Moshe Bromberg (Bar Am) – Detailed Biography

001 M. Bromberg Visiting Toronto, Canada 1975

Moshe Bromberg (Bar-Am)
1920-1982
Artist

A story of struggle, survival and triumph,
written by Edward and Miriam Bromberg

This is a brief story of a humble Jewish artist, spanning more than fifty years and three continents. Both his personal life and his Artwork provide us with a mirror of this century’s tormented history. Moshe Bromberg was born in December 1920, into a family whose roots in Poland could be traced back at least 1000 years. He was the elder son, with two siblings, a sister (Miriam) and a brother (Yosef). His father owned a book-binding business in a small town called Piotrokow Trybunalski, near Lodz.

As early as at the age of five, Moshe showed artistic talent. In an art class his teacher asked everyone to draw an apple, then placed it on a table and promised to give the apple to the creator of the best drawn picture. Moshe won his first prize.

He completed his high school education in Krakow, and then it was time to apply to enter a suitable university. In those days, very few Jewish students were admitted to universities in Poland unless there were exceptional circumstances. He had no doubt that his chosen field would be Art and his portfolio must have indicated the promise of his great talent at a very young age. He was accepted into Krakow University in 1939. In September of that year, the war broke out, and Germany invaded Poland in a very short time. Moshe witnessed atrocities and the cruelty of the German occupying force. He later managed to escape with only his brother, but the remaining members of his family were captured and forced to remain in their home-town. Moshe and his brother, both of whom could speak fluent German and Russian, set out for the Russian border and when they reached it, the patrol demanded to know their intentions. They cleverly stated that they were lost and trying to reach Poland. The result was that they were taken into Russia and were later released inside the country. Had they told the truth, they would not have been permitted to cross the border into Russia so easily.

Moshe enrolled at Lviv (Levov) University and began his academic studies. However, when the Germans invaded Russia, like many other Polish refugees living in Russia, he and his brother had to leave and find a new place to live and work. Thus, they found themselves in Uzbekistan, where they stayed until the end of the war. During this period, he lost contact with the family he had left behind. He later discovered that they had all perished in the German concentration camps. His only memento, which he kept for many years, was a postcard that he received from them at the beginning of the war, when letters were still allowed to leave Poland to go to Russia. While living in Uzbekistan, he eked out a living by painting various themes which were popular with the local Muslim population and the Russian bureaucrats of the time. These included ornamental Persian carpet motifs, which were painted on bare walls for the Russian communist elite. Very little of his work during this period survived, with the exception of a few of his paintings of street scenes of Samarkand.

During this period, Moshe met his wife to be in Samarkand, and they were married in 1943. Once the war ended, as a Polish citizen, he and his young wife and his brother were allowed to leave Russia, and go back to their homeland in the summer of 1945.

The next five years (1945-1950) set the course of his artistic career and life for many years to come. He arranged for many exhibitions of his art work, both in group and solo exhibitions all across Poland. The works included oil paintings, pencil sketches, and statues made of coal, for which he won first prize. The subject of his oil paintings varied; ranging from the rubble of his home-town, refugees concentrated in the city plaza before deportation to the death camps, a Rabbi studying and hiding in a basement to a group of slave labourers pulling a roller over crushed bodies and bones. His palette also varied, with paintings of still life of fish in grey colours contrasting with more cheerful subjects, such as the bright oranges grown in the Holy Land – a rarity at the time.

Some of his paintings, which he managed to keep despite his journeys, were done in whatever material he could find. For example, a scene of a room belonging to a Jewish man, murdered by a German soldier, was accomplished with scraped shoe polish on paper. A haunting sketch of a family hiding in the sewage, listening for any noises from above, was done with tea essence on paper.

In his last couple of years in Poland, Moshe was able to find Jewish children, who had been hidden during the war and orphaned, and he played a part in smuggling them out of Poland to Israel. During this period, he also got involved as a stage and set designer for two well known comedians; Dzigan and Shumacher, at the Yiddish Theatre. His son and daughter were born in 1945 and 1949 and, after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948; he made the decision to immigrate to his ancestors’ homeland.

Moshe arrived in Israel in the summer of 1950, with his young family and all the artwork he had produced in Poland. He was met by his younger brother, Yosef, and settled first in Tel Aviv. The first few months in this new environment proved to be a great cultural and emotional shock, since the country was just getting over The War of Independence and was also absorbing Jewish refugees, especially from devastated post-war Europe. He also found it difficult to get used to the climate and to the casual attire, going from dressing formally with a shirt and tie to an open neck shirt.

His first major disappointment occurred when he approached the newly created Artists’ Association and was told that there were innumerable artists in line to exhibit their paintings. He was told that the waiting period might be at least five years.

Fifteen years later, when he became the museum curator, well known with several solo exhibitions behind him, he would recall this incident, and appreciate the opportunities afforded to him and the breakthrough he had had. His paintings speak for themselves, without the need for any explanation.

His miniature creations were a sensation at the Jerusalem Exhibition, and he began teaching art and woodworking to elementary and high school students. He had hundreds of students who embraced his fatherly advice for their own professional careers, and he was grateful that he could help them in organizing exhibitions for their paintings.

He found Israel to be a place of inspiration during the 1950’s and 1960’s. The family moved from Tel Aviv to Ramat-Gan in 1952, and to a larger apartment, where they lived until 1980. He was very proud of his son and daughter, who had both begun their university studies in England and went on to become an engineer and an architect. Moshe felt very fortunate that he had survived the war and that it did not affect the progress of his children’s lives.

His unique experience as a painter who survived and managed to record horrible scenes from the war made him famous. His paintings were now shown in the major museums of Poland, from Warsaw to Lodz and Krakow. In 1972, he visited Canada, where his son and daughter had now settled.

PERSONAL LIFE

In December 1979, Moshe and his wife came to Toronto, Canada for his son’s wedding and a decision was made for the family to stay together. In 1980 he started having back and stomach pains which were diagnosed later on as cancer of the pancreas. As the stage of this illness was quite advanced, the doctors could not offer any treatment and after a few agonizing months Moshe passed away in July 1982. During 1980 and 1981 Moshe managed to finish just a few last paintings, while he was in great pain. One of these paintings is also one of my favourites, depicting the inside of an old living room in Thornhill, Ontario, with a view of the back garden. There are about 80 different features shown in great detail.

When Moshe Bromberg’s wife and son visited Poland, in July, 1991 to trace his roots, their emotions ran high in Lodz, when they discovered written records of his exhibitions from forty years earlier. He left a legacy of his artwork, which is a record of his experiences in that century, of World War II and of Jewish history. His intention was not to make a fortune from his paintings, but to leave them as an account of that period for posterity. His work comes to life in colourful miniatures from Bible stories of heroes in the past.

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