Yugoslavian Holocaust survivor revisits past in art, inspires hope

Por en Chicago 01/15/13 10:46 AM

[This is the third piece in an ongoing series about the Bosnian community in Chicago. The first piece discussed inaccuracies by the U.S. Census Bureau in describing the language and birth country of people from the former Yugoslovia, while the second piece recounted the celebration of the Islamic New Year at a Northbrook, IL mosque. I write this series as a reporter and Bosnian immigrant. If you have any questions or comments on this, past or upcoming articles by me, please contact me at azrahali@gmail.com. We welcome your feedback.]

Ava Kadishson Schieber, 86, lives by herself in a spacious apartment in downtown Chicago, the walls of her home decorated with her paintings and souvenirs from the many places she has traveled to and called home. But it was not until she fled her hometown of Novi Sad, Serbia when it was overrun by Nazis and later subjugated by the communist regime that the artist and writer could begin a new life and express her creativity.

She has chronicled her life odyssey extensively in her paintings and writing, but I wanted to talk to her because I fled Bosnia myself in 1992 due to religious persecution. Though from a different ethnic group, I was eager to talk with Kadishson Schieber — survivor to survivor, nomad to nomad.

Born Ava Hegedish, Kadishson Schieber grew up in an idyllic village of Novi Sad, Serbia. The sounds of Slavic and central European languages bounced off streets lined with neo-classical, Ottoman and Greco-Roman architecture. She and her older sister Susanna grew up playing next to the flowing Danube River and on rolling hills in the countryside. At home, they’d listen to their father Leo, a Jewish soldier in the Austro-Hungarian empire, practice the violin as they’d help their Catholic-born mother, Beatrice, with errands.

Kadishson Schieber revisits her memories of childhood in a Jewish home in ethnically diverse Serbia in her artwork.

“I, as a youngster, didn’t really feel [anti-Semitism] badly,” said Kadishson Schieber, a petite woman with short gray hair and striking blue eyes. “And being a good student, I didn’t have any problems.”

But once the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941, she was forced to spend her adolescence hiding from the Nazis on a remote Serbian farm — an experience she recounts in her book “Soundless Roar.”

She survived for four years by pretending to be a deaf mute.

Her father and sister, however, did not.

Throughout the war, Kadishson Schieber found consolation in art by drawing and painting on the few resources she salvaged until all that remained were scraps of paper.

In my reporting and personal interactions, all the Yugoslavians I’ve spoken with have described the years after World War II as the best the region has seen — a time characterized by unity, brotherhood, and stability.

Indeed, it is true that many policies enacted under Tito and the socialist party were effective at holding an ethnically diverse nation together.

But for the artistically-inclined Holocaust survivor, communist Yugoslavia was the wrong venue for self-expression.

“I was born with that passion,” said Kadishson Schieber. “If I would have expressed there what I could express in Israel, I probably would have ended my life very fast.”

It was the fledgling Jewish state that she and her mother, the family’s sole survivors, moved to in 1949. There she established a life and married her first husband, with whom she started an improvisational theater, traveling and raising their three children.

Israel gave Kadishson Schieber everything Yugoslavia did not — a new beginning, energy, a community with a shared diaspora, and the freedom she sought. She has never returned to Serbia, saying it is no longer home for her. Still, she stresses it left a deep imprint on who she is.

“I am going back in memory,” said Kadishson Schieber. “In my writing — definitely in all my paintings.”

Paintings like that of her father playing the cello, in memory of his coerced performances in an orchestra at Auschwitz. Family portraits and paintings of children who never got the opportunities she did. Abstract work that narrates, as she says, her “history and prehistory.”

“Survival in Israel became just the background of what I was painting,” said Kadishson Schieber. “When one and a half million Jewish children were murdered and I was one of the survivors, I felt that was very important to document.”

Kadishson Schieber, who speaks of acceptance, confronts her past in all of her artwork. And in that past is a sadness familiar to every generation of Yugoslavians, whether they experienced the World Wars or the  country’s splintering in the 1990s. Like Kadishson Schieber, they know survival and sacrifice, religious discrimination and death, neighbors turning on each other, confinement and isolation, and exodus.

Kadishson Schieber is noteworthy not only for her ability to pick up life after being uprooted, but in how she has found peace. I have met refugees and immigrants from all over the world — people who, like her, have fled terror and hardship.

Few have demonstrated such resilience.

Many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, harbor a deep resentment for the state in which their countries were left, and live off nostalgia, convinced they cannot regain normalcy.

This is where many Bosnian and other Yugoslavian immigrants stand — in a shadow where hope, for many, is but a haunting memory.

Kadishson Schieber’s story is unique because of the grace by which she overcame obstacles many consider impossible.

She never lost hope.

Instead, she inspires it.

As she gets up to pose for pictures next to the towering tree she has kept for about 20 years, Kadishson Schieber laughs, explaining how one Serbian food she has yet to find anywhere else is kajmak, a rich and creamy dairy spread distinct to the region.

Things like burek, she said, you can find in many parts of the world, including Israel, but kajmak is unique.

After taking photos of Kadishson Schieber amidst her artwork and historical artifacts that chronicle her travels, I hugged her goodbye.

But before I leave, she shares with me an insight that helps explain where she has found strength where so many others have faltered:

“There is not one challenging memory — life is challenging all the time,” she said. “And I appreciate the challenge because, as long as I can meet the challenge face to face, I am alive.”