When you look at his art, you see eyes.
Sometimes they’re looking down, sometimes they’re looking away, and sometimes they’re looking right at you.
They’re unmistakably Holocaust art. There’s nothing cheery or uplifting about them. They’re a survivor’s art. And if the only story that their creator, the painter Jerzy Bitters, had to tell was that story, that would be more than story enough.
But Mr. Bitter’s story goes on from there, full of improbable turns, almost a work of magical realism, but it’s real, if possibly stranger than fiction. One of its most unifying components, his art — and what his art told us about pain, strength, despair, and survival — is on view now at the Upstairs Gallery at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair.
Anna Hertzberg of Montclair, who had known Mr. Bitter for the last few decades of his life — he died last year — made the connection to Shomrei Emunah.
Her friend Jerzy Bitter’s story started in Lvov, a Russian-occupied city in what was then called the Ukraine, in 1941, Ms. Hertzberg said. (She calls him by his nickname, Urek.) His mother, Cecylia, a Polish-born educator, had fled there to escape the Germans in 1939; she met Marek Bitter in Lvov, and they married. Soon they were pushed into the city’s ghetto.
When Urek was an infant, “his mother heard rumors that the ghetto would be disassembled,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “That means that they would be killed. Everybody would be killed. So she snuck out of the ghetto, and got on a train full of Germans.”
Cecylia was “brilliant and incredibly courageous,” Ms. Hertzberg said.
She got Marek and Urek out too, and “they voluntarily went to Warsaw.” Frying pan, meet fire.
Soon the Bitters, like everyone else in the Warsaw Ghetto, were barely surviving, crowding in an apartment with four other families, getting by on almost no food — “historical fact, the Nazis were trying to keep them on 200 calories a day. That will last you two months, and then you will die of starvation,” Ms. Hertzberg said — and then somehow Cecylia got them out.
She’s not exactly sure how, Ms. Hertzberg said, but she does know that the “blonde, blue-eyed” woman climbed the internal hierarchy that got her close to the Gestapo. She could pass as a non-Jew, but “baby Urek had the features that anti-Semitic people say look Jewish,” so she always had to be aware of that. She might have had to do some morally compromised things to get out, Ms. Hertzberg said, but “it was necessary. They were saving some people and condemning others to die.”
So “she managed to escape,” with her baby but without her husband. She had some addresses to go to; people would hide her for a little while, until the neighbors started getting suspicious, and then she would move on.” She kept Urek with her for a while, but once he started to walk, it became increasingly difficult. But she found “two teachers, two ladies who lived right outside of Warsaw who could take him in, but not her. Urek would always mention them as angels sent from heaven.”
Soon, though, it became too risky for the two women, and Urek was taken to a “Catholic orphanage, run by priests. His mother was not present in his life then. He was there for a few years, first with those two ladies and then at the orphanage, where they taught him the catechism.” Meanwhile, his mother, who was fluent in Polish and German as well as Yiddish, was able to survive by passing as a non-Jew and working as a servant.
Marek Bitter was sent to the concentration camp Majdanek; he somehow escaped, found his way to the partisans in the forest, and fought with them. “If people escaped a camp, they’d find themselves in a different sort of danger,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “From the Poles. When Poles found Jews, they’d kill them. So he had to hide. The logical solution was to enlist in the underground. So he did.”
After the war, Cecylia reclaimed Urek. “They miraculously reunited with Marek,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “They saw each other in a market. If I remember correctly, someone had tipped Marek off that his wife survived, and that she lived in a little town south of Warsaw.”
The family moved to Warsaw, and Marek worked on a high level for what became the Central Committee of the Jews in Poland. “It’s a very important organization preserving Jewish history,” Ms. Hertzberg said.
The family lived well; Mr. Bitter had a high-paying job and Ms. Bitter became an academic, eventually earning a doctorate in economics. But they’d survived hell, and “nobody had ever heard of post-traumatic stress,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “Nobody was treated for it.” And she knows; she also is from Warsaw. She was born after the war, but her parents, like his, were survivors.
Because of his father’s job, “Urek could travel to France and to England,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “That was rare. As a young man, he could speak several European languages. Of course we all knew Russian, that was mandatory, but English and French were elite, and Urek had them.
“He was well-known in certain circles,” she continued. “He was extremely popular in Warsaw. He was very handsome, and he was well-off. There weren’t really rich people in Poland then. The meaningful currency was education. The more you had, the more important you were.
“So Urek was famous, because he was one of the youngest if not the youngest doctoral student in Warsaw. He was studying chemical engineering at the Warsaw University of Technology.”
The Bitters were “traditional” Jews, Ms. Hertzberg said. “Jewish tradition was very important in their home, and that wasn’t that popular in Poland. Usually the Jews who returned to Poland — who went back there from their hiding places — were secular.”
So maybe it wasn’t entirely surprising when the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel “invited him to do his doctoral studies there.
“This was a huge honor. He was the only student in the whole city who received such an honor. So he went.” It was 1965.
In 1967, “he had a terrible accident,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “He was riding on his motorcycle, a Vespa. He was giving a friend a ride, and a truck came from the other direction. It was a combine, and its knife blades were sticking out. One of them hit him on the neck.
“Urek lost a lot of blood, and he fell into a coma. Some people said it lasted for six weeks, he said it lasted for three months. The doctors almost gave up on him.
“But his mother came from Poland and sat at his bedside. She was there day and night. She slept by his side, and she talked to him. People who were around him claimed that he came back to life mainly or even only because his mother was there.
“He said later that he could hear sounds” — his mother’s one-way conversation with him — “while he was in the coma. He couldn’t react to them, but he heard, and it kept him hopeful.”
He’d had a stroke when he was in the coma, so when he awakened, his right side was paralyzed. “He almost lost his speech,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “And he lost his knowledge of chemical engineering.
“His scientific brain went away.
“He slowly learned how to speak again. He’d had fluent Hebrew; he regained his Polish and his English, and some of his Hebrew and some of his French.” But he never could be a scientist again.
Jerzy Bitter had to reinvent himself entirely. He could not be a chemical engineer. But, as it turned out, he could be an artist; he could gain access to parts of his brain that had been shut off to him — perhaps out of lack of interest, or lack of time — before his accident.
During his time in recovery, his father had died, and his mother went to the United States, where she remarried, becoming Dr. Cecylia Bitter Federman. Eventually her son followed. First, he tried to work at a chemical lab, “but he couldn’t, because he had only one functioning hand, and he had to deal with delicate substances.”
But he kept drawing, and his mother realized that he was good.
“She was an amazing lioness. She fought for him, for his future, for his happiness.” She managed to use her connections to get him into NYU’s masters program in fine arts.
“He became a celebrity there, at NYU, because of his past and his multilayered history and his talents,” Ms. Hertzberg said.
“Needless to say, he had to train his left hand.” He remained paralyzed on his right side. “He started drawing and then painting in watercolors and in oils. He is hands down the most prolific artist I have ever met or heard of or read about. He mastered painting with one arm starting at the age of about 30.”
Mr. Bitter met a woman; they married and had a daughter. It is an understatement to say that the marriage didn’t work out. “She turned out to be a drug addict,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “She was very cruel to him, and preyed on his handicap, on the fact that he was an invalid, and she neglected the baby.
“So his mother took over. She was an incredibly smart person, strong like a masonry wall. His wife left and never returned — the apartment was full of roaches.” So he and his daughter moved to West 28th Street; he stayed in that Manhattan neighborhood for the rest of his life.
“And then, with the help of his mother, who lived in the same complex, and her husband, they raised that child.
Ms. Hertzberg tells a story she’d heard from another artist, a friend of hers and of Urek’s. “Urek was already maybe 30, in a program in NYU with all these young students, and it turns out that his suffering enriched him as an artist.
“Every artist’s worst nightmare is what if I don’t know what to paint? What if I don’t have an idea? Because a teacher can teach technical skills, but you can’t teach insight. The teacher told the students, ‘Mr. Bitter might not have access to as many techniques as you guys have, but one thing for sure — he’ll never run out of scenes to paint.’
“And it’s true. Once he found this mode of expression, it was a never-ending torrent. To his last days, he drew and painted about the Holocaust.”
It was around that time that Mr. Bitter met Ms. Hertzberg and her friends, mainly Polish Jews who had been born after the war and no longer were welcome in Poland. Many of them had heard of Mr. Bitter, and they began to look out for — and look up to — him.
“Urek started appearing at our parties,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “We started collecting his paintings. We wanted to help him out — and we also wanted his art. He had a lot of exhibits at first, but then it kind of faded out in the 80s because the Holocaust was not fashionable any more.
“Urek didn’t have an agent. He painted entirely on the theme of the Holocaust.” That made his art a hard sell. “His painting are beautiful, and they are morose. Not many people want to hang it in their living rooms.”
Mr. Bitter painted for the rest of his life.
“He was a full-time artist,” Ms. Hertzberg said. ‘He never did anything else, and he painted every single day of his life. He had a studio where he painted.”
The Polish-Jewish-American friends would have parties. One of them, a cardiologist with a very successful career and a wonderful voice — “he was the heart of every party,” Ms. Hertzberg said — “would pull out his guitar, and we would all sing, all the old Yiddish and Polish and Russian songs we grew up with.
Eventually, Mr. Bitter’s health wore down. “Imagine being a single man with only one good leg and one good arm, living in an apartment alone,” Ms. Hertzberg said; his daughter was an adult by then. He started falling; he’d often go to the hospital. Eventually, Ms. Hertzberg, who is a semi-retired architect whose own partner, the psychotherapist Robert Markman, had just died, began to take care of Mr. Bitter. “It was my therapy,” she said.
As she spent more time with him, she learned more about him. “He’d tell me stories about his life,” she said. “He was a deeply humane being. He was very advanced in his liberal thinking. He wanted everybody to be included in all the riches of the world. He suffered when the Syrian war happened; he suffered with the refugees. He cried. He was so adored because he always had this childlike sweetness.”
When he was young, Ms. Hertzberg said, “he looked a lot like Alain Delon. He was the incarnation of male beauty. He had a lot of women who adored him. There was a lot of romance.” During those many days they spent together, Mr. Bitter told her about some of those relationships. “His life was very dramatic in every possible way.”
Toward the end of his life, Mr. Bitter had one last adventure. Ms. Hertzberg had met a couple — two young Germans, actress Maria Ehrich and journalist Manuel Vering, who were visiting the United States. “They were on a quest,” she said. “They were making a documentary on special people in the world. They had met a woman in Ghana, a blind Balkan woman, who was running an orphanage. They met a great artist in Mexico. They’d met some other heroes. And I said, ‘Oh! I have a friend who might be of interest.’
“They immediately jumped on the project.
“We went to Urek’s apartment, they conducted an interview with him, and they loved him. On the way back, this young girl cried, she was so moved by him. And they promised that he would be part of their movie.”
They kept their word. Their documentary is called “In the Frame”; not only is Mr. Bitter in the film, he even shows up briefly in the trailer, which is online and easily googleable. (Also it’s in German, but the photos are clear.)
“She asked him who do you most want to see your paintings, and he said, ‘The Germans, of course. I want the German people to have a full picture of what their ancestors did, and how it affected the world. How much suffering.’
“She promised him through tears that she would do that.”
Mr. Bitter and Ms. Hertzberg had hoped that they could go to Germany for the opening, but his illness prevented that.When he realized that he was dying, Ms. Hertzberg said, “Urek said to me, ‘I am not going to be one of the discarded artists that everyone forgets about, am I?’ And I said, ‘I promise you that you will not be.’
“‘I promise you.’
“So I became a custodian of the paintings.” She does not own them, Ms. Hertzberg said; she just holds some of them. “I just take care of them. I am bound by this promise that I will show his painting to the world, that they will not rot somewhere in storage, in their corrugated cardboard cases.
“And this synagogue, Shomrei Emunah, is the first place that volunteered to show his paintings.”
David Greenstein is the rabbi of Shomrei Emunah. He’s also, among many other things, a painter.
Like everything else, the gallery has been affected by the pandemic. “It’s hampered everyone’s ability to do anything,” he said. “It’s been a big struggle to show art; it’s a challenge that all galleries and museums have been struggling with. We had a wonderful show up for a year that nobody could come to see. We hope that people will be able to come to this show now, because this work deserves to be seen.”
It will be a different experience to look at publicly hung art now than it had been before the pandemic, because “it makes it more of an individual experience,” he said.
“It’s particularly poignant here,” he continued. ‘Art always has to speak one to one to the person who is experiencing it, but in this case obviously it is about survival, about determination in the face of incredible catastrophe.
“On the level of Jewish memory, these works are super-important. On the level of the period that we are living through right now, of connecting up to some sort of strength that we need to keep going, they have an open-ended message. So I hope that we can open this up beyond our own congregation. I hope that we can benefit from this moment and this place. I hope that this show can help people.”
Rabbi Greenstein looked at the paintings hanging in the gallery as he talked about them.
“I don’t see a single picture of a person alone,” he said. “They are all in groups. They are undergoing what they are undergoing; most of them seem to have a sense not of impending doom but of having survived the doom. They have confronted it, and somehow or other they are still standing. Which doesn’t mitigate anything they have gone through.”
Mr. Bitter “talked about being a child survivor. A lot of the power of his work deals with the fragility of this memory. We don’t want to lose it, but it is being transformed as we go through time.
“What is going to happen to these memories? That is a good question, and it is part of what makes these paintings so very powerful.”
Jerzy Bitter’s painting are exhibited in Congregation Shomrei Emunah’s Upstairs Gallery, and the Montclair synagogue’s gallery is open to the public. Call (973) 746-5031 for information.