Painting for Her Life

by Susan Slater

Last month, on Yom Hashoah, the Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks said:

 

"We remember what happens when hate takes hold of the human heart and turns it to stone; what happens when victims cry for help and there is no one listening. We remember and pay tribute to the survivors."

 

My mother Marianne Grant, zicharon livrachaha, was one of these survivors, a most remarkable, courageous and inspirational lady and loving mother who despite coming face to face with the angel of death, despite the terrible and unimaginable suffering - was chosen to live. By doing so, not only did she save her mother, but created children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren and future generations.

 

I would like to tell you some of my late mum's story.

 

She was born Marianne Herman, nicknamed Mausi, her father Rudolph (one of ten children) was a bank manager in Prague and her mother Anna, the youngest of a chazzan's three daughters, was a milliner. Mausi was born in Prague on 19 September 1921. She was an only child, and after her schooling, spent a year at a Prague-based English private grammar school. She later attended the famous Rotter Schule of fashion and graphic design in Prague.

 

In April 1938, just a few months before the German occupation of Prague, her father died, and not wanting to leave her mother on her own, Mausi gave up her future place at Jerusalem's Betzalel School of Art. Instead, she worked for the Jewish community as a volunteer with a group called El-Al. By the autumn of 1941 life had become more and more difficult, with all the members of El-Al forced to wear the yellow star.

 

During this period, Mausi was secretly teaching young teenagers fashion design and going to sculpting classes.

 

Several months later, on May 1st 1942, the Jews of Prague were ordered to leave their homes and Mausi and Anna were taken to the Thereisienstadt ghetto where life changed dramatically.

 

Living space was a room in which 40 people slept on the floor.

 

In Thereisienstadt Mausi chose to work in agriculture, so that she could exchange vegetables for bread and other rations.

 

Any spare time she had was spent sketching and painting, especially of the mock cafés that had been set up to trick the Red Cross. She also painted portraits of elderly Austrian and German Jews.

 

She painted scenes of the barracks and the sentry guard house. Remarkably some paintings were very colourful, for example, a painting of the little corner she shared with her mother.

 

Other paintings from Thereisienstadt included the youth room in the ghetto, a sing-song on Shabbat.

 

When she left in haste for Auschwitz, Mausi asked her great friend Peter Erben to look after her paintings, and when he too was deported he asked a friend to look after them. Against the odds, both survived and the paintings were eventually returned to Mausi after the war.

 

By December 1943, the Jewish Council was forced to send 1,000 people per day to go on their cattle trains to the east, namely the Auschwitz- Birkenau concentration camp. Anna was summoned three times, and somehow Mausi was able to get her released. However, the fourth time Mausi was told by Herr Mermelstein - a Nazi collaborator nicknamed "the swine" - that her mother could only stay if she, Mausi 'was nice to him' but she refused. So, Mausi, at the age of 22, not knowing where she was going, forced her way onto the same transport, albeit not the same waggon, to be with her mother.

 

The two day journey with no food or drink and just a bucket in the corner to relieve oneself was horrific. Finally, the train arrived during the night in Auschwitz. Mausi never forgot the piercing sound of the SS shouting Raus, Raus! - out, out!, and killer Doberman dogs barking. She searched all night for her mother in the concrete blocks and finally found her at dawn when there was an emotional reunion.

 

Worse was to come, they were made to strip and herded outside in the bitter Polish winter. They were ordered to walk past SS officers naked, one of whom was the notorious Dr Josef Mengele, holding a leather whip which he pointed to the left to be gassed. My mother and grandmother were ordered to the right. Life in Auschwitz- Birkenau was, as we all know, nightmarish. Standing in the freezing winter temperature sometimes for hours on end took its toll. Mausi had her prize possession, her stout winter shoes stolen only to be replaced with thin canvas clogs. This resulted in her getting black and sceptic toes which caused her excruciating pain.

 

Later, Mausi was ordered to look after the children who were separated from their mothers, and put into the children's block. The Germans kept the children's block in comparative so called comfort, with rations of thicker soup, and they provided pens, paint and paper for the children. Mausi taught the children how to draw and paint. Out of boredom the SS officers frequently visited the children's block.

 

One of these SS officers spotted Mausi's drawings and asked her to make hand painted fairy-tale books for his own children and an oil painting of a girl from the gypsy camp for his wife as a Christmas present. She became well known within the camp as an exceptional artist.

 

When Mausi developed severe pleurisy and had infected boils, this SS officer came to her rescue. He found her desperately ill, lying next to her mother, and immediately brought medication that was not available to the Jewish doctor on the block, as well as bringing her desperately needed food to aid her recovery.

 

Through this SS officer, Dr Mengele got to hear of her as he was looking for artists. She was taken to Mengele's private quarters which she recalled had a magnificent Persian rug covering the muddy floor.

 

He handed her an architect's toolset and she was forced to draw the family tree of a Hungarian dwarf family in black ink whilst he paced back and forth without uttering a word. In Mausi's own words: "I felt I could see my face in his black shiny books, I knew I was shaking, fearful that if I made the slightest blob or mistake, I would have been finished. I knew I was painting for my life."

 

Once she had completed this task he dismissed her harshly but she was later given permission and materials to paint on the wall of the children's block. Mickey Mouse, Bambi and children of the world were created in the midst of this bleakness and death. In 1997 Yad Vashem asked Mausi to recreate this mural for the 'No Child's Play' children of the Holocaust exhibition, this remains on display in Yad Vashem today.

 

By 1944, Mausi and Anna had been in and out of the showers at least three times and miraculously came out alive each time. In July 1944, following one of the selections, Mausi and Anna, as able ones, were given overalls and sent from Auschwitz to Neuengamme Germany as slave labourers. There they helped clear the bomb sites. Some women were sent back to Auschwitz to die because they had been raped and made pregnant, together with others who were unable to work anymore.

 

Mausi was given materials to draw a mural of beer jugs and sausages on the officer's dinning walls and was allowed to keep the paints. And so, survival continued.

 

On the 5th of April 1945, with the British army fast approaching, Mausi and Anna were finally transported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, deeper in Germany. There they were greeted by a place littered with piles of dead bodies and riddled with typhoid, lice and starvation. Mausi's instinct was simply to paint everything she saw. Ten days later the British army - under Field Marshal Montgomery - liberated the camp.

 

For the short time she was there, up to liberation she painted some of her greatest works. There were the desperate paintings of the living and the dead at Bergen Belsen.

 

As Mausi spoke fluent Czech, German, English and some French and Yiddish she became an interpreter for the British army.

 

At this time Anna developed typhoid and was taken to an isolation field hospital where she was looked after by a very kind Irish doctor, Dr Sean Styles. He subsequently arranged for them to be transferred onto a Red Cross hospital boat bound for Sweden.

 

And so they survived the brutalities of the Holocaust.

 

Allow me to briefly tell you the rest of the story, Mausi and Anna lived in Gothenberg Sweden from July 1945 to 1951. Mausi started off by decorating mass produced vases and later worked in a graphic studio, eventually opening her own studio designing and selling hand painted mats and table decorations. Anna worked as a milliner in a large store.

 

My late father Rev Jack Grant Zicharon Livracha, born Yakov Grodinski, left Koningsburg in East Prussia on a Yishiva Kindertransport bound for the UK, leaving his parents, brother and the rest of his family to perish in Auschwitz. In the summer of 1951, he travelled to Sweden to meet a young lady with whom he had been persuaded to correspond - and so a schiduch was made.

 

In Sept 1951, at the age of 30, Mausi married Jack in London and they went to live in Glasgow. Jack became the minister of Newton Mearns synagogue in Glasgow and he was also a teacher, mohel and schochet. I was born a year after they were married, and my twin sister and brother arrived four and a half years later. Mausi became a wonderful inspirational rebbitzin to the community.

 

Although the Holocaust had made a tragic impact on both my parent's lives, they decided to shield it from us. Mausi's art was locked away in a trunk upstairs and they never ever spoke to us about what had happened. However, even as children, we suspected something had occurred in their past. Not a morsel of food was ever wasted.

 

But her past was not to escape her. It wasn't until my elder daughter Simone, was learning about the Holocaust at school that Mausi made a tape with her of her experiences. Later, a close friend (one of only a handful of people to know about her paintings) persuaded Mausi that the time had come to go public with her work.

 

With the blessing of her family, her art was made known to Elizabeth Maxwell who was arranging a Holocaust exhibition in London. Mausi's paintings and drawings were finally exhibited to a large audience and she received much acclaim for her work. Her paintings are now on permanent exhibit at the Kelvingrove museum and art gallery in Glasgow, and in 2003 she was granted Freedom of the City in recognition of raising Holocaust awareness.

 

All this celebrity status has come with its own irony. My mum had steadfastly tried to bring us up by shielding us from the Holocaust, only to find herself propelled into the limelight as a visual chronicler of the events of this horrific time. But as she often said Hashem must have meant for this to happen to her and for the last fifteen years of her life she devoted herself to Holocaust education.

 

Whilst we her children may have been overprotected, Mausi was never bitter or vindictive about what had happened to her. She was always at pains to find the good in others, irrespective of their religion. She was a compassionate listener, broad minded and always interested in the lives of others.

 

When Mausi moved to Glasgow in 1951, Anna of course came along too, and she only passed away six weeks after I got engaged, at the ripe old age of 84. And so the circle of life continued as 9 months and two days after my marriage to Martin, Mausi's first granddaughter arrived. Mausi lived to see four grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren, and this has since increased to nine, with a tenth on the way. She passed away four and a half years later aged 86.

 

To end by once again quoting our wonderful Chief Rabbi: "We must carry the burden of memory and hand it on to future generations. What the victims died for, we must live for - the right to live."

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