A large black and white portrait can be found in Robert Sutz’s Scottsdale studio. The photo is of her father with members of his immediate family. It would be the last surviving photograph of the whole family together before Germany invaded Poland in 1939.
Of the 15 people pictured, who were all Jews, all would perish in the Holocaust except for Sutz’s father and his cousin, Charles Zabuski. Sutz recalls that his father had been to Poland twice to visit his family before the war, trying to persuade his family to come and join him in America.
Her family decided not to come. They enjoyed their life in Poland, and they felt that Adolf Hitler was not a real threat because “no one would listen to such a mad man,” said Sutz.
Sutz’s cousin, Charles, was a skilled tailor. He made and modified Nazi uniforms, which saved his life. When he was released, he took with him the metal shears he used to cut.
Charles gave Sutz the scissors when he came to America to visit him and other members of his family.
Sutz’s artistic career spans over 60 years. He worked as an artistic director and illustrator for Leo Burnett, an advertising agency company in Chicago for over 20 years. His time to pursue the fine arts is even longer.
Sutz uses pastels, watercolors and oils in his paintings. One of Sutz’s specialties as an artist is that he is a portrait painter. All of his artwork with Holocaust survivors is self-funded.
As a tribute to his family, Sutz, now 91, has dedicated his artistic talents to creating works of art in memory of the Holocaust for more than 20 years. His hope is to capture what happened during the Holocaust so that future generations can learn from it.
Sutz expanded his work to include Holocaust liberators, righteous gentiles, and other genocide survivors.
In 1994, Sutz decided to participate in a project created by filmmaker Steven Spielberg called USC Shoah Foundation. The organization was founded to help preserve the testimonies of Holocaust survivors and witnesses.
Due to his family ties to the Holocaust, Sutz volunteered to interview Holocaust survivors and learn more about archiving their testimonies.
Sutz lived in Chicago during this time. He vividly remembers seeing a life mask of President Abraham Lincoln with a cast of his hands. Sutz felt he could feel Lincoln’s presence through these rooms.
” I had chills. It was the closest thing to bringing them back to life, ”Sutz said.
He remembers feeling inspired. He decided he would use his natural talent to create life masks of Holocaust survivors.
“The Germans made the Jews inhuman. I wanted future generations to know that the survivors are people like us, ”Sutz said.
The first mask of life was that of a man on the “Schindler List”
At first, the survivors were reluctant to sit down for Sutz and have their life masks created. It takes about 40 minutes for Sutz to create a mold of their face, while they are sitting upright in a chair.
The whole process of creating one takes a month.
The first survivor to sit down for Sutz and have his mask of life created was Dr. Alexander White.
White was No. 270 on the “Schindler List,” a list of Jews that factory owner Oskar Schindler saved from the Holocaust. Spielberg later directed the 1993 film “Schindler’s List”.
Of his family of six, “no one died of natural causes, all were murdered. I am the only survivor “, White told The Arizona Republic.
White remembers the last time he saw his father, before he was sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz. His father asked him to promise him one thing: that he would be a mensch, which means a person of integrity and honor in German.
White is 98 years old; he resides in Scottsdale and continues to share his story and message with students: “Be a mensch.
Sutz has now amassed nearly 200 masks and paintings from life in his collection. As he interviewed Holocaust survivors, they shared memories of some of the horrors they experienced.
He began to work on small sketches of the detailed scenes that the survivors had shared with him. The sketches turned into paintings.
Some of the images in the paintings include a toddler smiling as a gun is pointed to his forehead; a young boy shot in the back as he walked away; a group of naked Jews looking inside a gas chamber.
Sutz is often asked why he paints such disturbing scenes and his response is because these were real events and he never wants anyone to forget that the Holocaust happened.
Work presented by the Arizona Jewish Historical Society
His Holocaust artwork has been on display in exhibits at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society, which is trying to build a Holocaust education center in Phoenix.
The organization’s executive director, Lawrence Bell, saw the effect of Sutz’s works on people.
“They are difficult to watch, but they are very truthful. People are very interested in the Holocaust, but they don’t always want to see the darker side of it. Bob Sutz is forcing you to watch it, ”Bell said.
“The survivors told me that the art portrays what they have been through.”
Sutz plans to donate the entire Holocaust collection to the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.
Sutz spends four to five hours working in his studio each day. Over the past seven years, Sutz has continued to paint with a torn rotating cuff in his right arm. He has very limited movements – he has to paint using his left hand to help raise his right hand to allow him to work.
“Every night I think about every painting I’m going to work on, before I get to the studio,” Sutz said.
Sutz wants to meet and work with as many Holocaust survivors as possible.
“I feel like I’m always in a race against time. The survivors are leaving us and with them their beautiful faces and their incredible stories and memories. “
Republic reporter Roxanne De La Rosa covers the Arizona nonprofit community. Reach her at [email protected].
This story is part of the Faces of Arizona series. Have any comments or ideas on who we should cover? Send them to publisher Kaila White at [email protected].
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