Martin Small, 84, is haunted by nightmares and flashbacks of the Holocaust. “He’ll wake up at night screaming that he is running from the Nazis,” says his wife, Doris, also a survivor who escaped to England from Berlin with other children in 1939.
Once while sitting at a local bar waiting for a friend to join him for dinner, he suddenly imagined himself surrounded by Nazi officers. And on a trip to Israel in 1995, the rolling hills of Jerusalem were transformed in his mind’s eye into war-torn Europe, and he saw his parents and two sisters marched to the death camp with other Jews.
During an interview Sunday in his Huntington home, Small speaks of spending the war in hiding, working for the partisans, in slave labor camps and in the concentration camp at Mauthausen in Austria. He rolls up his right sleeve to show the jagged scar left by a bullet that tore through his arm when he tried to escape from a Polish slave labor camp. He has never regained full strength in that arm, but it is the mental rather than the physical scars that most distress him.
“The nightmares are unbelievable,” he says, adding that they have become worse since he retired from the real estate business in 1985. “Pain can be cured with time. But when you are a Holocaust survivor, the pain grows with time. …The doctor gives me pills, but I lose my memory. I don’t know which is better.”
Art, he found, is “the best medicine in the world.” Small paints and makes woodcuttings.One of his collages in wood, “Cries From the Fire,” was accepted last month for the permanent collection of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust archive and museum.
“Your work will be an important addition to our museum and will highlight our effort to establish an all-encompassing collection,” wrote the museum’s senior curator, Yehudit Shendar. “Yad Vashem is currently embarking on a new endeavor — to establish a worldwide archive of artists who have dealt in their art with the Holocaust.”
While he makes plans to ship the piece to Israel, Small says it will be on display at his synagogue, the East Northport Jewish Center, when he is honored there Tuesday on Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Memorial Day.
The collage took seven months to design and three years to execute.“One night [in 1995] I woke up and saw the whole picture in my mind,” he said. “I woke up my daughter and said, ‘Give me a scissors,’ and then I started putting the pieces together.”
The picture is a collection of images and figures Small created over the years. “The name ‘Cries From the Fire’ came to me, and from the name I was able to do the work,” he explains.
It took three years to complete the project because he often had to stop and work on other pieces.“It was too painful to work on it continuously,” he says. “I wanted to finish it, but sometimes I just couldn’t. … I saw a lot of pain, a lot of tears [in this work].”
As he picked up the piece from a pedestal in his living room — it is about 21/2-feet tall and about 4-foot wide — Small prepares to describe it.
“I don’t know where to start, it’s so painful to me,” he says.
In the left corner, he points to a figure of a little girl “who is crying ‘Mama’ in Yiddish as a train carrying her mother [to the death camp] pulls out. I don’t show the mother on the train; everything is in the imagination.
”In the top left corner is a crematorium, smoke spewing from the chimney. An old man, expressionless, walks by. In the right corner, a figure stands next to barbed wire and children are seen marching into the death camp. A woman cradles a body in her arms; two people are locked in an embrace.
Across the bottom are corpses, arms and legs. A child is seen lying atop them, her head buried in her arms. Another figure walks amid the bodies. The word “Why” is near his head.
Amid the flames that dominate the upper half of the work, Small has placed the word “Shema” in English and Hebrew, a distorted yellow star bearing the word “Jude” and a German soldier with a rifle behind a figure with upraised hands. There is also a menorah with crying faces etched into the arms.
Looking at the little girl watching the train carrying her mother, Small whispers: “I hear her screaming. I tell people I talk to the people in the picture and I hear them. They answer me in silence.”
In his mind he has his next work mapped out. It is a picture of his parents and sisters, together with the 3,600 other Jews from their town in Poland, being marched naked by the Nazis to open pits, where they are shot and buried.
“Many were buried alive,” says his wife.
“And the Christians in the town stood alongside the road clapping,” adds Small.
As he puts his work down on the kitchen table, Small says that any other Holocaust survivor looking at this piece “would see what I see.”
Asked where Yad Vashem planned to display it, Small shrugs.
“I don’t know and I don’t care. Just to have it accepted is the biggest honor in the world,” he says. “I just know that it is going over there. It belongs there.”