Born in Auschwitz, Israeli Artist, 102, Harnesses the Dark and the Light


“The color returned to me,” Ms. Berlinski said. “Not to my life, but to me. I don’t know why.”

It has been more than 20 years since her solo “Black Flowers” exhibition was held at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, one of the peaks of a long career. But this month, Ms. Berlinski, now a widow, is emerging once again into the limelight, with a tribute exhibition and sale of her works at ArtSpace, a small gallery in the leafy neighborhood of German Colony in Jerusalem, where she has lived for more than 50 years.

Ms. Berlinski’s 11th-floor apartment, a short walk from the gallery, is ordinarily a quiet place, its walls lined with portraits of her vanished family and her late husband, Eliyahu Berlinski, known as Elec. But one recent weekday, it was abuzz.

Linda Zisquit, an American-born poet and the director of ArtSpace, which represents contemporary Israeli artists, was visiting to choose some pieces with the help of Orna Millo, another Israeli artist, who curated Ms. Berlinski’s last solo exhibition, in 2002, at Jerusalem Artists House.

Ms. Berlinski’s caretaker, Jenny Borjas, rushed around, helping to arrange the furniture for a photo shoot. (Ms. Borjas may also have had something to do with Ms. Berlinski’s more colorful work of late. She said she had encouraged Ms. Berlinski to return to using reds and a more cheerful palette.)

In the catalog for the 2002 exhibition, Ms. Millo wrote, “Tova Berlinski’s paintings are very personal, in the style ‘I only knew how to tell my own story. My world is as narrow as an ant’s world.’ But through her prism, we can feel also the Israeli experience, and the difficulties of our existence in this country.”

Describing what she called “My Pictorial Biography,” Ms. Berlinski wrote in the catalog: “Every portrait in the painting of my family tells a different story, but all are close to my heart with a love that time will not eradicate.”

Photo

Linda Zisquit, a curator and gallery owner, setting up an exhibition in Jerusalem of Ms. Berlinski’s work.

Credit
Dan Balilty for The New York Times

Those haunting portraits — of her father, her mother, her brother — hang on the walls of her salon, resonating with memories.

Born Gusta Wolf to a Hasidic family, Ms. Berlinski has fond memories of growing up in Oswiecim, where about half the 12,000 residents were Jewish.

“I very much loved that town,” she said.

She met Elec, from nearby Sosnowiec, where her father had a furniture store, through their activities in Beitar, the right-wing Zionist youth movement. Ten days after marrying, they set off for what was then the British Mandate of Palestine, to join the pioneers working to establish Israel.

They arrived on a ship of unauthorized immigrants, landing clandestinely, at night, south of Haifa, to evade the British authorities, who had imposed restrictions on Jewish immigration.

For a while, she said, she kept contact with her family until it was no longer possible to get letters to them. According to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, the Jews of Oswiecim, whose property had been confiscated, were rounded up in 1941 and deported to ghettos, including to Sosnowiec, before being sent to the death camps. The town’s once-thriving Jewish community ceased to exist.

Ms. Berlinski was the oldest of six children. Her parents and four siblings were killed — most of them, she said, in Auschwitz. One sister survived, then moved to Germany and, eventually, to Israel. She is the one who lived to tell Ms. Berlinski that the rest of the family had perished.

“I felt great pain,” Ms. Berlinski said. “That pain I feel to this day.”

Life in the British Mandate of Palestine, carved out of the former Ottoman Empire, was hard at first. The young couple, who remained childless, lived in the mobilized units formed by Beitar. Ms. Berlinski worked in the kitchens and orchards. Elec spent a few months in a British prison camp and fought in the Negev during the 1948 war over the creation of the Israeli state.

Having left Beitar, which they found too militaristic, the couple moved to Tel Aviv. Ms. Berlinski took up acting for a while at the Cameri Theater. Mr. Berlinski had begun working for the government, and around 1950, they moved to Jerusalem. Ms. Berlinski began studying at one of the young state’s oldest institutions, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design.

In the 1970s, she joined the Climate group of Israeli artists, which promoted the idea of local Israeli painting as a rejection of imported art movements, but she soon broke with them, and the group was dismantled. Ms. Berlinski moved to the left politically and became active in Peace Now, an Israeli group that advocates ending the occupation, and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ultimately, Ms. Berlinski’s life, and the tribute exhibition of her work, is a celebration of endurance and survival. But she has not shut out Poland or Oswiecim; she has been back several times. In Oswiecim, she has visited the children of a woman who had been her mother’s close friend.

She remembered her mother’s garden being full of flowers. The black flowers, she said, were for her parents, since there were no graves to visit, nothing left. She donated a painting of a black flower to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum during a visit to the former concentration camp in 2006.

On the wall of her living room, among portraits, is a framed letter in Polish. It was signed by the mayor of Oswiecim, congratulating her on reaching the age of 100.

“On this extraordinary day, I extend to you greetings from the heart, from the city of your birth, Oswiecim.”

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