New York City has many chroniclers — some walk the streets and document their wanderings in prose, others take photographs, freezing in time the city’s stories, and still others turn the city’s churn and throb into music. Nathan Hilu remembers, with ink and pastels on paper.
In a flourish of black lines and sunny colors, he depicts streets, shops and celebrations on the Lower East Side, as it was in earlier decades, layering his images with text and contemporary resonance. At 92, he remains one of the most prolific artists in the city.
“I’m a rememberer. I’m like Marcel Proust. Most of my work is of the past,” Hilu tells The Jewish Week. He also remembers with great pride his service in the U.S. Army in Europe and Asia, and, in particular, his assignment guarding high-level Nazi prisoners being prosecuted for war crimes during the Nuremberg trials. In many drawings, he captures the faces behind bars and their private words to him, as Private First Class Hilu.
Now Hilu lives on the Lower East Side, in a building adjacent to the Bialystoker Synagogue on Willett Street that offers services for seniors. His apartment is filled with his artwork and memorabilia; most surfaces are piled with reference books, art supplies and small figurines. On his walls are family photographs, newspaper clippings on subjects of interest, along with a newspaper reprint of an American flag, honoring Capt. Sam Hilu, one of his late brothers, and a photo of George Washington just below.
A giant of a man, lanky and slim, he’s wearing a ski hat with a fisherman’s cap on top and heavy glasses, with markers and pens always close by. Hilu folds his large frame onto the sofa where he does most of his drawing these days, leaning on a piece of cardboard on his lap. He draws every day and long into the nights.
In the two weeks before our visit, he has done some 60 or so vibrant drawings, and we study them together, Hilu recounting the episodes of his life that they depict. We’re joined by filmmaker Elan Golod, who is making a documentary about the artist. Hilu is friendly, polite, talkative, very interested in the filmmaking process.
It’s not as much an interview as a lesson from an old master. “Please, please, hear me out,” he’ll say in response to a question that interrupts his stream-of-conscious narrative, returning to his train of thought and eventually looping back to answer. He is determined to tell his story.
Curator Laura Kruger, who has championed his work, shown him at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum and helped organize other exhibitions that included his work, describes him as fascinating and insistent. She could be describing the way he observes the world in his work, the way he speaks about his meaning-filled drawings, and even in the way he puts his pens, pastels and crayons to paper.
His style may be called art brut or outsider art, referring to an expressive style by artists who lack formal training. While he has studied at the Art Students League and other places, Hilu is largely self-taught. Kruger says the style is unusual in the Jewish contemporary art world.
“It’s not that he feels like drawing, he has to draw — it’s a way of communicating,” she says, adding, “I really believe he is an exceptional talent.”
He shares much of himself in his artwork. With a steady hand, he draws just a few strokes that capture the flow of memory, and then spreads light and color — he’s not one to color inside of the lines. His work, whether on cardboard or sheets of white drawing paper or anything he finds, bursts with energy. Usually, he mixes drawing with hand-written text in English with some Hebrew on the front side, and explains the work on the back in additional text, poetic in its straightforward expression. Golod says that when Hilu is not drawing, he’s reading and doing research.
“Nathan sees the world through a Jewish lens,” Golod says. “That’s the common thread through his work.”
Hilu was born on the Lower East Side in 1926; his first home was in a four-story tenement at 25 Essex St., built in 1900, that’s about to be demolished and replaced by a tower. His first language was Arabic, which he learned from his parents. His father came to the U.S. from Damascus, Syria, in around 1918. On Hilu’s wall is a photo of his grandfather, Hacham Bashi Nissim Andibo, who was the chief rabbi of Damascus; Hilu explains that his grandfather blessed Israeli Eli Cohen in his final moments, before his hanging in Damascus for espionage in 1965.
Nathan’s parents moved to Pittsburgh when he was young and he grew up in a community that was mostly Ashkenazi, where he learned Yiddish. He has been drawing all his life, and remembers his mother asking him to draw a bird alighting on their windowsill, and then sewing his drawing onto a pillowcase. To learn to draw human figures, he turned to comic books, studying the panels to learn about motion and proportion.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1945 to 1957. At age 18, he was selected to “go to prison,” as his commanding officer told him. He may have been chosen to guard the prisoners because of his size. In vivid color, he draws scenes with Hermann Goering, Rudolf Hess, Walter Funk and others on his watch. Hilu recounts that before Goering was brought to be hanged, his wife was allowed to visit — he witnessed a brief visit with one very long kiss, and says that in that moment she gave him the cyanide pill he used to kill himself.
“A kiss of death,” Hilu says. “That’s my story.”
He says that these men were lonely and wanted to talk, and he let them know he was a Jew. While he was guarding Albert Speer, Hitler’s chief architect and minister of armaments who was given a 20-year prison sentence, Speer told him, “Write what you see here. It’s history.”
Not only great men make history.
“Not only great men make history,” Hilu says. “A little man could make history too. I made history.” He adds, “You come and you learn history by me.”
On the back of these works, he writes, “Signed Nathan Hilu, a Jew who was a guard at Nuremberg.”
Golod comments, “At first I was taken aback by how what could be a grim subject was being done in bright Crayola colors. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.” As part of his research for the documentary, Golod has seen Hilu’s artistic diaries of the trials, now at the Library of Congress.
After his service in Germany, Hilu was trained in languages and he served during the Korean War in Japan, doing intelligence work, as a courier of top-secret documents. In Japan too, he drew.
When he was stationed in Fort Bragg, N.C., a fellow soldier suggested that he write to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The Rebbe wrote back, suggesting that he “draw pictures for Yiddishkeit.”
After his discharge from the army, Hilu settled in New York City, where he was a longtime employee of Bookazine. The company’s owners encouraged him to draw, and bought him art supplies.
Art is not for yourself. You draw for people.
His New York work includes drawings of Abe’s Poultry Shop, with a brightly rendered chicken in the window. He also drew Moishe’s Bakery, Molly the Chicken Plucker and many of the synagogues on the Lower East Side. At one scene in front of the Bialystoker, front and center is a woman with a large red hat. In the background of some drawings are rabbis flying, even the moon clapping on Simchat Torah. Sometimes he attaches newspaper stories to the backs to explain events.
He writes, “I Nathan Hilu draw the Lower East Side in the style of Chaucer and ‘The Canterbury Tales,’ before it is all gone.”
In earlier years, he drew at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens and he also depicts stories of the Bible. In another apt comparison, he announces, “I’m the Sephardic Chagall.”
Hilu never married and has very little family around. He has much praise for Golod, who visits him regularly and brings him many art supplies, which he couldn’t otherwise afford.
“Elan is like the Pope. The Pope sponsored art. No artist can survive without a sponsor.”
Hilu invites a visitor to please, please return again and says, “Art is not for yourself. You draw for people. I, Nathan Hilu, of the Lower East Side, continue the tradition of the Jewish people.”
This is one of a two-part series on the Lower East Side. Click here to read about how the Stanton St. Shul is using art to revive the synagogue first founded in 1914.