Portraits of Holocaust Survivors by David Jon Kassan

Portraits of Holocaust survivors might well be considered the work of decades because truly surviving such a traumatic upheaval goes far beyond living through the experience. Surviving, in its fullest sense, entails thriving—going on to rebuild a life and, eventually, look back upon the days before, during and after the Holocaust to see the complex threads woven together as a whole. Now, more than 70 years since the fall of the Nazi regime, David Jon Kassan  has stepped forward to tell the stories and paint the portraits of Holocaust survivors.

 

Portraits of Holocaust survivors, by David Jon Kassan, at Gallery Henoch | ArtistsNetwork.com

These portraits of Holocaust survivors by David Jon Kassan are part of the Edut Project. (Gallery Henoch, New York City). Portraits from left to right: Elsa Ross, Hidden Child, Roslyn and Bella (Roslyn Goldofsky and Bella Sztul), Sam Goldofsky, Survivor of Auschwitz

 

His portraits form part of the Edut Project (theedutproject.org)—“edut” being Hebrew for “living witnesses.” By telling the stories, based on personal interviews, and painting the portraits of Holocaust survivors, Kassan lends personal faces and testimonies to what might otherwise become standard text and nameless photographed faces in history books.

 

Survivors of the holocaust | ArtistsNetwork.com

David Jon Kassan explains the Edut Project to 11 Auschwitz survivors of the Holocaust (only eight of these survivors are seen in the photo). Kassan intends to paint all 11 survivors in one 8×18-foot painting.

Portraits of Holocaust Survivors: Louise and Lazar Farkas

Among Kassan’s portraits of Holocaust survivors is that of Louise and Lazar Farkas. Louise grew up in Northern Romania. Her parents led a comfortable middle-class life, producing dairy products and running a store; Lazar spent his youth across the border in Czechoslovakia and, as a young man, attended business school and then worked in the wholesale grocery business. For a while, the borders between Romania and Czechoslovakia were open, and Lazar would cross over to socialize, talking over coffee and walking the sidewalks with a group of young women, one of whom was Louise.

Descent Into the Holocaust

As anti-Semitism in German-occupied countries grew, Lazar was pressed into forced labor. Working from early morning to late night, he helped build bunkers. Heavy hauling jobs that would normally be performed with horses were consigned entirely to humans. The one silver lining was that, unlike the prisoners in extermination camps, these workers weren’t systematically killed. “They weren’t nice to us,” says Lazar, “but there was no gas chambers.”

 

portraits of Holocaust survivors: Lazar Farkas by David Jon Kassan | ArtistsNetwork.com

In-process detail of an oil portrait of Holocaust survivor Lazar Farkas, by David Jon Kassan: The full portrait includes Lazar’s wife, Louise, also a Holocaust survivor. Kassan’s vertical palette is on the right.

 

Louise was about 20 when she was deported to Auschwitz: “A woman that was in power at the time liked my shoes,” says Louise, “and she took them and I had no shoes. I was barefoot. It was cold, northern climate there: it’s cold in the fall. We struggled.”

 

Gas chambers were a terrifyingly real presence in Auschwitz. “We knew we are to be destroyed,” says Louise.  She kept a protective eye over her sister who was five years younger—and not always inclined to listen to her older sibling. “We had lost our parents, and I felt responsible for her,’ says Louise. “We had no one. … There were several selections, but I held onto her. I didn’t let go. Even for—if it cost my life. Never let go of her. We lost the rest of the family. Five children—I was the oldest. Two of us survived.  … There were times that she would just sit down and she wouldn’t cooperate. She was young and didn’t understand what goes on. I dragged her. It was tough.”

 

Portraits of Holocaust Suvivors-in-process detail of Lazar and Louise Farkas by David Jon Kassan | ArtistsNetwork.com

In-process detail of an oil portrait of Holocaust survivor Louise Farkas, by David Jon Kassan: The full portrait includes Louise’s husband, Lazar, also a Holocaust survivor.

 

 Escape

But the tides were turning against Germany, and security was unraveling. “We walked out of the camp. Just simply,” says Louise of her and her sister’s escape. “We had no place to go and no money and no food. We went from country to country from there.“

 

Lazar also managed to run away from his forced labor. “I wound up somewhere in Poland, I don’t know where,“ he says. For a time he hid in a farmer’s hay loft, but when the farmer heard that others had been punished for harboring Jews, he asked Lazar to leave. Lazar lived in the forest and met up with the Czechoslovakian army. He joined the army as a volunteer and ended up stationed in his hometown. He learned that people were escaping from the camps and wanted to look for Louise, so he found a bean that inflamed his eyes, making them appear as if he had trachoma, and presented himself to an officer who sent him to a doctor. The doctor recognized the irritation from the berry but understood. “He knew what I wanted to do,” says Lazar, “that I want to get, so he gave me a paper that I’m free from the army.”

Reunification

Lazar left messages for Louise that he was looking for her. They crossed the border in opposite directions on the same night, just missing each other. Eventually, Lazar found Louise and the two were soon married. His uncle in America was able to arrange for their immigration, and they settled in Brooklyn. (Louise’s sister wasn’t able to leave until a year later). Both spoke some English, but Lazar found getting a job challenging. One day, when Lazar was sitting on a bench, someone who knew him passed by. The two started talking, and the friend offered Lazar a job in the grocery business.

 

Portraits of Holocaust Survivors: D.J. Kassan paints Louise and Lazar Farkas | ArtistsNetwork.com

David Jon Kassan painting Louise and Lazar Farkas’s portrait (in-process view of portrait)

 

Children

Lazar and Louise had three daughters. Not wanting their young children to be traumatized, at first the parents didn’t talk about their Holocaust experiences, yet all could not be hidden. “I knew, for example,” said one, “that something terrible had happened because I had no grandparents. Friends of mine had grandparents; they had cousins. I had none.”

 

Not until the daughters heard about the Holocaust in school did they start asking questions and, little by little, the stories came out. Because the Farkas children attended a Yeshiva school and lived in a neighborhood with many other children of Holocaust survivors, they were able to absorb the information more easily. “It wasn’t that strange to me,” said one daughter. As all three grew older, however, they would grasp the reality of their parent’s experience more fully and work through how it had, in fact, affected them.

Full Lives

 

Portraits of Holocaust survivors: Louise and Lazar Farkas | ArtistsNetwork.com

Louise and Lazar Farkas (finished portrait; oil on acrylic mirror panel, 46×42)

 

Meanwhile, Lazar and Louise built their lives together. Eventually, Lazar with three partners would own three grocery stores and two convenience stores in New York City. Louise kept house and cared for the children, but when one of her daughters entered college, Louise began taking college classes at night. She eventually earned master’s degrees in special education and urban studies. For 25 years she taught in the New York City Public High School in Queens, retiring at age 85. By the time David Jon Kassan interviewed the Farkas family and began the painting of Lazar and Louise for his series of portraits of Holocaust survivors, Lazar was 97 and Louise was 92. They have been married for more than 70 years. In the fullest sense, they have survived.

 

David Jon Kassan | ArtistsNetwork.com

David Jon Kassan: The tattoo on Kassan’s arm is Hebrew for “heritage” or “roots.”

Read the full story of David Jon Kassan’s portraits of Holocaust survivors in the April 2017 issue of “The Artist’s Magazine.”

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