In remembrance: SIUE grad and local artist dedicates life’s work to Holocaust survival

Agnes Pal’s love of art was born of curiosity and fondness for beautiful shapes nearly a lifetime ago.  She said she loved art since she was a child living in the Hungarian town of Mako, dreaming of artistic designs in her steel bed painted with the Seven Dwarves.

SIUE alum Agnes Pal, left, has created dozens of artistic designs depicting her experiences during the Holocaust. Thirty pieces of art created by the 79-year old Glen Carbon resident are currently displayed at the Edwardsville Art Center at Edwardsville High School. (Photo by Joseph Lacdan)

Seven decades, later, on a cold, wet February night, she stood before three generations of artists at the Edwardsville Art Center talking to students, art teachers and art enthusiasts about the fruit of her life’s work. The art center hosted the opening night of her retrospective that featured 30 artistic works, curated by museum interim director Erin Vigneau-Dimick which vary in scope and design. The pieces serve as remembrance and dedication to the horrors her family and other Hungarian Jews endured during the German occupation of Hungary in 1944.

Most of the work was created during Pal’s 195 hours of post graduate work in SIUE’s metals room. Pal earned her Master’s in Fine Arts at SIUE in 2004.

“I knew it was going to be the ride of my life,” Pal said.

As a master’s student in her 60s, Pal faced a difficult prospect. Paulette Myers, a retired SIUE metals professor, said master’s students are challenged to develop their own research into their personal history. Pal had rarely spoken about her past or her personal experiences. It was then Pal made a heart-wrenching choice: dedicating her master’s work to the year her family was held captive during the Holocaust.

“Ever since my childhood I was wondering about why it happened to us that we were selected,” Pal said. “We lost our home and were forced to leave our country, why we were so ostracized. And I felt the weight of that, and the thoughts were always in my head. Even today when groups of people are selected and treated unfairly, I can’t help but feel for them. And that’s really how I can describe these things.”

A home shattered

Pal, 79, said her love of art endured at time when everything was torn from her.

In 1944, Pal and her  family lived in a rented house in Mako, a town in Csongrád County, in southeastern Hungary, near the Romanian border about 123 miles southeast of Budapest. In 1944, as part of Operation Margarethe, Hitler ordered the German Invasion and occupation of Hungary. Pal, her mother, father and brother along with other Hungarian Jews were forced to leave their home and became slave laborers. During the war, about 450,000 Jews living in Hungary died. Some 550,000 were forcibly transported to Nazi death camps.When they heard a voice on the radio announced that German troops had invaded Hungary. Pal watched her family’s terrified expressions and knew it was bad news. Pal said Jews were forced to sew a Yellow star of David to identify themselves as Jews.

Pal and her family had to leave their home and moved into a concentration camp in the ghetto section of Mako, in a one-bedroom apartment which had been the servant’s quarters of a friend’s house. They left behind all personal belongings, carrying only clothes and mattresses.

Shortly after her family left their home, her brother, Pista, was forced into joining the “Munkaszolgalat,” a part of the Hungarian Labor Service System that was a military branch for the Jews.

Pal and other Jews living in Hungary were forced to wear the yellow Star of David to identify themselves. During the days of the German occupation her parents and neighbors were subject to harassment and intimidation and the ever-present threat of being killed.

“We were herded into the ghetto and had a little tiny room and that’s all that we were allowed to take out as our personal property,” Pal said.  “In other words can you imagine a house put into a small room and the people who live in a house they had to sleep on the floor?”

Her family and other Jews were forced from Mako’s ghettos to various transportation centers in Hungary carrying few belongings except for clothing.  The only personal item other than clothing Pal kept was a doll she named “Martha” but she lost that as well. Pal said she witnessed the death of a young child she had befriended.

“Everything around me was tied to loss,” Pal said. “Everything I knew was sliding away from underneath us. Our former life continued to be torn away. I numbly watched my parents gather up two precious piles of photos in the backyard and set them afire.  This action suggested to me that they believed they would never return.”

"Numbers" a design made of copper, barbed wire, iron and leather was created to depict how the Nazis reduced their prisoners to little more than numbers during World War II. (Photo courtesy of the SIUE History Museum)

First the Nazi’s transported them Szeged and then to a camp in Strasshof, Austria where her family was to be distributed as slave labor for the Nazis.  They were then sent to Untertemenau, a large brick fabrication place, where Pal’s mother, Aranka, served as a cook for prisoners and factory administrators.

It was during this time, while living inside the wires of the concentration camps, that Pal befriended other children and found seeds of purple thistle flowers blowing in the wind. The thistle formed the basis of her design “Beyond the Fence,” in which Pal used copper, drift wood and crayons.

Pal found comfort in the beauty of the flower and she said it became a powerful symbol for her and the other children.

“It really gave us hope. Kids discovered how beautiful it was,” Pal said. “Of course we missed our home terribly and could hardly wait until it was over. We were always hoping tomorrow would bring us home.”

Then in January of 1945, Pal said the Nazis were concerned about losing their slave labor to a Communist invasion. So again Pal’s family had to leave, now to serve as human shields against any possible attack by Allied forces. While they were traveling from Untertemenau in the winter cold, they encountered harsh terrain on their way.

“We were herded to the new post that was on top of a dam that produced electricity,” Pal said “We were chased own from Untertemenaul and had to descend from a mountain to this valley. It was in the winter and it was icy terrain, and I being a child I almost rolled down that icy mountain and my mother taught me how to safely descend down that icy mountain.”

Pal created “Icy Descent,” built from aquamarine stone, silver and a burned piece of wood, to represent the woods and ice in the area.

Miraculously, her family survived the Holocaust under the constant threats of death. They later learned through letters, that Pista had barely survived his time in the Munkaszolgalat and the concentration camps and had endured torture and beatings.

Perhaps the crowning achievement of the art collection, an enormous copper and wire construction called “Numbers.” The piece displays hydraulically pressed copper plates with individually-assigned numbers intended to represent the dehumanization of Jews during the Holocaust.

“People were treated as cattle and took all the sweat, all the life out of their captives and reduced their identity to numbers,” Pal said. “That’s how they kept track of them too; by numbers. And if you think of people as numbers, suddenly they are not people.  The captors can do whatever they wanted to; their lives were not worth anything more than what they could take out of those lives.”

Never the same

After her family’s year of confinement, they learned Pal’s family finally returned to their home southeastern Hungary. Pal said life in Hungary had forever changed. The value of Hungarian currency had changed, and her father struggled to pay for food and rent.

As a teenager, the high school she attended did not offer any art program. There was little art in the city and no art museum. So Agnes said she taught herself, by studying the few pieces of art in her family’s home and by drawing self-portraits while looking in the mirror. She won an art contest at her high school and was awarded a hardcover book of Rembrandt’s paintings.

“I was just curious how to capture images and what pleased me,” Pal said.

Pal enrolled at the University of Budapest in the hopes of studying art and becoming an interior designer. But the Soviets continued to occupy Hungary after the end of the War. Because of Pal’s heritage, she was harassed and removed from school for being what the Soviet’s called a “class enemy.”

Pal then was accepted into the Pedagogic Institute of Szeged at the University of Szeged, where she majored in art education. But she realized that she had to escape Hungary after participating in student protests during the Hungarian Revolt of 1957.

New beginnings

Pal and a group of students then went on a dangerous trek through the Hungarian countryside, crossing minefields into Austria. She later contacted various organizations that led her to the Red Cross, who provided her passage to the United States, where she had been accepted to study art at the University of Michigan.

After returning to New York City, Pal was working as an art director for an advertising agency, when she met her late husband, Alexander. Alexander Pal was hired as a math professor at SIUE in the 1970s. He later retired with Emeritus status before he passed away in June 2003. But the itch to create more art remained in Agnes. She took courses in sculpting, claymaking, and ceramics at SIUE, working with the guidance of former SIUE professors Myers, Dan Anderson, Bob Malone and Paul Dresang.

“As a student, Agnes was energetic, always approaching her metalwork with great vigor,” Myers said. “She worked tirelessly with constant determination.”

That determination was displayed in her artistic dedications to her late grandmother, who was killed in Auschwitz, a Nazi death camp in Oświęcim, Poland. Her grandmother was a rancher living in Slovakia who was caught delivering food to friends in camps according to a family friend. Pal dedicated many of her artwork to her late Grandmother, whom she never knew except as a toddler. Pal created  “Grandmother’s memory:” a silver locket with an encased photo of a one-year-old Agnes her mother and her cousin that also contains a tiny pair of baby shoes, also of silver. The necklace signifies the memory of her grandma purchasing her first pair of shoes.

“I never got to see her or even see a photograph and I so missed her that I had to create my own reflection of her,” Pal said. ”From this one evidence, the photograph, I created a connection with her and that was my attempt making this connection.”

Another piece she dedicated to her grandmother, was a chalice made of silver called “Offering.”

“It was hopefully a lesson that the Holocaust did happen and old people were killed, and how unfair-how terrible it was,” Pal said. “And children were killed because they were disposable. The Nazis had deemed anybody disposable who was not part of the Arian nation that they selected according to their recipe that it should be blue eyed and light skinned and … blonde. It’s a ridiculous presumption that no one else should have rights.”

The Glen Carbon resident dedicated countless hours into her studio work in SIUE’s metals department, first in the former Wagner building and then into what is now Art and Design Building East.

Pal has no studio now. Due to different physical ailments, she struggles walking and lifting heavy items and can no longer make the metallic artwork she was so driven to create during her years at SIUE. She must resort to painting water color portraits in her room at Meridian Village Senior Living in Glen Carbon.  But her love of art remains.

“I hope that they learn a little more about history,” Pal said. “And (get) exposure to different experiences and it will bring history closure to them. I think that learning from history books it becomes quite abstract and I think that learning about what people have gone through would give them a chance to more thoughtful internalization and they could get closer to what happen and utilize that as an experience.”

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