Sigmund Laufer Holocaust Series (1960-1964)

Susan Bee talk and ppt

Sigmund Laufer, First day of school, Berlin, Germany, 1926

The Brodsky Gallery at Kelly Writers House (at Penn) has an exhibit of the Holocaust etchings by Sigmund Laufer. This show will be up through December 2011. Susan Bee, his daughter, gave a talk about his work this past Thursday and Susan (with my intermittent help) presented a ppt on Laufer's life and work, which we are making available here. A fine discussion, led by Al Filreis's incisive comments, followed.


Video of full event here.

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Sigmund Laufer: On his Life and the Holocaust Prints
By Susan Bee

My father, Sigmund Laufer’s expansive life spanned three continents. He was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1920, during the politically turbulent years between the first and second World Wars. He spoke often of how much Berlin was like New York City, sophisticated, with streetcars, theatre, and a vibrant cultural life. While he attended the Gymnasium upper school in Berlin his education was cut short at the age of sixteen by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He always said that the extermination of the Jews wasn’t something that happened overnight. Rather it was an evolution, a slow closing off of the rights and access for Jews.

His parents were secular assimilated urban Jews, who had come to Berlin from the shtetls and farms in Poland. They had a dressmaking and tailor shop near Alexanderplatz in Berlin. Sigi and his family lived in a neighborhood in central Berlin, that was inhabited by Christians and Jews. Sigi was immersed in German culture and remained attached to the language and culture throughout his life. He carried his leatherbound German books from continent to continent and they were among his most prized possessions. He loved the writings of Goethe, Heine, Schiller, and other German poets and writers. He also carried his report cards written in elaborate script from the German schools with him to the end of his life. He insisted that my sister and I study the German language, in addition to going to Hebrew school. At home, my parents spoke German to each other.

His immediate family in Berlin took the Nazi threat seriously and sent Sigi out of the country in 1936 to emigrate to Palestine through the Youth Aliyah or youth emigration. The Youth Aliyah was sponsored by the Jewish community to rescue the Jewish youth. My mother, Miriam Laufer, who was also an artist, was also rescued by the Youth Aliyah. The progressive children’s home that she grew up in, Ahava, was sent from Berlin to Jerusalem with all the children and the faculty. There is a documentary film about the rescue and relocation of this group.

While Sigi’s immediate family, including his sister and brother and his parents followed Sigi to Palestine two years later, 19 members of his family were killed in concentration camps mostly in Poland including my great grandparents. This was, in part, due to the fact that the town his family originally came from in Poland, Chrzanow, was along the train route to Auschwitz and actually was only 10 minutes by train to Auschwitz. While, Sigi and his family had gone to Berlin from Poland in the beginning of the 20th century the rest of his family remained in the more rural shtetls and small towns in Poland, where they were trapped during World War II. Some of my family escaped from the camps and some were heroes in the camps, smuggling in food and helping out other prisoners.

At Passover, in New Jersey, where we gathered each year, and where many of my family that escaped or survived the camps settled. There was always talk about what they did in the camps or “Lagers.” These conversations took place in German or Polish or Yiddish, the languages of choice on these family occasions. As a child, I wasn’t too sure about the meaning of these talks and the numbers I saw engraved on my great aunt and uncles arms. There was always a heavy sense of melancholy at our family gathering at the same time there was great joy in the survival of some of our family members. Most of family settled in Palestine in the 1930s and still live there in the modern state of Israel.

Though Sigi’s departure to Palestine at age 16 might sound wrenching to some, Sigi said that he was very excited to be going off on a great adventure by himself to a new land while relatives who came to bid him farewell at the train station in Berlin were crying and distraught.

Upon his arrival in Palestine he was sent to a northern Kibbutz, Ayelet Hashakar. This kibbutz had the distinction of being located right below the Golan Heights and so for many years he slept in semi-permanent tents and, along with others in the kibbutz, had to stand armed guard during the nights to protect the kibbutz from attacks. He also smuggled into Palestine Jews stranded on boats that were refused entry by the British as was depicted in the film Exodus. The city boy became a shepherd and agricultural worker alongside his kibbutz comrades. His political activism was towards the left and he and others of his era were far more Socialistic that they were Zionist. The Palestinian socialists believed that a bipartisan government would be more ideal than a pure Zionist state, but this was not a position that would prevail as the State of Israel was formed in 1947.

It must have been a romantic time as he was swept up by politics, living on his own for the first time, and experiencing an exotic and turbulent country. Upon leaving the Kibbutz, he moved to Jerusalem where the British Army employed him as an ironworker repairing boilers.

It was in Jerusalem that he met my mother, Miriam Ickowitz, who, also a refugee from Berlin, and was studying art at the Bezalel Art School. She was working as a sign painter for the British army and said that their decision to get married was based on the knowledge that a married couple could gain a free pass from the British Railroad to travel anywhere in the Middle East.

But, Sigi and Miriam were not content to stay in the poor, war-torn country of Palestine and yearned again for the sophisticated cosmopolitan European life that they had left behind in Berlin. This was more easily accomplished after the war when they emigrated to the U.S. in June 1947, which was possible because Sigmund’s uncles – some recently liberated from concentration camps and brought to America - were able to sponsor the young couple. Nevertheless Sigi had to finance their passageway and so he sold some of his book collection that he had brought from Germany. During their voyage across the ocean on a Liberty Ship he was also connected to an apartment in Manhattan through a Greek sailor he met on the ship. He lived in that apartment from 1947 to 2007.

Sigi and Miriam opted to return to the urban life they had cherished in Berlin and moved to the German and Irish neighborhood of Yorkville on 85th Street and Lexington Avenue. While the apartment was small, they actually took in boarders for a number of years. Miriam continued to earn a living as a calligrapher and illustrator and Sigi–a self-taught graphic designer–got a job with the Board of Jewish Education because he could do design work in two languages – Hebrew and English. His job at the BJE was secure and satisfying and he worked there from 1948 until his retirement in 1992 – 44 years. He designed books and was the art director of the publication for children, World Over. He was the last designer there to execute his designs without a computer.

Sigi was a printmaker and artist and worked at Pratt Graphic Design Center in NYC, where he produced black and white and color etchings and lithographs. He also made many drawings. He had solo shows at the AFI Gallery and FAR Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s and was in many group shows from the 1940s to the 1980s. His work is in many public and private collections and was well reviewed. In addition, we summered in the artist’s colony of Provincetown, MA, where my parents also showed their artwork. He started the Holocaust series in the early 1960s, when the images and news about the Holocaust started to really be known in all its horrific detail.

He used some famous news photos for some of the images, such as the one of the small boy with his hands up, being arrested. Some of the others, reflected a more fantasy oriented approach. The imagery was his own response to the suffering of his relatives and peers. It was a very personal approach, at the same time, the artwork is steeped in the imaginative imagery of the printmakers he loved and collected such as Durer, Picasso, and Goya. So while it is based to some degree on reportage, it also based on an Expressionist approach to this topic. As art critic Fritz Neugass wrote in the essay for the catalog published in 1964: “Laufer has at his command an expressive and sensitive line. He uses his washes … to create a picture plane of great dynamism. His style is powerfully expressionistic and a romantic and lyrical temperament is its inspiration. It is an esthetic viewpoint in which fears and dreams, love and anguish, destruction and sensuous delight remain legitimate symbols of an artist’s preoccupation. In his graphic art, he achieves a masterful unity of vision and expression.”

While Sigi and Miriam suffered much upheaval in their early lives once they were settled they didn’t really make too many changes. Sigi lived in the same apartment on 85th Street until his death at age 87 in 2007. My sister and I grew up in that apartment. Miriam and Sigi shared a lifelong passion for the arts. His home was filled to the brim with the beautiful collections from the many countries he visited. My father’s life represents an important link to a past and a history that is swiftly being lost. 

powerpoint presentation (pdf file)

Sigumnd Laufer web page