Short Takes
Tue, 11/20/2012
Jewish Week Book Critic
Alex Witchel’s “All Gone” describes her mother’s descent into dementia.
Alex Witchel’s “All Gone” describes her mother’s descent into dementia.

Many books tell the inspiring and amazing stories of Holocaust survivors who manage to resume their lives anew after experiencing unspeakable horrors. A large-format book transcends the genre, providing an unblinking account of the life of an artist who survived seven slave labor and concentration camps and went on to create fine art. In “Into the Light: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron” (Posterity Press/Hudson Hills), Susan Beilby Magee adds her perspective, illuminating his paintings.

Aron was born in Latvia and recognized as a child prodigy. At 13, he was chosen to paint the Latvian president’s official portrait, and the president arranged to have him transferred from his Jewish school to the Fine Arts academy. But that didn’t save him and his family from being sent to the Riga Ghetto to do slave labor. His family was religious, but Aron experienced an early loss of faith that was compounded by his wartime experience. He spent four years in the ghetto and then Nazi concentration camps, where he would trade his sketched portraits of the guards for bits of food.

After the war, Aron studied art in Vienna and then moved to Los Angeles, where he now lives. At first he painted flowers on china to make a living, and created art a night. He gained attention for his portraits of children, landscapes and studies of people, which were done in a style the author describes as psychological realism. More than 200 of his paintings are reproduced here in full-color; the front cover features a self-portrait done in the 1960s.

The author first met Aron when she was 6 and sat for a portrait. Magee went on to have a distinguished career in politics and economics before turning to work in healing and meditation. In writing this book, she interviewed Aron and other Latvian survivors, and followed his path in Europe. While the author’s life is “deeply embedded in the world of the spirit,” the artist “doesn’t believe any of that.” As she writes, “For him life begins with birth and ends with death: ‘End of story,’ he says.” She raises questions about the nature of response to the extremes of human brutality, the possibility of healing and art as a reflection of personal transformation.

Alex Witchel has written with much insight, humor and style about food, celebrities and cultural life for The New York Times, and about life in New York for her novels. She turns her skills of observation to her mother, reporting on the elder Witchel’s descent into dementia, as she tries her best to save her, in “All Gone: A Memoir of My Mother’s Dementia, With Refreshments” (Riverhead). In this beautifully written and loving book, she at once celebrates her mother, fights for her, cooks her favorite dishes, misses and mourns and holds on to her, even as she continues to fade in plain sight.

Witchel, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine who is married to New York Times critic Frank Rich, enjoyed an especially close relationship with her mother and believed that she would be “on the other end of the phone for all eternity.” She writes chapters about her own life and adventures, as she tells of the first signs that something wasn’t quite right: her mother, a fastidious dresser and college teacher, showing up with clothing askew, or not remembering the plot of a movie just after watching it. And Witchel tells of conversations with doctors and caretakers, weaving in memories of food and home, including recipes for dishes like her mother’s 1950s style kosher specialties like Spaghetti and Meat Sauce and Frankfurter Goulash.

“When The Hurricane Came” by Nechama Liss-Levinson (CreateSpace) was inspired by Hurricane Katrina, and is particularly timely for New Yorkers this season. The author, a psychologist, did volunteer relief work in New Orleans after the storm. Geared to children ages 8 to 11, the book won the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award from the Association of Jewish Libraries.

In the novel, a Jewish family has to evacuate, leaving behind its home and all its belongings, and resettles in Memphis. The sensitive and appealing Gertie, who is 9, narrates the story of her family’s sojourn in Memphis, where she attends the Hebrew Academy and slowly makes new friends. Some months later, she and her family return to live in a trailer near what used to be their house, and, along with members of their synagogue, they bury the destroyed Torahs in their communal cemetery. That Passover, they recall their own family’s sojourn.

Liss-Levinson emphasizes values of tzedekah and family. Gertie brainstorms a project to bring books to New Orleans, and the author encourages young readers to initiate their own social action efforts.