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Poland-born 'Irena Jung is coming back there, big time'

Piece by piece, a survivor’s daughter finds a trove of letters inspires art

A painter’s mother saved every piece of her family’s wartime correspondence. Now this treasure chest of revelations is set to be exhibited where she began her life, in Krakow

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The whites, grays and blacks that dominate Shulamit Kopf's collection, along with embedded pieces of copied letter from her mother's trove of saved correspondence (Courtesy Vadim Lidin)
The whites, grays and blacks that dominate Shulamit Kopf's collection, along with embedded pieces of copied letter from her mother's trove of saved correspondence (Courtesy Vadim Lidin)

Shulamit Kopf, usually known as Shula, is a proud and eloquent 65-year-old who has spent years delving into the events of World War II. Now she creates art based on her mother’s history.

Her first solo exhibition, “Moscow to Berlin,” opened in Ramat Gan’s Beit Yad LaBanim on April 28 and will run through May 12. It will then travel to Krakow’s JCC where it will be featured on June 22 as one of the opening events of the community’s annual Jewish Culture Festival.

In the gallery, some 18 abstract canvases are hung around the large white space, with cool whites and creams, dark blacks and gloomy gray paint  flung on the canvases, creating a collage of images embedded with pieces of letters, postcards, numbers, maps and pictures from Kopf’s mother, all telling the story of her family’s escape from the Nazis.

“I started missing my mom when I worked on this project,” she said.

Shulamit Kopf at her first solo exhibition, ‘Moscow to Berlin’ (Courtesy Vadim Lidin)

Kopf’s work on the exhibit began a year ago, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, when she sat in her Herzliya studio and searched for a way to express her emotions and thoughts about the day. She has been painting for 14 years, mostly as a hobby, and primarily landscapes, although she had moved into more abstract works several years ago.

That day, however, was different.

“I couldn’t just work in my usual way that day,” said Kopf. “The painting that emerged was visceral and grew into this project. I think sooner or later, any artist that is the child of Holocaust survivors grapples with the stories that are told, and those that aren’t.”

Luckily for Kopf, her mother — although not her father, who escaped to the Polish forest and was a partisan and lost his first wife and son — saved every letter she received and wrote during the war years.

“My mother was one of those who liked to talk, and didn’t let any detail disappear in back passages of her memory,” said Kopf. “She was a great observer, and could go into nuances, and she was one of those who just talked.”

Kopf’s mother, Irena Jung, came from a well-to-do, secular Polish family that lived in Krakow and spent the duration of the war in a Soviet gulag camp. Jung, a 22-year-old at the time, joined a Polish contingent of the Soviet army as a translator, and became one of the first Jews to enter Poland toward the end of the war.

One of Shualmit Kopf’s first works made for her collection in memory of her mother (Courtesy Vadim Lidin)

Her mother’s letters to her parents are a diary of eyewitness accounts of what happened to the Jewish communities of Poland; she saw piles of mutilated Jewish bodies and watched the Nazis run for their lives. Kopf has had them painstakingly translated and discovered details and facts about her mother’s life during the war.

She wasn’t the same person before the army and after, said Kopf, whose exhibit displays two photos of her mother: one when she entered the army, and one a year later.

28.10. 1943,

There were nights when my bed was a hard earth under a pine tree ,and my pillow, my fist. One has already gotten used to everything and has become resistant and hard like steel.

You have no idea how the Germans destroy and burn the areas from which they retreat. The pen cannot describe this.

I saw the city of Smolensk, which was once a pretty city. These vandals destroyed it to the ground. What they write in the newspapers is just a fraction of the truth.

A portrait of the leather boots that Irena Jung, Shulamit Kopf’s mother, made from the looted desktop of a Nazi minister (Courtesy Vadim Lidin)

Kopf’s mother made it all the way to Berlin in 1945 with the Russian army, and on May 1 was in the Reichstag, the home of the German empire, when the Russian army planted its red flag on the building.

There are stories told in the paintings, as in a portrait of Kopf’s mother in a pair of boots made from a hefty piece of leather from Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim Von Ribbentrop’s desk. That portrait is inscribed with words from Nancy Sinatra’s song, “These boots are made for walking, and one of these days they’re going to walk all over you.”

26.01.1945

Please forgive me for such stingy correspondence. I can’t write often as we are going forward all the time. I was in Warsaw. The only things that are still standing are smoldering ruins and walls of buildings. I didn’t see in the capital even one intact house. All the buildings are burned.

On these ruins people are digging and searching for various things. They think the Jews left precious things hidden under the ruins.

Yesterday I was in the small town in the Protectorate and today I am in the Third Reich. Today I saw a lot of German corpses piled up in the middle of the town square. I stood and looked with wild joy. Now they are running and now they are carrying dead comrades on their shoulders and digging graves for them.  Now we put on the prisoners a swastika, like they put the Jewish star on the Jews.

Krakow is free. I will try as soon as we stop marching to ask my commanding officer to allow me to go to Krakow. Maybe I will succeed in recovering some of the things that were stolen from you.

It was worthwhile to survive to this moment and see the Germans in their defeat.

Another of Kopf’s paintings is a map of Poland and Germany with a route in red tracing her mother’s journey to Berlin and back to Poland to find her family. Yet another has pieces of ripped postcards, telling of her mother’s travels and escapes from one place to another.

Copies of postcards sent between Shulamit Kopf’s mother and her parents, between Germany and Poland and Russia (Courtesy Vadim Lidin)

Her parents and brother never imagined things were so bad for their Polish relatives, wrote her father in a letter to his daughter. Letters came back addressed “unknown” from all the towns where relatives had lived.

But their own letters to one another survived.

“Our family doesn’t throw anything away,” said Kopf. “They saved her letters, she saved their letters. Grandfather’s university diploma, his calling card as an advocate from before the war, through all the craziness and moving continents and moving houses, all these documents were preserved” in a few drawers in Kopf’s mother’s bedroom.

Kopf plans to give all the documentation to a Holocaust archival institution once she has had all the letters translated.

“A lot of people get to my age and say, ‘Oh, my God, why didn’t I ask any questions?'” said Kopf. “I wish I had done more, I wish I had a followup interview, but that’s not possible. But a lot of these letters open up another peephole with which I get another glimpse into her mindset, into her life.”

Her mother did omit some details over the years, including her involvement in a court-martial of a non-Jewish Polish army officer in the Russian army.

“I later found that all out. It’s like discovering your mother anew again,” said Kopf.

In some ways, said Kopf, her mother had “Shoah lite,” compared to her survivor friends in New York, who all had concentration camp numbers tattooed on their arms.

23. 02.1944

My dearest brother,

In this whole wide world, there are just the four of us left. The rest of our family has been murdered in the cruelest way. We belong to that remnant of 3.5 million who are still alive.  I will not be able to live here in the future. To walk on ruins of what was once the most treasured, on the cemetery of our relatives, a person would need to be without a heart. Don’t have any illusions or visions of a faraway father land. This is the grave of our people. We don’t have a place here.

Take my words seriously to your heart.  Meantime our parents don’t know the whole truth yet.

Her uncle stayed in Poland for the rest of his adult life. He married three times and became a well-known lawyer, but he cut himself off from his Jewish roots in order to survive and thrive.

Kopf’s mother married twice and gave birth to her first child, Kopf’s sister Hadassah Keynan, in Poland and then moved to Israel, where she got divorced and married Kopf’s father. The family moved to the US when Kopf was ten years old, and as an adult Kopf moved back to Israel, where she has raised her own family.

Shulamit Kopf’s first solo collection draws from the stories and details found in the trove of letters saved by her mother, Irena Jung and her mother’s parents, who spent the war in the Russian gulag (Courtesy Vadim Lidin)

“For me, this is the most amazing thing I can do in my mother’s memory,” said Kopf of her upcoming show in Krakow, where she will visit with members of her family.

“Irena Jung is coming back there, big time,” said Kopf, referring to her mother.

There will be a gallery talk with Kopf and the curator, Kobi Carmi, Friday, May 3, 10 a.m. at Bet Yad LeBanim Ramat Gan,  33 Ma’ale HaBanim Street.

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