In 2006, I painted portraits of the Sussers. These are pencil sketches I did to prepare.
When I was growing up in Pueblo, Colorado, the Sussers lived around the corner. I think I was maybe 5 or 6 years old when they moved in. Their oldest son Herman and I became playmates and friends at grade school and Sunday School. Together we made mischief across the neighborhood.
Herman’s mother Lili was very nice to his ornery little playmate. I was fascinated by her musical voice and her accent. She and her husband were survivors of the concentration camps in Poland. At the time, I knew Mrs. Susser as my friend’s mom who had a pretty smile and a great laugh and who made amazing snacks like rice krispie bars and caramel apples from scratch, especially around Halloween. The irony that these treats were created by a concentration camp survivor was lost on me at the time. But in my defense, I will point out that down the block, at my house, about 80% of the cooking was done by my Russian grandma, whose Ashkenazi desserts were coffee cake and maybe mandel bread if we were lucky, so those “All-American” treats at the Sussers were amazing to me!
The Susser family was one of three families of Holocaust survivors who were placed in Pueblo. I also got to know the children of the other two families at Sunday School, but I knew Herman best because we lived so close by. I always liked going to the Sussers. And Lili liked to speak Yiddish with my grandmother.
My family told me that the the Sussers (and the other two families) had been in concentration camps, but it took a while for me to understand what that meant. I gradually put that together with letters from far away that brought my Grandmother to tears at the kitchen table. I think I was around 8 when my Grandma Katz took down some books to show me pictures of the Nazi camps. That might sound like a lot for a grade school kid to take in, but my Grandmother knew that I would need to know. The Holocaust was never an abstraction; it was personal.
The Sussers were an important part of my childhood, and I have remained friends with Herman and his family through the years. I really don’t remember much about life before I met Herman and his family. As time passed, I learned more. This is what I know now:
Lili lost her whole family in the holocaust but rose from the ashes of that loss. She started again. She married Julius, also a holocaust survivor, who had stayed alive partly because he was a skilled soccer player. The Sussers moved to the U.S., crossing the Atlantic with their young son Herman. And from that the Susser family grew to include three children, many grandchildren and great- grandchildren
The Sussers learned English and moved to a place I doubt they had ever heard of, Pueblo, Colorado. They became part of a new community, and friends with enough of my relatives that I think of the Sussers as part of the meshpocha (family).
From the longings of her lost childhood, Lili Susser created a beautiful doll collection. She always seemed to be laughing, and Julius Susser always seemed to have a twinkle in his eye. He built a toy train table for Herman that was the envy of 8-year-old me.
From Lili’s memories of the holocaust, she wrote a book, starting with notes on little pieces of paper. She did all this in her adopted language of English. With help from Herman and his wife Kerry, Lili wrote and published the book “Lili’s Story: My Memory of the Holocaust“. She brought the book along when she gave her many talks to school children about the Holocaust. Her book was translated into Polish and she was honored in Poland as well.
Julius Susser died in 2004. Lili Susser died recently and was honored by a front page story in the Pueblo Chieftain, our hometown paper, as a Holocaust survivor and author who helped many, many Colorado children learn about the Nazis.
A post-script: Lili Susser was buried on Nov. 1, 2019 in Pueblo, Colorado. There was a reception at Temple Emanuel that day. By Monday, November 4, a national news story broke that on the very day of the event honoring Lili Susser, the FBI had prevented an attack by a white nationalist on Pueblo’s Temple Emanuel.
Now, more than ever, we need to remember the Sussers and their stories. May their memories be for a blessing.
My portraits of Lili and Julius Susser, painted in 2006. At the time I painted these portraits, I was trying to capture these memories for my friend. True enough, but now I understand that I was also capturing them for myself as well.