Our Stories

Art of the Past

College usually is an exploration of the world around us, but for Willamette University junior Lauren Pressler, it's also an exploration of her family's history. In the new exhibit "Ludwig Salzer: Man of Letters," now in the Willamette Art Building, Pressler has taken a bittersweet journey into her grandfather's little-known past. It's a journey touched with the horror of the Holocaust and the heartbreak of lost love, lost family and a lost world, a life soured by bitterness, compromise and fear.

"It's not your usual exhibit about the Holocaust," she said. "It's not a story about a hero. It's bittersweet. What he suffered was projected on his children and me, in a sense."

Uncovering a Life in Turmoil
Pressler's grandfather, born into a wealthy, educated and large Viennese family, fled Austria to Shanghai, China, in 1939 after the Anschluss -- the annexation of Austria by Hitler and amid increasing persecution of Jews. Salzer later immigrated to Australia and then the U.S., working in various jobs, remarrying and fathering two children.

The fate of his six brothers is unknown; his father died of typhoid in a Polish ghetto; his mother's fate is unknown; his grandmother died at Auschwitz; and his younger sister, Ilse, escaped to England.

With the drama and turmoil of his life, including leaving behind a gentile girlfriend, Salzer repressed his past and even hid his Jewishness, avoiding contact even with his sister. He did once take his family to Austria, but Pressler remembers that he didn't linger over the places where he and his family had lived.

Pressler obtained a $3,000 Carson Grant to investigate her grandfather's past and had scant information from him before he died 2 1/2 years ago, suffering from Parkinson's Disease.

"The first thing he said was, 'I was not a hero. There are some things that needed to be forgotten,'" she said. Discovering that past became a huge accomplishment, something achieved over the past several months.

"It was a struggle," Pressler said. "It makes my family now make a lot more sense. It was an amazing experience. I am so happy I was given the opportunity."

Interpreting the Facts
Much of Pressler's grant was spent translating her grandfather's journals. Copies of the translated material are bound and available for checkout from the university library. The exhibit includes selected text from the journals as well as letters between Salzer and his family and girlfriend.

Salzer also was a collector, saving things that touched his life. There are Nazi stamps; photo albums from Austria and Shanghai; souvenirs from China and from his journey there by ship; documents such as a notice from his Viennese employer, explaining he was being let go because of Aryanization (Jews had to be fired); and personal memorabilia, such as a textile weaving he made.

Pressler has augmented the documentary material with her own acrylic and mixed-media paintings and pen-and-ink drawings, interpreting the facts artistically. Among these are a pen-and-ink drawing of her great-great grandmother, Berta, shown against the smokestacks of Auschwitz's ovens.

Another, a large mixed-media with acrylic called "Family of Letters," recalls the family left behind. There are profiles of Vienna landmarks, a clear depiction of Salzer in the center and vague outlines for his family members, their figures filled in with copies of their letters, mute testimony to the fragile memory of a once-vital family.

"It's a good job," said James Thompson, Pressler's faculty adviser. "I'm really fascinated by it." Thompson has visited the exhibit almost daily, finding new details. He advised Pressler to stay with the story's essentials. "I always thought it was a really good project because it's that interpretation of history, art and research."

Project Still Growing
Pressler, who is from Berkeley, Calif., is not Jewish. She said her grandfather was a complex man, and among the complexities was his attitude toward his Jewish heritage. Although the young Salzer battled the Hitler Youth in the streets, giving his parents the jitters, he also was a nationalist.

"He did not feel hatred for Hitler and the Nazis," Pressler said. "He even read Mein Kampf (My Life)." That book -- Hitler's biography and statement of his beliefs -- is included in the exhibit, along with hand-colored maps of Europe that Salzer drew, charting the expanding Germany, which at one time stretched from the French coastline to Russia.

"His nationalism was in constant conflict with his Jewishness," Pressler said. "He was very defiant and troublesome, especially for his family. He looked not Jewish."

But Salzer finally saw the Nazis as a threat and fled Europe at 19, with $10 in his pocket, a few pieces of luggage and memories of his family. He chose Shanghai as a destination because he didn't need a visa there.

What Salzer didn't say to others, he did say in his journals, which offer poignant testimony to his mixed emotions, anger and despair. "He was an amazing writer, and I think that is something that should be shared with people," Pressler said.

In researching the story, she also contacted her grandfather's lifelong friends and surviving relatives. Salzer's garage in Bremerton, Wash., is stuffed with his collection of belongings through the years and was another major source of materials. Pressler has three more journals that she would like to get translated. "This project isn't done by any means," she said.

Pressler's exhibit has been extended past its original end date to Sept. 29. She would like it to be seen elsewhere and has offered it to Jewish synagogues and cultural centers. "I would definitely move it somewhere else," Pressler said.

This story was written by Ron Cowan for the Statesman Journal and appeared on September 19, 2006.

© 2006, The Statesman Journal. Reprinted with permission.