In balance, in harmony
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In balance, in harmony

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Agnes and David Adler, today and on their wedding day

Agnes Adler is a little pixie of a thing with a musical Hungarian accent. As she and her husband David walk into a room, she tells him to smile, to say hello, not to be a grump, and he lovingly responds, “Yes, Mammi, whatever you say.” He is wont to stay in the background, however, as an invisible flying buttress, supporting her in artistic endeavors and much more, while also creating his own massive sculptures.

David stands a full head taller than his wife, continues to smile the smile of the gentlemen chauvinists of his generation. He and Aggie love to sharpen their blades on their wit and humor. She complains, “I have to do everything and he expects me to wait on him hand and foot. Men! Impossible!”

They are both Shoah survivors from Budapest. They spent more than 56 years thus far making a life together, raising a family and working their day jobs while remaining passionate to their art.

Some of that art is now on display at the Belskie Museum in Closter. Besides Aggie’s collages on such topics as the Manson murders, Women’s Lib, and Auschwitz, most of the work by both Aggie and David are sculptures in classic mid-century style.

The huge outdoor abstract sculptures by David, and lifesize and smaller pieces by Aggie in various media, from bronze to fiberglass, include human figures, family groupings, rounded abstract forms, and metal collage, much of it reminiscent of Henry Moore, Elie Nadelman, and William Zorach. It turns out that for a time in the 1960s, they were befriended by Zorach, who helped them when they first came to America. No one before had offered to help, and by then Aggie was six months pregnant.

Both David and Aggie were saved by Raoul Wallenberg, although they did not meet until after the war.

What Where When
What: Aggie and David Adler’s sculpture and collage
Where: Belskie Museum
280 High Street (Next door to the library)
Closter, NJ
(201) 768-0286
belskiemuseum.com
When: Through Jan. 29

At age 14, Aggie was caught in an air raid and separated from her parents. She was sheltered for the night by a pharmacist, who sent her to fetch his medications. On the way back, she took a bus and sat next to a well-dressed man reading a literary magazine, who wore the Swedish flag on his lapel. She asked in German if he was Swedish, and he nodded. They talked for a moment. Then he wrote an address for the Swedish Children’s Center with a note on a scrap of paper and signed it “Raoul.” He said she should say she was 16, and had experience as a baby nurse. “You will have to work hard with young children, and wash dishes in the kitchen, but you will eat and be safe.” Later she learned her savior was Raoul Wallenberg.

David, who is two years older than Aggie, was in hiding and in the underground until he got a Schutzpass (a “protective passport” Wallenberg handed out) to a Swedish safe house. After the war, he became an avid Zionist, and left Europe in 1946 for Israel. Stopped by the British, he spent a year in the detention camps on the island of Cyprus, and then went to live on a kibbutz. He was a member of the building team, following in the footsteps of his father, a master craftsman who was murdered in the Shoah, as was one of David’s brothers. Another brother and his mother survived.

On the kibbutz, David laid mosaic tiles, made wood carvings, and terraced landscapes. He was also one of Israel’s great soccer players until he was hurt in a bicycle accident at 24. “I am a man of steel,” he says with a grin; there are metal rods holding him up, thanks to Israeli ingenuity. Then there was a three-year stint in Tzahal’s Engineering Corps (Tzahal is the Hebrew acronym for Israel Defense Forces). Along the way, he became a student at the Academy of Arts in Tel Aviv.

Aggie, whose parents both survived, left them in Budapest (they followed her to the kibbutz after 1948) and made her way to Palestine. She was caught and also spent a year in Cyprus. Then she arrived at a kibbutz where her experiences were almost mind-numbing. She yearned to be an artist, but they insisted she be practical and study agriculture. She developed an interest in plants that in later years bloomed into a full-time profession, but she was not happy.

Aggie grabbed at the chance to go to art school when the kibbutz sent her to Tel Aviv to learn how to reduce costs when cooking for a collective. While there, she studied at the Academy of Arts, where David was still a student.

Their meeting was inevitable. David was assisting leading Israeli sculptors in executing large monuments cast in stone, marble and bronze, and was an expert in the classic lost wax process. One day, Aggie’s teacher damaged her final exam sculpture by using old plaster and almost ruined her clay mold. It was David to the rescue, and they soon fell in love.

They were married on the roof of their apartment – a converted laundry room – in Tel Aviv, and after five years of struggling as artists in dire poverty – and David serving a scary stint in the 1956 Sinai War – they left for America and a tiny apartment in Williamsburg in January 1961. It is forever memorialized in The White Chair, a collage reproduced on the cover of her memoire/art book, “On Swallow’s Wings.”

In the 1970s, the Adlers moved to a modest house in Westwood. For 38 years, David was an industrial designer, creating prototype housewares, lamps, furniture, and giftware for Westwood Industries in Paterson, for Crown Casting, and for other companies. He always worked on his art, however. Between them, they have participated in a wealth of gallery shows. If you ask David, though, what comes to mind as his most original creations, it is their two children, a son and a daughter, now grown with their own families – one in New York and the other in California.

Aggie worked as a records analyst at Bergen Regional Medical Center in Paramus. She studied horticultural therapy and became a volunteer master gardener for Bergen County. She went to college at age 58 to study botany. Two years later, she was trekking with the natives in the Amazon rain forests, and is now a professional herbalist, well-known for her pomegranate elixirs, wild cherry tonics, and a variety of concoctions and treats she lavishes on people.

And all the while, she and David continue to produce works of art, some life-size, some small, some huge, all interesting, all beautiful, all in balance. Says David, “If an observer rejects the new, the unexpected, the strange, he shuts the doors to the process of growth, excitement, and imagination.”

As for the idealistic Aggie, she hopes for a world that will survive human cruelty. Wallenberg was one of her inspirations. “I don’t create something just to practice,” she says, “It has to be in balance, in harmony. If it is a worthwhile presentation, it comes from my inner world.”

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