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Esther Lurie
1913-1998

BiographyWorks

Esther Lurie was born in Liepaja, Latvia, to a religious Jewish family with five children. Her family were forced to leave during World War I because the city's importance as a military port. In 1917 they shifted to Riga, where Lurie graduated from Ezra Gymnasium (high school). She already showed artistic talent in kindergarten and began to develop professionally from the age of fifteen, studying with various teachers. From 1931-1934 she learned theatrical set design at the Institut des Arts Décoratifs in Brussels, and afterwards studied drawing at the Académie Royal des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp.

In 1934 Lurie migrated to Palestine with most of her family and worked at various artistic activities. She designed sets for the Hebrew Theatre, as well as works for the Adloyada in Tel Aviv, the Bialik exhibition and the Eastern Fair. When events limited theatrical activity in Palestine, she devoted herself to drawing - producing many portraits. Her favorite subjects were dancers and musicians. She also travelled to many kibbutzim, painting the landscapes of Palestine, and her works were exhibited in kibbutzim dining rooms. Her first exhibition took place in Kibbutz Geva in 1937. In 1938 she was accepted as a member of the Painters and Sculptors Association in Palestine. She held solo exhibitions in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. In 1938 she won the Dizengoff Prize for Drawing - the most prestigious prize - for a work entitled "The Palestine Orchestra". This was shown at the general exhibition of Palestine artists in the Tel Aviv Museum.

In 1939 she travelled to Europe to further her studies, visiting France and attending the the Académie Royal des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp. That summer she visited relatives in Latvia and Lithuania, exhibiting work at the Painters' Association Building in Riga and also at Kovno (Kaunas) in Lithuania (both in 1939). The next year she held another exhibition at Kovno's Royal Opera House on the theme of "The Ballet". Her works received great acclaim and some of them were purchased by local Jewish institutions and by the Kovno State Museum. After the Nazi occupation they were confiscated, being defined as "Jewish art".

World War II had begun while she was in Lithuania and during the Nazi occupation (1941-44) she was imprisoned in the Kovno ghetto along with the other Jews. As soon as she entered the ghetto, in mid-1941, Lurie began to sketch views of her new world. She has left behind a detailed written testimony of her life and work during World War II. This combination of literary and visual testimony make up a "living witness" (the name she would later give to one of her books). They enable us to enter deeply into her life as an artist during this period under these difficult conditions. She wrote:

    Everything that was happening all around was so strange, so different from all the ideas and practices of our lives hitherto. I felt that I must report on this new existence or at least make sketches. I must depict things as I saw them. Admittedly, it was only during periods of relative calm that I could devote myself to any such activity. But in the course of time I began to regard this work of mine as a duty.[1]

Lurie has written about her sources of inspiration and about the extensive cooperation she received from the residents of the ghetto:

    The place where I first set out to sketch was the "Reserverat". The former school for handicrafts contained all the families who had been unable to obtain any other quarters. People lived in a big courtyard where they cooked on stones. There I found ample material: heaps and piles of furniture that had been transformed into queer barricades, and now served as residential quarters. Here were children, old folk, all sorts of Jewish types. Life was going on everywhere, in every corner; conversations and quarrels, some folk attending to various things while others just sat doing nothing or studied a book. When I sat down in a corner of the courtyard I was promptly surrounded. My work interested them very much, and each and every one was prepared to help. Somebody would stand sentinel to warn me if the Germans came. The people very much liked the idea that I should make a permanent record of "how it was."[2]

Later on, the members of the Ältestenrat (Council of Elders) were shown one of her works. Recognising the value of her work as historical documentation, they asked her to draw everything that was happening in the ghetto.

    Dr Elkes, President of the Committee, and his fellow members, welcomed this step of mine and asked me to go on collecting and recording material of this kind. Their attitude encouraged me. Henceforward I set out to sketch whatever seemed important to me; but this was not a simple or easy undertaking, for it was dangerous to do any sketching in the streets [...] strangers agreed to permit me to paint from the window of their home [...] The people of the house were friendly and concerned. "What should be done to make sure that your pictures will survive?" they used to ask.[3]

The help that Lurie received from people - and their concern about how to preserve her art - shows the great importance that was attached to her work. In this period of destruction and annihilation, it seemed very likely that the subjects of the works would not survive, so it was all the more important that these documents and commemorations should last. This was why she was asked: "What should we do to preserve your paintings?"

Despite her sense of responsibility and the cooperation of the ghetto inmates - both the ghetto administration and the other prisoners - Lurie did not have the strength to draw all the time. Her written account sheds light on the connection between the emotional distress of the artist and the creation of art works - a concern expressed by artists in other camps with similar conditions:

    For a long time I stopped my drawing. These were days of constant fear, of a harsh and coarsening struggle for existence. The German method was: action followed by a brief relaxation until the next action, which again came as a surprise. I was also conscripted for forced labour. Only occasionally, on some free day, did the painter Jacob Lifshitz and I sketch "Ghetto Types". Then once again I was invited to the Jewish Committee. There I was informed of a resolution to encourage all initiative in the Ghetto that could be connected with the collection of historical material. Secrecy had to be preserved. I was promised every assistance as long as I continued to paint the life of the Ghetto [...] A temporary release from forced labour was obtained on my behalf. It was not easy. I was placed on the list of "Ghetto workers", and received leave for two months.[4]

In fact, this "conscripted" artist, for whom such a great effort had been made to enable her to concentrate on depicting ghetto life, drew extensively, covering every detail of the ghetto. She was assisted by both the residents and the local police.

    I went to sketch as much as was left of the Hospital of the Little Ghetto, which the Germans had destroyed [...] I sketched at the Communal Kitchen, where a little thin soup was distributed to old people and forsaken children. These people were quite indifferent to all that was going on around them, and paid no attention to me [...] I wished to make a record of the working people, the masses.

    Sometimes I was permitted to sit in the Jewish Police station and sketch from a window on the second floor, through which it was possible to see the main gate and the entire surroundings [...] There I sketched a number of people as they went out to work with big home-made gloves, carrying food containers and with knapsacks on their backs or at their sides.

    On several occasions I painted the Actions Square where, by the "Little Blocks" was the spot dividing the Jews who were sent "right" from those who were sent "left" on the day of the Big Action.[5]

In addition to the characters and events, Lurie also depicted the landscapes, whose beauty was in direct contradiction to the terrors of life in the ghetto.

    A subject which I painted many times at all seasons was the road that led from the "Ghetto Valley" to the "Ninth Fort" on the hilltop [view one of these works]. A row of lofty trees at the wayside gave the road a singular character. The highway to the hilltop remains etched deep in my memory as a Via Dolorosa, taken by tens of thousands of Jews from Lithuania and Western Europe on the way to their deaths. There were days when the grey clouds gave this place a peculiarly tragic aspect which accorded with our feelings.[6]

In the Kovno ghetto, as in other camps and ghettos, inmates attempted to preserve a semblance of normal life by sticking to normal routines and by maintaining cultural activities. These included an exhibition of Esther Lurie's works which Avraham Golub (Tory), the secretary of the Ältestenrat, wrote about in his ghetto diary. In these writings he offers his own views and those of Lurie on the roles of artist and documenter. The artist had to be, he wrote, the "mouth" of the single, lone person, to commemorate also the "small" details, from which the mosaic of experience was composed. He wrote:

    In the afternoon there was an exhibition of drawings by the artist Esther Lurie for a small group of people. This is an artist versed in international culture, rich in ideas. From the first days of the ghetto she made it her goal to commemorate the visions of the ghetto, by means of drawings and characters meaningful to Jewish history [...]

    Every artist in the ghetto must commemorate - in Esther Lurie's opinion - in accordance with his method and ability, everything that happens in the ghetto. The important occurrences and major events will remain in the memory of the people, but the suffering of the individual will be forgotten.

    This testament obliges us, first and foremost, to remember and to draw events and facts, people and characters, important pictures and moments. To commemorate everything. In the spoken word and in writing, in sketching and painting. In every possible artistic method.

    Esther Lurie responded to this call and she does it wholeheartedly [...]. Every drawing is a piece of the history of endless pain, an expression of emotional and physical martyrdom. [...] Today [...] the faces of the participants lit up for a minute in the presence of Esther Lurie's drawings of the ghetto. Additional proof of the non-capitulation of the Jewish spirit under all conditions at all times.

    Kovno Ghetto, July 25, 1943.[7]

In addition to her "conscripted" work on behalf of the Judenrat (Jewish Council), the Nazis also showed interest in Lurie's artistic talent. As the ghetto emptied out, after the aktion (roundup) of the children and elderly on 27 March 1944, the SS men now lived among the Jews and interfered with everything, causing constant tension. At that time Lurie was working in the painting and drawing workshops, where the imprisoned artists were employed. They painted pictures to order for the German commanders, but this mostly consisted of large oil paintings based on color reproductions. The Germans also ordered artistic photographs, and for this they constructed a studio and brought in a Jewish photographer from a forced labor camp.

Lurie drew everywhere in the ghetto, including the various workshops. Among the workshops she was permitted to visit was the pottery workshop. During her visits there, Lurie got the idea of asking the Jewish potters to prepare a number of jars for her. She would use these to conceal her art works if the situation worsened. The situation did grow worse. After the deportation of 26 October 1943, in which 3,000 ghetto inmates were removed to forced labor camps in Estonia, Lurie hid her art collection - approximately 200 drawings and watercolors of 25 x 35 cm - in the large jars she had prepared in advance. Some of her works were photographed beforehand for ghetto's hidden archive.

In July 1944, as the Red Army approached Lithuania, the ghetto was liquidated and those remaining were transferred to concentration camps and forced labor camps in Germany. The ghetto was set on fire and the buildings were blown up and burnt to prevent those hiding from escaping. Some people were burned to death in their hiding places.

Esther Lurie was sent to Germany, leaving her hidden works behind. After the war some of her drawings were recovered, surviving with the Ältestenrat's archive. Avraham Tory succeeded in rescuing 11 sketches and watercolors and 20 of the photographs of her works. He took these to Israel. Lurie was unable to discover what happened to the remainder of her works.

Esther Lurie, along with the other women from the ghetto, was placed in Stutthof concentration camp, where she remained until the end of July 1944. She was separated from her sister, with whom she had lived during the whole ghetto period. Lurie's sister and young nephew were deported to Auschwitz and did not survive the war.

As in the ghetto, Lurie continued to receive requests to draw and commemorate Stutthof inmates. More than once her art served her as barter for food:

    I managed to get hold of a pencil and some scraps of paper. I started to draw some of the various "types" among the women prisoners. Young girls, who had "friends" among the male inmates and who used to get gifts of food, asked me to draw their portrait. The payment - a piece of bread.[8]

    I also did some drawings of women wearing "pyjamas" [view example] at the Stutthof Concentration Camp. They were drawn in pencil on poor-quality paper which I received from a girl who worked at registering the prisoners. These drawings I hid in my clothes for the five months we spent in the labour camp.[9]

In August 1944 Lurie was moved, along with another 1,200 prisoners, to forced labor camps in Germany. She was sent to Leibitz, where she depicted several of the prisoners (view example). She has written about this time:

    The following are the circumstances which made it possible for me to produce these drawings. Each of us was required to wear attached to the left sleeve her prisoner's number and the Shield of David printed on a strip of linen, which we received when our clothes were handed out to us at the Stutthof concentration camp. In the course of the time the linen was torn or numbers became blurred and had to be restored. This became my duty. When a certain quantity of number strips had been collected, I was excused from field work in order to attend to them.

    During our last month in the camp, when hundreds of women demanded the renewal of their numbers, I was attached to the "Innendienst" (Internal Service) of the camp and became "Nummerschreiberin" (Number Writer). I was permitted to stay in the sickroom. I was given ink and wrote with slivers of wood. Here at last I saw an opportunity to draw and sketch some of our women. To give me something to draw on, our doctor collected the white paper off the cottonwool.

    Once one of the guards saw me drawing and asked me to do a sketch of him. I did so and in return he brought me paper, pens and China ink.

    Naturally I had to be careful not to be seen or caught sketching by the Nazi guards. I could not spend much time at it. I succeeded in completing only a small number of sketches much as I longed to record on paper all that I saw. Yet the presence of the camp commandant, Oberscharführer OLK, nicknamed "Schnabel" (Beak), filled the soul with dread and fear [...] The hope of remaining alive was so faint. Still less could I hope that the drawings would be left in my possession, even if I were to succeed in evading death. Day by day we expected to be sent back from there to the concentration camp, where everything could be taken away from us. This I knew by experience.

    These sketches [done in the labour camp] were drawn after OLK had been replaced and a more human commandant came to our camp.[10]

Lurie was liberated by the Red Army on 21 January 1945. In March 1945 she reached a camp in Italy, where she met Jewish soldiers from Palestine who were serving in the British army. One of them, the artist Menahem Shemi, organized an exhibition of drawings from the camps, which resulted in the publication of a booklet Jewesses in Slavery. This contained drawings by Lurie from Stutthof and Leibitz and was published by the Jewish Soldiers' Club of Rome in 1945. Lurie also created stage sets for the military song and dance group in the camp, which was founded by Eliahu Goldberg and Mordechai Zeira.

Lurie reached Israel (Palestine) in July 1945 and was received with great excitement. Her stories were published in the press and her drawings were exhibited in exhibitions. In 1946 she was again awarded the Dizengoff Prize for a sketch Girl with Yellow Badge, which she had made in the Kovno ghetto.

Lurie married and raised a family. She continued to create and exhibit in group and solo exhibitions in Israel and elsewhere. Although she lived in Tel Aviv throughout her life in Israel, Jerusalem became her focus after the Six Day War and its landscapes are found in many of her works.

During the Eichmann trial, which took place in Jerusalem in 1961, Lurie's Second World War works were exhibited as part of the testimony - giving an "official authorization" from Israel's Supreme Court to the rich documentary value of her sketches and watercolors. This is in addition to their aesthetic value as objects of art.

Esther Lurie passed away in Tel Aviv in 1998.

Lurie donated her works from the Holocaust period to the collection of Beit Lohamei Haghetaot (Ghetto Fighters' House Museum). Her works can also be found at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and in a number of private collections.


(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)

Photo: Beit Lohamei Heghetaot


Footnotes

[1] Esther Lurie. A Living Witness - Kovna Ghetto. Dvir, Tel Aviv, 1958, pp.9-10

[2] A Living Witness, p.10

[3] A Living Witness, p.10

[4] A Living Witness, p.13

[5] A Living Witness, p.13

[6] A Living Witness, pp.13-14

[7] Avraham Tori. Ghetto Everyday. Bialik Institute, Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, 1988, pp.362,363,365,366

[8] Esther Lurie. "Notes of an Artist", from Notes for Holocaust Research, Second collection, February 1952, p.113

[9] Esther Lurie. Sketches from a Women's Labour Camp. Third edition, J. L. Peretz, Tel Aviv, 1962, pp.13-14

[10] Sketches, pp.12-13

References

Esther Lurie. Sketches from a Women's Labour Camp. J.L. Peretz, Tel Aviv, 1962. Third edition, a re-edition of: Jewesses in Slavery. Jewish Soldiers' Club, Rome, 1945.

Esther Lurie. A Living Witness – Kovno Ghetto. Dvir, Tel Aviv, 1958.

Esther Lurie. Jerusalem – 12 Drawings and Paintings. Introduction by Miriam Tal. United Artists Ltd., Tel Aviv, no date.

Esther Lurie. "From the Impressions of a Painter" in Pages for the Study of the Holocaust and the Resistance, Second Edition, January 1952, pp. 91-115.

Avraham Tory. Ghetto Everyday: Diary and Documents from the Kovno Ghetto. Edited with an introduction and notes by Dina Porat. The Bialik Institute, Tel Aviv University, 1988.