Israeli painter Jakob Zim finds light in the darkness
Having survived Buchenwald concentration camp, Jakob Zim strives to "create with light" – as an artist, a Jew and a man.
An elderly man with a numbered tattoo on his left forearm takes a seat in the waiting room of a Jerusalem-area doctor's office.
"You were in the camps," observes this reporter, piercing the protocol of silence that usually governs this quiet intersection of strangers, patients and patience.
"Yes," the man replies, seemingly surprised by the attention. "I am a survivor."
An exchange of business cards and an Internet search later, I learn I have encountered none other than Jakob Zim, the award-winning Israeli abstract painter and graphic designer, several days before this 92nd birthday.
"Light and shadow is my motto," a far more animated Zim tells me several days later at his apartment in a retirement community nestled in the picturesque Jerusalem suburb of Lower Motza. There his lives with Ruth, his wife of 64 years.
With a contusion under his eye and scabs on his arms and legs, Zim is recovering from a bad fall. But as I soon learn, it is not the first time life has knocked him to the ground.
"I live with the shadow of the Holocaust," says Zim, who prefers to describe himself as a "lyrical abstract" painter. "But I create with the light."
I gaze at Zim as he handles a computer mouse with remarkable dexterity, navigating a Power Point presentation stocked with hundreds of slides from a life of painting and design that has spanned more than seven decades.
Within minutes, Zim's creations unfold before my eyes in rapid succession: bursts of bold colors in landscape paintings on canvas; searing black-charcoal images on paper, and graphic designs that adorn official Israel government stamps, medallions and currency.
"Every man can be an artist – not a professional, but he can create" says Zim. "And he must be himself; not to copy. And to live with light – even in dark periods; to live to see the light."
Zim was born Jakob Cymberknopf in the southwestern Polish city of Sosnowiec in 1920. The second of three children, he was the son of a house and sign painter who identified with the General Jewish Labor Bund in Poland, a socialist party. At the age of 15, Zim studied painting, printing and applied graphics at the city's School of Fine Arts, according to an entry in the book, "Jakob Zim," edited by Yona Fischer.
On September 4, 1939, three days after the Germans invaded Poland, Sosnowiec fell. Zim abandoned his studies and found employment with his two brothers in an applied arts studio, which exempted them from the first transports to the forced labor camps. When the Nazis liquidated the Sosnowiec ghetto on August 1, 1943, Zim's brother Emmanuel and his parents were sent to Auschwitz.
"That all took place during these very days," recalled Zim, who chronicled his Holocaust experience in a memoir, Shards and Light. "It was during the Nine Days, before Tisha B'av."
In 1943, Zim was sent to the Annaberg labor camp, then to the notorious Blechhammer concentration camp, both in Silesia, Poland, where he was reunited with his brother Nathan. At Blechhammer – the satellite camp for Auschwitz -- the Nazis tattooed the number "176895" on Zim's left forearm.
In the bitterly cold, snowy winter of 1945, the two brothers were part of the Death March to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
"After two hours of walking, the sun had risen and I saw in the distance some houses and rooftops, the red tiles emerging here and there," Zim told Yad Vashem in 2010, the year he lit an honorary beacon in the annual Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony. "The sun was shining on the snow, and I said to my brother, 'Natek, look how beautiful it is!' It moves me to this day. I can't believe, given the situation we were in…that I could still see the beauty of creation. I felt then that the upcoming spring would be mine."
Following their liberation in April of that year, Zim and his brother were taken to France before leaving for Palestine.
Zim requested permission to study at the New Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, which he had heard about as a youngster. There he met the institution's legendary director and his mentor, Mordechai Ardon, who taught him painting, woodcuts, linoleum cuts and illustration.
"Ardon taught me that man cannot live on art," recalled Zim, a prize-winning student at Bezalel from 1945 to 1947. "So I started to work in applied art and design."
During the ceasefire following Israel's War of Independence, Zim met his wife, a fellow student at Bezalel. In 1952 he opened his first graphics studio on Raanan Street in Tel Aviv. There he designed Israel's official Independence Wreath and the crest of the city of Netanya.
"I designed many commercial signs for the government," said Zim. "It was the beginning of Israel."
In 1954, Zim opened a studio at 29 Lilienblum Street in Tel Aviv, where he worked until 1974. His creations there included the half lira and ten lira currency notes; Israel's Tenth Anniversary Symbol; the Holocaust Stamp; the symbol for the coin commemorating the Bank of Israel's Tenth Anniversary; the liberation of Jerusalem and "Let My People Go" coins, and the Knesset and Memorial Day medallions.
Zim taught at The “WIZO France” high school of Art and Design in Tel Aviv for nearly three decades. In 1982, he was awarded the Education Ministry's Lifetime Achievement Award for Outstanding Teacher-Artist. Eight years later, in 1990, Zim returned to Poland for the first time since the war. That experience unleashed a wave of creativity that produced a series of paintings and etchings – including a frottage inspired by the sight of the crevice in the doorway of his childhood home at Sosnowiec at 18 Targowa Street, where the family mezuzah had once been.
"After the trip to Poland I stopped having nightmares," Zim told the Israeli literary theorist Ariel Hirschfeld, in an essay published in the "Zim" volume. "And ever since, these pictures began to emerge."
When asked what lesson he takes with him from his life experience, Zim sighs deeply and pauses.
"As a human being, be correct with yourself and be correct with others," said Zim. "As a Jew, remember."
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