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Tibor Spitz, The Holocaust, and Me

Tibor & Noemi Spitz photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2022





Those who deny Auschwitz would be ready to remake it.

-Primo Levi 


The wound is the place where the Light enters you.





I first met Tibor Spitz at the opening of his retrospective at the Unison Arts and Learning Center in New Paltz, NY in late August, 2022. One of the co-founders of the center, Helene Bigley, and my Covid walking partner all those difficult months, insisted I meet him. The gallery had re-opened, a celebration. But when she told me that Tibor is a Holocaust survivor from Slovakia, I resisted. Over the years, as Second Generation, I've written a lot about the Holocaust, my own family's story, in particular, and done what Helen Epstein in her book, Children of the Holocaust, calls the "emotion work" for the family. As Epstein writes, many of the survivors kept their stories hidden from their children and from themselves. When the Second Generation began to ask questions, and were met with silence or denial, the family dynamics often shifted. Mine certainly did. Once I found out the truth about my murdered relatives, particularly my maternal grandmother, Nanette, who was killed at Auschwitz in her fifties, I became enraged.


I read and wrote nonstop for many years about the Holocaust, or the Holocaust surfaced in my work unexpectedly as I was writing about other things. I felt it was my mandate, as a writer, to bear witness and document the genocide in a way my parents could not. Eventually, after a lot of writing and therapy, my rage eased and I became interested in international peace-making, truth and reconciliation, conflict resolution and human rights initiatives.


Now older, I am protective of my equilibrium and do not read or write much about the Holocaust anymore, though, oddly, I enjoy German films and contemporary German authors, such as Jenny Erpenbeck,  in which there is a reckoning with the fascist and communist past. (She is East German). Indeed, this is my first foray back into the subject for many years. It's not that the killing fields have faded from memory, only that I can manage the specter of the atrocities and my personal losses if I remain somewhat distanced and self-protective. So, I told my friend Helene that I wouldn't come to Tibor's opening. But then I went anyway, not for fear of disappointing her, but because my curiosity was peaked when I looked Tibor Spitz up online, and saw his paintings. If Chagall had been a pointillist, he would have painted like Tibor Spitz.  I write about art and artists a lot. Why had I never heard of Tibor as an artist before? His canvases and ceramics are masterpieces. Indeed, he is a renowned artist in New York State's mid-Hudson Valley, and beyond. Not to mention, that he is probably one of the only living Holocaust survivors in the mid-Hudson Valley. As is his wife, Noemi. How could I not meet them?


The room was crowded, just about everyone unmasked, except for me and one or two others, as they are these days. Helene spotted me and dragged me over to meet Tibor, a short, muscular man who reminded me both of Picasso and my Austrian- born father. At 93-years-old, Tibor could be my father. And it wasn't only his body, but the shape of his head, the shape of my head, the fulness of the lips, which resembles the Egyptian reliefs of Akhenaten, visually confirming DNA ancestry analysis: we are North African.


Tibor pointed at my mask aggressively and said, "Why are you hiding behind that?" and pulled me towards him in a big bear hug.


Hiding. It was the perfect description of my mood.


I decided to leave, only to return a few days later when Tibor and Noemi were scheduled to do a "gallery sit." I was determined to face his complicated survival story, and to listen to it without interruption;  he and his family had lived for seven months underground in a forest dug-out, no more than  a mound of reinforced earth, overlooking  Dolný Kubín, a mountainous region of northern Slovakia, near the Polish border. They subsisted largely on frozen berries and edible roots, dodging Nazi police patrols. Although he didn't become an artist until he retired as an chemical engineer for IBM in 1968,  he'd always wanted to be an artist, and repeated and stored the mystical stories his cantor father told him when he was a boy, even more so in hiding. "If I hadn't been able to imagine something else, I would have gone insane," he says.


This time the gallery was not crowded. I stood back, notebook in hand, and listened to Tibor talking to a woman about a ceramic image of horses she was interested in buying and heard him say, "To help people feel good is the only thing worth doing. Horses are serene creatures and they are vegetarian."  That gave me pause. Tibor Spitz has found happiness in his work and in sharing his work with admirers. Plus, his remark was humorous. He is neither bitter, nor enraged. I want to get to that peaceful place as I age, I thought.


Eventually, everyone in the gallery left, and there was still some time before closing, so I suggested to Tibor and Noemi that we sit in a circle a bit distanced so I could take off my mask. One of my hearing aids failed, and Noemi offered to put in a new battery, then instructed me on prolonging its life. 


It was now a family gathering. We sat alone, surrounded by Tibor's powerful work talking about painting, writing practice, and the redemptive power of making art. Tibor's work exudes more strength than pain, even a bit of whimsy at times. And the ceramics, in their two dimensionality, bring the faces and bodies from Tibor's memory and imagination to eternal life. 


Tibor Spitz: A Retrospective: Stories, Remembrances," curated by Simon Draper and Faheem Haider, at the Unison Art Gallery in New Paltz, NY will run through September 18.  Call to make an appointment: (845) 255-1559



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