The unusual bespectacled face of a little 40-year-old man with a black cap atop his head leaving Auschwitz together with surviving children is captured in one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century. His tiny body is seen onscreen leaving the camp every day in an endless loop at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
Far from being forgotten or remembered only as prisoner A-7740, Ludovit Feld (or Lajos Baci – Uncle Lajos) is, twenty-five years after his death, widely recognized and even revered.
This little giant of an artist spent his entire life painting and portraying the people and daily life in his beloved Kassau (Kosice) – the second-largest city in the eastern part of Slovakia, known for its rich Jewish history. He was also an art teacher who taught children how to draw with their heart and many of his students made names for themselves in the world of art.
Feld had three strikes against him: He was a Jew, a dwarf, and poor. The ninth child in his family, he was the only one stricken with a handicap. As an adult he barely reached a height of four feet and the bullying he suffered during a time of growing anti-Semitism was almost too much for his small shoulders to bear.
In the spring of 1944, when he turned 40, Feld’s family and the other Jews in Kosice were loaded onto truck beds and driven to Teglagyar (“brick factory” in Hungarian) on the outskirts of the city, which served as a Jewish ghetto. Nearly thirteen thousand Jews were crammed into that small area.
As it turned out, Ludovit’s name was not on the deportation list due to the intervention of an art student of his who happened to work as a typist in the local Gestapo office. She deliberately omitted his name in the hope of sparing him from almost certain death.
Family was very important to Ludovit, so after a sleepless night he filled his little backpack with art supplies and walked to the brick factory ghetto. His family was happy to be reunited with him but knew his chances of survival were much greater outside the ghetto gates. Every day he would sit on his little stool drawing countless scenes of daily life in the ghetto, portraying the despair and the grief and the ever-present armed guards.
When they were deported to Auschwitz, Feld, because of his size, was assigned to the children’s barracks housing the twin boys known to history as the “ Twins of Auschwitz,” victims of the unspeakably sadistic experiments of the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele. Although he never had any children of his own, Feld became a father figure to all the twins. He rescued fifteen boys he believed wouldn’t survive the last death march by hiding with them for ten days and nights under the lowest bunks on the frozen ground. The boys in their testimonies all referred to Ludovit as their savior.
Feld’s entire family, with the exception of a sister and a brother, perished in Auschwitz. After the war he returned to his beloved city where he lived alone until his death.It was in Auschwitz that Mengele discovered Feld’s talent and, together with Czech artist Dina Gottlieb and Polish photographer Wilhelm Brasse, became part of the team drawing and documenting the doctor’s hideous experiments. Because Feld was a dwarf he was also subject to Mengele’s depravity. Adding insult to injury, Mengele demanded that Feld draw portraits of him so often that Ludovit could practically do it with his eyes closed.
Ludovit – Uncle Lajos – was my art teacher in my youth. It was my eye for style, fashion, and design as well as my rebellious nature that taught me how to sew and helped make my dreams of freedom a reality. Growing up in postwar Communist Czechoslovakia as a daughter of Holocaust survivors – my mother survived Auschwitz and my father made it through forced labor camps in Hungary – is not something one remembers fondly. Nevertheless, it propelled me to believe both in the existence of a better world and in myself.
I was 20 at the time of my first escape attempt. It was unsuccessful – someone had informed the authorities of my plan – and I was sent home from the Czech – German border, back to my prison of invisible bars. That only made me more determined. I carefully plotted my next escape and in 1979 I succeeded, knowing I might never see my family again.
My dream of coming to America was fulfilled beyond my imagination. I lived happily, marrying and living in New York with my husband, the prominent businessman Ari Fishbaum, a”h, co-owner of Broadway’s Jerusalem II and Mr. Broadway, and our two sons.
I embarked on a journey of health and healing when my beloved husband became ill. Creating healthy and at the same time tasty foods became a form of art for me that I shared with my family and friends. After graduating from New York’s Institute of Integrated Nutrition and becoming a holistic health coach, I shared my knowledge and experience with Jewish Press readers in a column called “21st Century Nutrition.”
For several years I attended an art history class at the New School, eager to learn everything about what was happening in the city’s art scene. The truth of a statement by my dear Uncle Lajos became increasingly clear to me: “Anybody can learn how to draw or paint, but if there is no feeling in it, then it is not art.”
Ludovit Feld would have been forgotten were it not for my husband’s wish. Ari wanted very much to meet with him after we saw one of his original drawings from the brick factory ghetto hanging in Yad Vashem in 1982. On our first family visit to Czechoslovakia, in 1987, we visited the master in his little apartment. He lived alone, poor and sickly. He had never married. His relatives didn’t want to associate with him since doing so would risk their exposure as Jews – not a good thing in that time and place.
It was then that we began collecting his art. Ari repeatedly wondered whether there was “somebody who will do something” for an artist of such caliber and historical value.
After my husband’s passing I resolved that I would be the “somebody who will do something” for Ludovit Feld, in Kosice and beyond.
I wrote an op-ed article, “The Towering Talent of Ludovit Feld,” that appeared in the March 2, 2007 issue of The Jewish Press. A number of people asked me to expand it into a book. I started to, but after a while put it on the back burner and set out to spread the word about Uncle Lajos in a more concrete manner.
In 2013 the city of Kosice was designated a “Cultural Capital of Europe.” Together with the Eastern Slovakian Gallery there, I organized a cultural event remembering Ludovit on the 22ndanniversary of his death.I received a standing ovation upon the conclusion of my speech at the official opening of the exhibit, with many in the audience wiping tears from their eyes. The exhibit proved extremely popular and was held over for more than six months.
The gallery was bursting at its seams as more than 300 people gathered to pay their respects. A new documentary film about Feld’s life, “The Painter of the Doctor of Death” premiered. The following day there was a gathering at his gravesite in the Jewish cemetery, where Kaddish was said and we placed many small rocks on top of his tombstone.
That same year I presented his art and story to the Society for the History of Czechoslovakian Jews in New York City during the organization’s annual remembrance day.
In 2014, when Hofstra University held an all-day conference honoring Holocaust survivors, liberators, and righteous among the nations and their descendants, I had the honor of presenting a workshop on Ludovit’s life and art.
In 2015, as a keynote speaker at a Kristallnacht program held at Long Beach City Hall, I spoke of Ludovit and presented a display of some of his art.
I am particularly proud of my efforts to convince Jewish community leaders in Kosice of the importance of establishing Ludovit’s gallery in his hometown.
We began working together on its realization, and the Cultural Center of Ludovit Feld was established in September 2015. While the gallery centers on Feld’s life and work, it also introduces to the public other Jewish artists who lived and worked in Slovakia and offers lectures on Jewish history and the Holocaust.
In 2016, a life-size bronze sculpture of Feld, which I dedicated in my husband’s memory, was installed on a pedestal next to the gallery. Finally, 25 years after his death, Uncle Lajos can look directly into the eyes of his admirers.
Last month, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Slovakian president Andrej Kiska visited the synagogue on Pushkinova Street and the adjacent Feld gallery and sculpture, lighting a candle in memory of all the victims and meeting and greeting survivors.
Currently there is a unique solo exhibit presenting about 150 of his works in the aforementioned Eastern Slovakian Gallery, located in the center of Kosice. In the near future there will be a park or square that will bear Feld’s name forever. And there are classes now about the Holocaust and Ludovit Feld in schools around the city, with students writing essays about him and expressing their gratitude for his life and his art.
Meanwhile, even as I became busy traveling and lecturing and setting up exhibits, I went back to those 30 pages of my embryonic memoir and, together with Slovakian journalist Andrea Coddington, co-authored a book titled Zidovka, which is a derogatory term for a female Jew – “Dirty Jewess.”
It is my personal story as well as the story of an entire second generation of Holocaust survivors living in postwar Communist Czechoslovakia. The book would not have been possible had I not been imbued with a burning desire to keep the memory of my parents alive and to honor Ludovit Feld, whose art was my greatest inspiration.
It was not an easy task to open up about my life in such a public manner but it definitely served its purpose.
Zidovka was published in Slovakia in 2010 and quickly became a bestseller. Many readers asked me to publish an English version so that their children and grandchildren could better understand them and appreciate how lucky they are to have been born and to live in a country like the United States.
I am thrilled to announce that Dirty Jewess will soon be released in English by Urim Publishers of Israel. With its publication I will know I have truly fulfilled my husband’s wish.
This article was originally featured on the Jewish Press.
Dirty Jewess will be available Fall 2017.