It’s Veteran’s Day, so I was looking for a World War II photo of my father. He was from Brooklyn, but after enlisting, was briefly stationed in Pueblo, Colorado, where he met and married my mother, a few months before he would go to Europe. I usually look for war-time photos in the album mom kept, beginning with their courtship and marriage in Pueblo, including photos that my father sent back from overseas. But today I also looked in the boxes of my dad’s photos that my cousin Rori sent me last year, photos my father had kept for years. I was really looking for photos of Europe today, so nearly passed this one over. I had seen it before, and from other photos in my mom’s album, had concluded that my father must have been stationed in Florida right leaving for Europe. But before casting this photo aside, I turned it over to see if it was dated, and to my surprise, on the back found a love letter to my mother, written in Spanish.
My father studied Spanish in school, and he loved it. (Later, he read to me from the Spanish Reader’s Digest, and became the go-to person for Spanish-speaking customers in our family furniture store in Pueblo.) Did my mother know Spanish? No, maybe a bit of French. But I am sure that she loved the fact that he spoke Spanish. And I know she loved my father enough to find a way to figure it out.
Well, I fell in love with my father’s Spanish love letter, so I am posting it, even though it wasn’t at all what I was looking for. At first I thought this might not be the best choice for a Veteran’s Day post. But courage in war is about putting what you love on the line. That my father found love shortly before leaving to do his bit against the Nazis in World War II raised the stakes for loss. My parents married anyway. They didn’t know the future, and the fact that my father he found love on the road to war made his path all the more courageous.
People live on in what they pass along, how they are remembered. My father passed on his love of music, his love of languages, and most important, his kindness and openhearted nature. And his courage in the face of tyranny, an example I think about more and more. His memory is always a blessing for me, as was his life.
So here is the text of his letter in Spanish and in English (my translation):
Para que tú puedes recordarme. He buscado las palabras para escritir quí, pero sín exito. Tú tienes un corazón de oro, y nuestros mentes viajar par il mismo camino, que nunca estoy tan feliz como cuando estoy contigo, y el salido de tu compania es con más dolor que perder el diente. Ésta no basta. Tú sabes lo que quiero decir.
So you can remember me. I have searched for the words to write, but without success. You have a heart of gold and our minds travel the same way, that I am never so happy as when I am with you, and leaving your company is more painful than having a tooth pulled. This is not enough. You know what I want to say.
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.
Painting this portrait was a lovely experience because I knew I was painting a happy memory. I recently finished the portrait of this couple on vacation in Santorini, Greece. My reference was a their vacation photo (shown below). It shows them them riding a motorbike along a coast road, and wearing sunglasses and helmets. I tried to capture the sense of the place: the bright sun, blue water and sky of Greece. I emphasized the scenery reflected in the sunglasses. Painting the helmets and sunglasses was a new challenge for me, but as I worked, I became increasingly convinced of the wisdom of choosing this snapshot for a portrait because it is such a happy moment. So above all, I tried to capture the happiness of the moment, and create a keepsake from this happy memory.
Here is the vacation snapshot that I used for my reference photo.
This is an illustration for a book that I recently edited, about the late Leni Ohlbrecht, seen in the photo. The book, written by her mother-in-law Elaine Ohlbrecht, is about the experience of having breast cancer. It is based on Elaine’s interviews with Leni and her family and friends, but above all the book is Elaine’s tribute to her daughter-in-law. The image posted here began with a photo taken by Leni’s husband Tyler Ohlbrecht. Tyler’s photo showed Leni waving in the midst of a cure cancer fundraiser. In the image sent to me, filtering had already been applied so that the image was black and white with pink tones. It was already a great picture ! But because Leni was surrounded by other people, clearly identifiable but unknown to Elaine, it wouldn’t be possible to seek out permission to publish their images. So I said I would see what I could do. I opened Tyler’s photo in Painter and began by softening the focus on the other faces with motion blur and some posterizing, but leaving Leni’s face in clear focus. Then, where possible, I used some brush strokes in pink tones, taken from the photograph, to paint over some details. And then I used copy-and-paste to create additional balloons, positioning them to hide some of the other faces. This also highlighted Leni in the image, and reflects her positive spirit, so I was pleased with that. Finally, I cropped the image to get the composition shown here. It was an honor to collaborate with Tyler on this picture of Leni.
Dad in World War II with Army Tent (Digitally Modified Photo)
On Veteran’s Day, I usually post an image of my dad, taken from the snapshots in my mother’s old photo album. My parents met because of World War II; my father was born in Brooklyn but was stationed in Pueblo, Colorado, where he met my mother at a USO dance. They were married a few months later, shortly before he was sent overseas. While he was away, my mother kept a photo album of pictures taken back home in Pueblo as well as photos my dad sent back from overseas. Sometimes there are notes on the pages or on the backs of the photos. But in this case, nothing is written on the back, but from some of the other photos, I can tell that this was taken in an army camp somewhere in England, possibly close to a village because other photos show a pub and a telephone booth. Probably one of his army buddies took this picture. I am interested in this photo because it shows him at work in the army, something I would like to know more about. This year I got a copy of his army records and I know he worked in munitions. I was curious about the bicycles in some of these pictures and found out the army used bikes for messengers and communications. I would love to know much more, but what I do know is that he left his parents, sisters and brothers, and new wife and traveled far from home to do his bit to defeat the Nazis and stand up to tyranny. Today I scanned the original snapshot into my computer, then used Painter to add color with digital pastel and color overlays.
Here is what the original snapshot looked like:
Dad in World War II with Army Tent (Original Snapshot)
Here is the original snapshot from my mother’s album. It is about 2″ x 3″ and black and white. He left home, joined the army, and did his bit to defeat the Nazis. So I post this to honor his memory, and in his honor will do my bit to stand up against bigotry. Because he didn’t go off to war so that I could stand idly by. . . .
Over the weekend, I made this decorate plate to mark my parents’ wedding anniversary. (They were married on April 4, 1943.) They have been gone for years, but working with old photos of them gives me a way to still celebrate. So this project really started with a picture of my parents taken sometime in the 1950s.* The original photo showed my parents sitting around a table with my grandmother and my aunt and uncle. Everyone look great, but my mom had blinked when the flash went off and her eyes were nearly closed — probably why I hadn’t seen the photo displayed anywhere. So a few years ago (in 2008) I cropped a closeup of my parents out of the original. I did some basic retouching and then used Painter’s digital pastel to draw into the photo and open my mom’s eyes a bit. I put in some subtle color: sepia, cream and pink colors. Here is how it looked when I was finished:
I have been meaning to use this image to make a decorative plate. This past weekend, I finally had a chance to work on it. I cut the photo image to fit the inner circle of the plate, then used collage to attach the photo to the plate. I used dark brown tissue paper to create the border. I sealed everything with acrylic so the image won’t fade.
I love this picture of my parents and I have also used it to make a pendant:
Old photos and keepsakes can be such a good way to keep memories alive. If you have a photo that you would like to rescue or a memory you would like to celebrate, we would love to help you.!
*(The photographer was probably my uncle, Ike Fitterman, a professional photography who took lots of family pictures.)