Shmuel Leitner always wanted to be an artist.
It seems that one of the truths of the Holocaust is that even as people were tortured and demeaned and dehumanized, robbed of love and hope, sometimes they were able to hold onto shattered bits of the people they had been. Sometimes they used those shards to slash an escape, or to cut calluses from their hearts once they were liberated.
Shmuel Leitner always wanted to be an artist. Eventually, he succeeded; some of his work will be on display at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s Holocaust commemoration on Wednesday night. (See box.)
Mr. Leitner was born in 1925 in Bendjin, Poland, to a secular family, “integrated into Polish life,” as his daughter-in-law Ruth Leitner said.
“His father was a barber, the family had been barbers for generations, and the center of their lives was the barber shop. Shmuel had a brother, Felix, who was four years younger. Shmuel was supposed to be a barber – but the Holocaust happened.”
Mr. Leitner was not sent to a death camp or a concentration camp. Instead, he “was sent to seven different labor camps, starting when he was 16 years old,” Ms. Leitner said. All of them were in Germany.
“He was talented as a draftsman, and the Germans used his skills to make roads. He claims that what saved his life was these skills.” How did the Germans know that he could sketch? “He doesn’t know,” his daughter-in-law said. “But he knows that it saved his life.”
He kept drawing, from camp to camp to camp. “There were no pencils and no paper, and no drawing boards, so he drew with the little stubs of pencil that he could find, and on scraps of paper.” Those scraps — most of them lost and recreated by memory — make up “Days of Darkness 1938-1945,” Mr. Leitner’s book.
Mr. Leitner was liberated in 1945. “He went back to his town and he found that there was nobody there. There were no Jews left. And nobody who was there knew anything about his family.”
He had been a Zionist before the war, so he tried to get to Palestine by ship, but the British stopped the ship, called “Lanegev,” and sent its passengers to detention in Cyprus. He waited from 1946 to 1948. While he was there, he studied art with a famous Israeli artist, Naftali Bezem, who also was detained there. He met his wife, Miriam, who was born in the town of Auschwitz and had been imprisoned in concentration camps, and they married there. In 1948, the Leitners got to Israel, where they remarried; the next year, their only child, Ruth’s husband Gaby, was born.
The Leitners were among the founders of Kibbutz Gazit in the northern Galilee. Although Miriam — who had been weakened by her ordeal by torture at the Nazis’ hands, never fully regained her health — has died, Shmuel still belongs to the kibbutz, and Gaby was the kibbutz’s first child.
Gazit’s founders were almost all survivors from Poland, Ms. Leitner said, but from the 1950s — soon after it was created — until the 1970s, it welcomed large numbers of Argentinian immigrants, who changed and also strengthened it.
Like so many survivors then, “those Polish survivors never spoke a word about their experiences when they arrived in ’48 and ’49,” Ms. Leitner said. “They had one goal – to regain stability and a healthy family. Gaby never heard a word about the Holocaust growing up.”
Mr. Leitner taught art on the kibbutz three days a week; he also worked in the kitchen, “paying his dues,” Ruth Leitner said. And he became a prolific artist. “He does amazing ceramics and paintings,” his daughter-in-law said. “Colorful paintings of nature, and of families.” The work about the Holocaust came much later. And his experiences have come out only in his art. “I have known him for more than 50 years, and I have never spoken more than 10 words to him at a time. He is not communicative at all – except in his art. It all goes into his art.”
Mr. Leitner knew that his parents had died, and he believed that his brother had as well. “And then, in 1983, he found out that his brother was alive and well and living in Poland, under the assumed name of a Polish person,” Ms. Leitner said. There was a Polish man living near the Leitners’ town whose son had died. “He gave his Polish son’s papers and identity card to Felix Leitner, and Felix became Stefan Something, a Polish boy.” Felix/Stefan was 11 then, and he became purely Stefan, a Pole. “He married a Polish woman, and he became a Polish man with a Polish wife.
For 40 years he lived that way, and then — this was 35 years ago — he came to the kibbutz. He was walking around, alive and well.”
The two men rediscovered each other, and Shmuel visited Stefan in Poland. He also sent Stefan packages, because Poland was very poor then. But it still was Communist, and “they were afraid that if he got packages from Israel, then Stefan would be discovered as a Jew. So they sent packages, but through Vienna.”
In 1989, when it was safe, Stefan visited his family in Israel. “He was a Polish gentleman,” Ms. Leitner said. “He gave us three kisses on the hand. He didn’t know any language that we knew, but Gaby’s parents spoke Polish with him. They were just glowing from the visit.
“And then he went back to Poland, and we never saw him again, and we know that he died.”
Gaby Leitner went on to earn a doctorate in immunology, and become “world-renowned as a scientist,” his wife said. “This is a guy whose parents never finished grade school.” They never had that opportunity. But the Leitners kept their pain from their son and daughter-in-law, and even when Gaby and Ruth — who is American-born and has many family members in the United States — left Israel to study, “they never said anything. They never tried to influence us to stay.”
But by the time they were grandparents, the Leitners were ready to talk. Their grandchildren all went to Poland on the March of the Living. “And in the 1990s, after 40 years, they started telling the stories — and that’s when Shmuel started creating his Holocaust art.
There are now 17 Leitners; “second, third, and fourth-generation Holocaust survivors,” Ms. Leitner said. “We were at the memorial in Berlin, standing over Hitler’s bunker, and we had the feeling that the Leitner family beat the Nazis. Literally and figuratively. And that is the message of the exhibit.”
Who: Hadassah Lieberman
What: Will give the keynote talk at the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey’s annual Holocaust commemoration
Where: At Temple Beth Sholom, 40-25 Fair Lawn Ave., in Fair Lawn
When: On Wednesday, April 11; the art exhibit begins at 6 p.m., and Hadassah Lieberman will speak at 6:30.
For more information: Go to www.tbsfl.org or call either the main number, (201)797-9321, or Roz Melzer at (201) 791-3463.