Henry Street Settlement
In 1948 when I first came to live in N.Y.C. I fell in love with it, and now during 2018, that feeling is a permanent part of who I have become. I am writing this to explain why I have painted this series of canvases and done many pencil drawings of the people and streets of the city that means so much to me.
I was not born here.
I was born in Vienna, Austria during the year 1929. At that time my birth city of parks and music was magical to the child I was, until my 8th year when Hitler's armies marched into the streets and I was no longer allowed to go outside. Being Jewish meant going into hiding until we could escape. For 6 months my parents, my brother and I went into hiding, until the never to be forgotten day when an uncle was able to send us visas to Panama. We were among the lucky people who escaped the worst parts of the Holocaust
But for me, Panama was more than an escape, it was a powerful learning period. The 6 months of hiding had made me timid and afraid of strangers and school was not easy since my only language was German. The school where I was to learn English and Spanish was St. Mary's Academy, and the teachers were gentle Swiss nuns.Every day they would take us Jewish refugee children out of class and ask if there were any words we did not understand, and then with infinite patience they helped us to do so. Therefore we never held a class back, and when I learned English and Spanish, I allowed myself to feel less of an outcast.
Later on I went to the American High School in the Christobal Canal Zone, made American friends, many of whom I am still in contact with, and dreamed of coming to the USA. And then the dream came true, and in 1947, I entered The American Academy of Art in Chicago.
The school, the teachers, the students, the learnings were a joy, but America itself was a bitter disappointment. In Panama my friends were Chinese, black, brown, white, and mixtures of different cultures. Here everyone was white, in school, in coffee shops, in boarding houses where students lived. People of different colors were only visible in the very poor city areas and doing menial work. In Panama they were part of the everyday world.
Segregation of this kind brought back the terrible memories of my childhood and I knew that I could not live in a country where I would be enforcing these rules which would take freedom from others. I decided that I would go to Israel.
During the summer I joined a kibbutz (commune ) movement. It was a Jewish group, many of whom were also Holocaust survivors, who wanted to create farming communities on land bought from owners of areas which had lain unused for so long that they were now mostly desert. During my first summer in America I joined a group called Hechalutz Hazair, and met people who felt as I did. One of them, Eric Pagremanski, had joined for the same reason as mine . A concentration camp survivor, he was hired in New York at a factory where he and a black co-worker became close friends. One day he said that the two should go out together with girl friends and his friend looked at him and said in shock......"Eric, look at me! I'm black! There's no place to go together that would let me in!"
This shocked Eric into realizing that he could not be part of a country which segregated people in the way he had once been segregated, and he decided that he would go to Israel.
And that is how we found each other. A few months later we were married in NYC and were able to see the slow but sure changing of its culture. This city began to welcome people of different colors and languages, and we watched as integration brought wonderful radical changes. We did not want to leave America anymore and looked forward to becoming citizens and creating a family here.
I used to sketch the homeless, the houses and the streets in areas where I would not be noticed. Perhaps the months of being in hiding made this be part of my need for safety from groups. But then, through urging from my family, I did what I had always dreamed of doing. In 1973 I sat down with chair, easel, canvas and paints at the corner of Orchard and Delancey in the Lower East Side and began the series of what was to be 87 large paintings of NY. My favorite place has always been the Lower East Side, where I could watch the culture changes and listen to the stories people told me.
From my city streets, after a number of peaceful years, I could watch a depressing new happening. Technology was having a not so subtle impact around the globe. Unskilled workers were not needed in the same degree as before, and immigrants who had once been welcomed as a cheap work force were facing hate groups who were suddenly emerging to lock our doors against them.
The new reality throughout the world meant more fear, more wars, more refugees desperate for shelter.
It was during this time, when memories of the past began to cloud my thinking, that I received an email from Susan Larosa from The Henry St. Settlement asking me to do a painting which was to be used for their yearly report. It would picture their buildings and their history. She sent me books and articles about a woman named Lillian Wald and the awesome changes that she and the Settlement people had done for the world of immigrants coming to America. They taught the newcomers
the skills and methods which allowed them the freedom to survive here, and they in turn helped to create the city that we are today.
At that time I was doing two landmark paintings within their area. One was of an old tenement scheduled to be torn down, and one of a temple falling into ruins. They were areas scheduled to become upscale, in this city which is constantly changing and I wanted to paint them while they were still here.
But when I was painting the history of the Henry St. Settlement, I realized that I was suddenly filled with hope. It proved to me why the world we live in exists. It exists because "Settlement people" are in every place. They are the groups which help the homeless, the refugees, the disenfranchised. They have different names, religions, shapes and colors, but they have always existed and that is why doing the Henry St. Settlement painting allows me to realize again why this city of immigrants is the place I love and am a part of.
It is a city of people who created this miraculous mixture, and I am so blessed to be permitted to sit on its street corners and paint its history and tell their story to future generations.
When I was asked to do this painting, I needed to do some research. I had often passed by and admired the Henry Street’s beautiful buildings, but my aim in this painting series was to record the history of an era which was rapidly changing, before it would disappear.
The Henry Street buildings, however, looked as if they were here to stay.
I was given this commission at a time when I felt that the dream of the Statue of Liberty was under attack. The theme of giving shelter to those who were seeking help was no longer in effect, either here or in most other countries, and my family and I, refugees from the Hitler time, but rescued by visas from Panama, knew what that meant.
Susan LaRosa from the Henry Street Settlement sent me books and articles about this awesome undertaking by a young nurse, Lillian D. Wald, who in my mind, changed the world as we knew it. She went to live in a tenement walk-up, and out of her work grew one of the twentieth century’s most renowned and important social services organizations. If this is as fascinating to you, as it is to me, read
“ The House on Henry Street”
by Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier, and I guarantee that Lillian Wald’s story is one that will give you answers of why the American Dream will continue.