Roman Halter, Shoah survivor, artist, dies at 84

Roman Halter, who turned his experiences during the Holocaust as a slave laborer, death camp survivor and death march escapee into searing art, died in London on Jan. 30 at 85.

Karen Pollock, chief executive of England’s Holocaust Educational Trust, said: “He was a man who survived unimaginable experiences and who will be remembered by all of us at HET for his great intellect, talent , dignity and, above all, his warmth. He will be hugely missed.”

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Dr James Smith, Chief Executive of the Aegis Trust and Chairman of The Holocaust Centre, said: “Roman Halter was not only a remarkable intellect and a great supporter of The Holocaust Centre and the Aegis Trust; he was also a very dear personal and family friend. A true gentleman, his calm demeanor belied the unimaginable atrocities that he experienced and witnessed. We will all miss his inspirational presence and his quiet authority.”

In the years after his career as an architect, Halter created paintings and stained glass works that drew significant attention. He designed the gates of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum. Some of his work was featured at Britain’s leading Tate Gallery in 2006. The museum wrote at the time:

Halter fuses his own memories with images from art history to produce works that are, at once, both highly personal and of universal significance. In the painting Shlomo, for example, the anguished body of the crucified Christ known from Renaissance painting comes to represent the body of Halter’s brother, hanged for bringing bread in from outside the camp for his colleagues and himself. “Woman Wearing a Mantilla” was inspired in part by Goya’s portrait of Dona Isabel de Porcel, in the National Gallery, which evoked memories of Halter’s mother and the Jewish women of Chodecz who wore such veils to the synagogue on the Sabbath.

Images of his work in the collection of the Imperial War Museum can be found here

Halter was born in the Polish town of Chodecz. He was 12 when World War Two started. The publisher of his 2007 autobiography, "Roman’s Journey," said:

"Roman Halter is an optimistic and boisterous schoolboy in 1939 when he and his family gather behind net curtains to watch the Volksdeutsch neighbours of their small town in western Poland greeting the arrival of Hitler’s armies with kisses and swastika flags. Within days, the family home has been seized, and twelve-year-old Roman becomes a slave of the local SS chief and, returning from an errand, silently witnesses his Jewish classmates being bayoneted to death by soldiers at the edge of town."

A review of his autobiography in the Guardian, said: "Roman’s story which, sadly, is not unique, is a compelling, compassionate and impressively literary contribution to the writing of humanity on the brink.”

BBC filmed a 2006 visit he made to Poland, where he was born. In the program, Halter said:

"It is like a language you haven’t practised for a long time… a clock that still ticks away. I see people, the traders, the synagogue, those who went to the market… they are everywhere. I see them in my mind’s eye, it causes inner pain… and yet the joy when I was here as a child, this was the centre of my universe….

"Family, friends, they are no longer here. I am coming to a ghost town. During the war, the dream of coming back to Chodecz was a comforting dream. I saw a form of rejuvenation, a new life… and when I came back after it was liberated there was this utter emptiness. Polish people were preoccupied with their lives.

His family was sent to the Lodz ghetto. One by one, family members died there. He dug his father’s grave and buried him in the ghetto at age 12. He was sent via Auschwitz and Stutthof concentration camps to slave labor in Dresden in 1944, where he survived the city’s firebombing by the Allies in February 1945. He also escaped from a Nazi death march. A brief return to his hometown after the war turned up only four survivors from the town’s 800 Jews. He then moved to Britain. One article asserted that his time among the beautiful buildings of Dresden inspired him to become an architect, despite the conditions under which he suffered there. Halter’s own telling of those tales can be found here.

His wife and three children, two of whom live in Israel, survive him.

The Eulogizer highlights the life accomplishments of famous and not-so-famous Jews who have passed away recently. Write to the Eulogizer at eulogizer@jta.org.

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