During this week of Holocaust Remembrance, it has been my honor to hear about the experiences of survivors who managed to maintain their humanity during unimaginable terror and become forces for good in the world. Learning how to put hardship, cold, and hunger into perspective is a lesson taught early and often at the Museum, thanks to the generous words of our survivors.
It is one thing to put hardships behind you; it is quite another to examine this trauma and re-emerge into the light. Susan Beilby Magee has written an important book on this very subject by looking at the life and art of Kalmon Aron, an émigré artist who was an art prodigy in Riga when the Nazis invaded Latvia, massacring thousands of Jews, including his parents. He survived four years in slave labor and concentration camps by drawing portraits of guards for morsels of food, saving him from starvation. After the war, he made his way to the Vienna Fine Arts Academy where he received his Masters in Fine Art. He then left Europe, finding sanctuary in California in 1949.
Susan first became acquainted with Kalmon as a little girl when he came to her house at her mother’s invitation to paint Susan’s portrait. From there, a friendship was born. Their friendship extended through six decades, and then, in 2003, out of the blue he asked her to write his story. A prolific painter, Kalmon became one of California’s leading portraitists, winning commissions to paint such luminaries as Ronald Reagan, Henry Miller, and Andre Previn.
I asked Susan what people can learn from Kalmon’s experiences, which she will share at an event at the Museum Wednesday, April 10. She had many responses, each spiritual and pragmatic in its own way.
1) Stay committed to your passion. Kalmon never gave up his love of art. It nurtured and sustained him even in his darkest moments.
2) Maintain your integrity no matter what’s going on.
3) No matter the challenge, never give up hope. Kalman was able to get back in to the world and paint despite the losses he suffered.
4) Use your resources to overcome challenges.
She concluded by saying that Kalmon’s story is universal. “It is relevant for those who have witnessed genocide in any culture and it applies to women who have been victimized in their homes, and by children who have seen brutality.” Kalmon has taken the time to look inward and find his inner light.
Susan, who in my short conversations I can tell seeks to help others to find their inner light, is a warm and intelligent presence whose discussion of Kalmon’s life will no doubt be as illuminating as it is inspiring. If you miss her Wednesday night, she will be at the Barnes & Noble at 86th and Lex on April 11 and at the USHMM April 14.