What happens when you cross an incredible story of Holocaust survival with the story of one of the world’s finest sculptors and painters? You get a story of hope, brilliance, and the indomitable nature of the human spirit. In short – Nicky Imber. Nicky Imber was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1922. He attended the Academy of Arts in Vienna where he gained notoriety by drawing caricatures of Nazis for the Academy’s Jewish student newspaper, during the 1930’s. In addition, he was also an accomplished Vaudeville dancer, frequenting dance stages and thrilling audiences and friends alike with his talent.
In 1938, the Anschluss with Nazi Germany sealed the fate of the approximately 192,000 Austrian Jews, who represented about 4% of the total Austrian population. The overwhelming majority of them lived in Vienna where they made up roughly 1 in 10 of the total population. By December, 1939, however, that number was cut down to 57,000; mostly through emigration – forced or otherwise. Roughly 9,000 Austrian Jews survived the war – about 10% of the pre-war population. A popular and hard to reach destination for many Jews at this time was China, which allowed Jewish immigration. Nicky tried to go this route, but his efforts were continually thwarted by Eichmann. His mother, however, succeeded in getting to Shanghai.
Around this same time, Nicky was rounded up and transported to the Dachau concentration camp in Munich, Germany. While there, he endured unimaginable suffering, deprivations and degradations. He watched close family and friends suffer and die. All this time, he just had one thought, one theme to hang on to: To survive, and therefore, to bear witness. Nicky had a photographic mind, and this would serve him well and also haunt him, later on in life.
What followed in Dachau is the most remarkable story of one man’s survival against all odds. He had had enough of the misery of the camp and he plotted a brilliant escape plan. Using the skills he learned at the art academy in Vienna, with only preciously scarce bread and sand, he manufactured a face mask of the camp commandant. He stole a Nazi officer’s uniform from the camp tailor shop, and made a replica of the commandant’s uniform. One day, he donned his mask and put on the uniform, and just strolled leisurely out the front gate, past the guards, dogs, and other inmates! He was free, but a long way from safety.
It was not until 1941 that the Nazis decided on a course of extermination of all the Jews of Europe, and it was not until the infamous Wannsee conference, in a suburb of Berlin, on January 20, 1942, under the leadership of SS Obergrüppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich, at the behest of Hermann Goring, that the mechanism of extermination — deportation to Poland and gassing of Jews was actively decided on. As an aside, a secondary goal of Wannsee was to decide “who is a Jew,” and how far back family records should be searched. The actual killing was to be done under the SS, but it should be noted that representatives of German industry, including I.G. Farben, manufacturer of “Zyklon-B,” the Prussic acid crystals used in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, and other German businessmen were also present at Wannsee.
So, cheating certain death at the hands of the Nazis by just 2 years, Nicky made his way to the Romanian port of Tulcea, where there were 3 ships: SS Milos, SS Pacific and the SS Atlantic, all chartered by Eichmann, to transport about 3,600 Jews from Vienna, Danzig, and Prague to British Mandated Palestine. It can be assumed, and with good reason, that Nicky did not use his real name since he had escaped from Dachau.
Most probably, Nicky boarded the SS Atlantic, which was bound for Haifa. However, the British, who were in a life and death struggle with Nazi Germany in North Africa at the time, thought it was better to provoke Jewish anger than risk an Arab uprising, and refused to allow all 3 ships to enter the country. Instead, Nicky, with all the passengers from the SS Atlantic and the other 2 ships were taken to the Atlit detention center, which is about 12 miles south of Haifa. From there, the British wanted to send those passengers to Mauritius, an island off the African continent in the Indian Ocean, as well as to Trinidad in the Caribbean.
To accomplish this, the British placed Nicky, along with 1,900 refugees from the 3 ships onboard the SS Patria, a ship of French registry, seized by the British after France surrendered to Nazi Germany. Zionist groups opposed this transfer and various groups including the Irgun tried to stop it. On November 25th, 1940, a bomb placed by the Haganah exploded at 9:00am, causing the ship to list and sink in Haifa harbor. The Haganah, according to later documents had attempted just to disable her, buying time for the Jews onboard to obtain entry visas for Palestine. But, they miscalculated the force of the explosion, and over 200 Jewish refugees, plus 50 crew and British soldiers died; many were injured. Somehow, Nicky was implicated in this incident, and he did end up being sent to Mauritius, anyway.
While interned on Mauritius, Nicky waited almost 2 years, then worked out a deal with the British in 1943 to join their army and work as a war artist and a dental assistant in East Africa. After the war, he opened an art school and worked as a safari guide and photographer in Nairobi, Kenya. But wearing a safari hat and bushman’s outfit was not to be his future, and so he travelled in search of opportunity where he could use his awesome artistic talent.
He made his way to South America,Venezuela to be exact, where he was contracted by the government to create an East African diorama series for the National Museum. His large, lifelike animal sculptures earned him quite a bit of fame. This he did from 1949-1954. Finally, in 1959 he returned to Israel, ironically to Haifa, where he was denied entry in 1940, and was asked to create pre-historic animal sculptures and dioramas for the Haifa Pre-History museum at Gan Ha-Em. As a Holocaust Survivor, coming back to Israel made set in his mind the work he would become most famous for, although that wasn’t to come just yet; there were still other things to do, and other places to see.
His restlessness and desire to see the world, led to great fame for Nicky Imber. He spent the next decade or so sculpting and painting his way through Europe and the United States. His reputation for excellence and the mastery of his craft even took him to the Vatican, where he was chosen over many other artists to restore a 3,000 year old Greek statue, and even the famous Michelangelo sculpture “David,” which was vandalized in 1992.
Finally, in 1978, Nicky came to terms with his past and his status as a Holocaust survivor. The abuses and horrors he suffered at the hands of the Nazis, made their way from the inner recesses of the artist’s mind and into bronze and clay. He was asked to create a series of Holocaust-themed sculptures at the entrance to the idyllic, and beautiful city of Carmiel, which sits in the valley between the Upper and Lower Galilee. From his website, these are Nicky’s words:
“Many years ago, when I escaped form Dachau, I promised myself that if I should survive, I would dedicate my artistic life to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust. I have created many different works of art in my lifetime, but most poignantly important are the ones standing in Carmiel today, and hopefully forever. From deep within my heart, I created them in honor of those who perished, those who have survived and those who follow and need to remember.
The park at Carmiel is entitled “The History of the Jewish People” and including three groupings: “Holocaust”, “Aliyah”, and “Hope”. It depicts people who know that their end will be, but never give up hope and their faith in G-d. These are actual pictures I have in my mind from my horrible existence in Dachau.”
It took Nicky 3 years to create “The History Of The Jewish People,” and today all 3 groupings of statues sit in the park that he made specially for them. In addition, he created animal-themed children’s parks throughout the small city, thus creating a must-see tourist destination, and enabling the city to grow to what it is today. One particular sculpture stands out from all the rest of Nicky’s works – that statue is called “The Hope” – HaTikvah. It is the centerpiece of the third groupings, and depicts a young mother on a kibbutz, in a free and independent Israel, holding up her child triumphantly to the heavens to show the world, “We are still here, and with a living future.” It is no small coincidence that he chose the name “The Hope” for this important and symbolic piece, because it was Nicky Imber’s Grand Uncle, Naphtali Herz Imber, a Jewish poet and Zionist who wrote the words to “HaTikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. Naphtali’s story is very colorful and unique as well, and will be the subject of a future blog of mine here on The Times Of Israel.
The center of Nicky’s world of art is the gallery in Safed, “Soul and Art,” which contains all original handmade replicas and some originals of ALL of his works. The gallery is not hard to miss when you are fortunate enough to visit Safed; a replica of “The Hope” greets visitors in front of the entrance to the gallery. Just a few meters away is another famous statue called “Torah,” a replica of one of the pieces in the Aliyah portion of the Holocaust park in Carmiel. Nicky Imber passed away in his native city of Vienna, Austria in 1996, but his contributions to the world of art, and the magnificent story of his people – the Jewish People, lives on forever.