counterpoint of the world that was and the contemporary world we live in now,” she says, and indeed the second group of works in the show takes a different tack.
These are also portraits – oil on canvas and paper, but mostly oil on cardboard boxes – of contemporary people. Like the other works, these portraits are untitled, but the faces are easily recognizable: the people who swarm and swirl around us every day, on the street, in our offices, schools, theaters and parks. They are us. Young and old, male and female, the faces in these portraits grin, glower, laugh, look angry, chat, argue, smile smugly or brood sullenly.
They gaze thoughtfully into the distance, or talk happily into their iPhones. They are all very much alive.
A crowd of them, each painted on a cardboard box, is gathered in one section of the gallery. The resulting tableau looks like any crowd one might see at a park or busy Tel Aviv intersection. And beyond them, a few feet away, hang the burned papier mache portraits of the dead, almost as though they are hovering above the crowd, haunting the living like sad, silent ghosts.
“Counterpoint” is showing until November 25 at the Artists House, 9 Alharizi Street, Tel Aviv, Monday- Thursday 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and 5 p.m.-7 p.m.; Friday 10 a.m.-1 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Tel.: (03) 524-6685.