Gitl lost her place at home to ghosts of the Holocaust


INTERNATIONALLY-renowned photographic artist Gitl Braun's love of art was first inspired in the most unlikely of settings - an orphanage in Mea Shearim.

It was unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, Gitl was not an orphan - her parents were alive and living near the orphanage - and, secondly, visual art is so totally frowned upon in that ultra-Orthodox area of Jerusalem that Gitl's parents did not even possess a camera.

The now mother-of-two and grandmother has no family pictures of her own childhood.

Gitl's parents, Feivel (Erno) Wallerstein and Iren Feldman, were Holocaust survivors who arrived in the new state of Israel in 1949 after meeting and marrying in a European displaced persons camp.

Iren was an Auschwitz survivor, while Feivel had been incarcerated in a Yugoslavian labour camp from which few had survived.

They married under a tallit, celebrating with a tin of sardines and half a bottle of wine.

Arriving in Israel with Moroccan immigrants, they were sent penniless to Hadera.

When Gitl was only five, Iren decided she wanted a more religious environment for her children and moved to a one-bedroomed house in Mea Shearim.

But not only did Gitl have to share a bedroom with her parents and four brothers, but also with piles of unwanted children's clothes which her mother hoarded as "holy relics" of children who had perished in the Holocaust.

Gitl recalled: "I woke up and fell to sleep under the whispering gaze of mother's precious kleider (clothes), which communicated to me shadows from a past world that weighed heavily on our non-talkative parents."

The ghosts of the Holocaust, which penetrated their strictly Orthodox Jerusalem home, in which the traumas of the past were never mentioned, are now being exorcised by Tottenham artist Gitl in her work, photographing fabric reminiscent of her mother's precious kleider.

But back then, it was the precious kleider which took precedence over Gitl as the growing piles of clothes left no room for the elder children.

Gitl recalled: "One grey winter morning, my mother took me by my hands to a nearby orphanage, spoke in Hungarian to the pious, long-bearded house master and left me sobbing there. My parents entrusted me to a truly Orthodox upbringing.

"I was to grow up in a stifling, protective environment, taught only to be a wife and mother. I received no general education. I developed no skills, no ambition.

"I lived my childhood and well into adulthood, carrying the scar of having lost my place at home in favour of my mother's clothes and the silenced spirits of children gassed in Auschwitz."

But all was not black at the orphanage.

Gitl added: "Many of the other children in the orphanage were also children of survivors whose parents wanted them to have a religious education. I was very lucky because the orphanage was not far from where we lived.

"On the way to and from school, I popped in to see my parents and went there on Shabbat and festivals."

Gitl's proximity to her home was not the orphanage's only asset for her. The headmaster of this extremely Orthodox establishment was also an ardent art lover.

"It was very unusual," Gitl said. "All the orphanage rooms were decorated with reproductions of Maurycy Gottlieb."

Gottlieb was a 19th century Polish Orthodox Jewish painter, who died after a tragic affair of the heart.

Gitl was particularly struck by his painting, 'Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur', in which the artist expressed his personal sadness in the faces of the fasting men and women in shul.

Gitl said: "I grew up with those images. They related to how we lived. His paintings were a revelation to me. The Yom Kippur painting captured me and stayed in my mind."

But although the artistically enlightened orphanage provided some art lessons, Gitl said: "We were not meant to make art, but just to marry and have children."

Which she dutifully did with husband Marton Braun, who is now her agent. But first Gitl gave birth to eight children.

After the Yom Kippur War, the family moved to Tottenham.

Not even knowing her English alphabet when she arrived in London, Gitl studied English and psychology at a further education college.

From there she took an art class and was accepted into an art college in London where she was encouraged to explore her own Holocaust-overshadowed identity and express it artistically.

"I was searching for what kind of an artist I wanted to be," Gitl said. "The teacher suggested I should return to my womb for inspiration."

So Gitl enlarged a scan of her womb and took it into her studio in her succah.

She recalled: "I was sitting in the succah, surrounded by pomegranates which are a symbol for plenty. I looked at the womb and the pomegranates.

"I covered the pomegranate with fabric which is a metaphor for the skin. I wanted to do something for women.

"That's how I came to work in fabric. I make many things with unwanted foam material and give them a new life."

Gitl began working with remnants of medieval Hebrew manuscripts, which had been used for bookbinding in Italy.

She said: "The Holocaust did not start in 1942. It started when antisemites thought they could take a culture and use it for raw material. They take the culture and then the people. This work helped me open up to my real background."

She made an aesthetic enlargement of the 700-year-old manuscripts to bring out all the creases.

Gitl said: "You could still read them, but they were very crushed like a baby. I was very touched by them. It was almost like the palm of your hand."

Gitl's latest project is for the proposed government-sponsored Holocaust Centre. The Martyred Letters depicts Hebrew letters emerging from a huge chimney, making up the words, Yizkor Elokim (God will remember).

She explained: "I was raised with the story of Rabbi Akiva being wrapped around the Torah scroll as he was put in flames. His students asked him what he saw.

"He said he saw the Hebrew letters hovering on top. I was brought up to believe that you can't destroy the Torah.

"That is the post-Holocaust message that I am trying to express."

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph