Several people have suggested that I write down my story,” said Agnes Adler.
With chapter headings such as Holocaust survivor, kibbutz resident, artist, master gardener, and medicinal herbalist, Adler’s story is certainly compelling.
According to the 78-year-old Westwood resident, who two years ago received a grant from Teaneck’s Puffin Foundation to retouch and digitize her collages that deal with social issues, her life has been quite full since leaving Europe in 1945.
Adler, who was born in Budapest in 1930, said that while she had managed to escape the Nazis, joining a boatload of children headed to Israel, “what should have been a two-month trip took three years” – one of those years spent “languishing in Cyprus” after being turned back by the British.
Once in Israel, she settled on a kibbutz. But while she had always hoped to become an artist, “the kibbutz called it an obsession,” she said, “describing artists as parasites.” Instead, she was assigned various jobs.
Said Adler, “I worked in vineyards, olive groves, did service in the fledgling army, and took a semester in children’s education.”
After 10 years on the kibbutz, Adler had enough of odd jobs and wanted a real profession. Sent to Tel Aviv to become a waitress, she attended the Academy of Fine Arts at night. There she met her future husband of more than 50 years, David, who was training to be a sculptor.
“The teachers looked at us and said we should get married, so we did,” she said. Shortly after they were married, in 1956, her husband was sent to Egypt to fight the war in the Suez.
After his return, the couple spent an additional five years in Israel, “but it was hard to make money,” she said.
“Life is hard for an artist,” said Adler, explaining that the only public commission she received at that time was to make “papier mÃ¢chÃ© hats for a Purim carnival.”
Appartments were also hard to get, she said. “We lived on the roof of a building near the central bus station in Tel Aviv.”
Prompted by her husband’s mother to try their luck in the United States – where, Adler said, they intended to remain for only four years – they left for New York in 1961.
“But then,” she said, “I found out I was pregnant with my daughter.”
After the birth of their daughter, Edna, and later their son, Daniel, they decided to remain in New York, their home for the next 14 years.
“I found different art institutes where I could study,” she said, adding that she also exhibited her works wherever she could.
“I did about 15 exhibitions,” she said. “People knew my name, but success didn’t come. I was a well-kept secret.”
To earn money, she worked for the Williamsburg Board of Education “as a luncheon monitor, tutor, anything that kept me near to home.”
Finally, one of her patrons offered the family a loan to buy a house in New Jersey.
“She bought three of my works,” said Adler. The purchaser, who died at the age of 102, ensured that the works would be returned to her.
In New Jersey, David Adler worked as an industrial designer while his wife worked at Bergen Pines as a medical records analyst. But she never stopped working at her art.
Adler’s collages – there are 11 in all – were created between 1963 and 1967, “when I was home with the kids and I couldn’t get out much. I cut out images from different magazines and wrote comments,” she said, explaining how she created “artistic collages, like posters,” dealing with issues of social justice.
“But they were cumbersome to carry,” she said, adding that someone suggested several years ago that she apply to the Puffin Foundation for a grant to digitize them. One of her collages appears as the January artwork in the Puffin’s full-color 2009 calendar.
Adler said she has always been involved with social causes, particularly with women’s issues and health concerns. She credits her parents with her social awareness, noting that her mother taught in an orphanage, while her father, a math professor, was saved from the Holocaust by a Catholic organization “because of his humanitarian efforts.” Her mother survived as well.
“My sculptures are mostly of mothers and children and deal with human emotions,” she said, estimating that she has produced some 50 pieces. The works, mainly of fiberglass and epoxy, are less costly to produce than bronze, she said, “and I didn’t ask a big price.”
Eventually, said Adler, “I went back to school for training in horticultural therapy, to benefit mentally challenged patients.” At the same time, she became a Master Gardener of Bergen County, a title bestowed on people who are specially trained in horticulture and volunteer in their communities.
“There I received some science training,” she wrote in a brief biography, “but mostly it was the county’s heroic attempt to gain unpaid (volunteer) workers for public gardens.”
Adler first got interested in herbalism 15 years ago, when, at age 63, she decided to participate in a 10-day trip to the Amazon rainforest after being laid off from her job at Bergen Pines.
“We had a wonderful teacher,” she said, noting that many of the people she met on that trip “are still in my life. It gave me a renaissance. I learned a lot. Now I give it over to others.”
Adler said she and her husband, now 80, “are in good health because we do a lot of healthy things, like helping people.”
Adler grows her own herbs and goes to conferences to sell what she called her “potions.”
“I don’t do too much art now,” she said, but added that her volunteer work with Hadassah and the Puffin Foundation, together with her gardening efforts, “don’t let me get bored.”
She describes her garden as “luxurious, very green and interesting. I make a tonic from pomegranate,” she said, “an elixir with 18 herbs. People love it.”
To obtain a Puffin Foundation calendar, visit www.puffinfoundation.org. The August illustration is a photo of Israeli Arab and Jewish youth working together to build a “diwan,” or meeting place, as part of a conflict-resolution project. The second part of the project, which a Puffin Foundation grant helped fund, brought the youths to Camp Shomria in Liberty, N.Y., for a workshop.