Back in April, Hudson Valley One reported on We Remember: Songs of Survivors, a documentary co-produced by two Ulster County residents, Ilene Cutler and Tim Miller, that was about to be aired nationally on PBS. The film spotlights four Holocaust survivors in the Hudson Valley whose life stories had been transmuted into songs as part of an ongoing oral history project by the not-for-profit organization SageArts.
Among the elders profiled in the film was Tibor Spitz, an artist, inventor and retired glass industry engineer now residing in Kingston. Songwriter Kelleigh McKenzie worked with him to glean material for a song and found inspiration in his paintings, along with a wealth of personal lore from a long life filled with hardship, adventure and eventual success. You can see a clip from the part of the film featuring Spitz at www.pbs.org/video/tibor-spitz-escape-8ivun9. And now you can see more than two dozen of his artworks up close at the Unison Arts and Learning Center, where a one-man exhibition titled “Tibor Spitz: A Retrospective: Stories, Remembrances,” curated by Simon Draper and Faheem Haider, opened last Sunday and will run through September 18.
Born in 1929 in the town of Dolný Kubín in a mountainous region of northern Slovakia, near the Polish border, Tibor Spitz was forced to stop attending school at the age of 10 because he was a Jew. By the time he was 12, friends and extended family members were being deported to what they were told were labor camps. When some escapees from a concentration camp tipped them off as to what was going on, the Spitzes went on the run, hiding in the mountains. Toward the end of the war, they spent seven wintry months in an earth shelter that they dug out of the side of an embankment above a little stream, reinforcing it with a log frame and disguising it with turf. They subsisted largely on frozen berries and edible roots, dodging Nazi police patrols.
When finally liberated from his family’s literally underground existence by the Red Army in 1945, Tibor was 15 and nearly illiterate, feeling out of place among his classmates. But he was determined and resourceful, and quickly began to excel in school. His ambition was to become a sculptor, following in the footsteps of his elder brother. The postwar Soviet régime in what had become Czechoslovakia had other ideas. “Stalin needed chemists. We had a 600-year-old tradition of alchemists in Prague,” Tibor relates. “They needed explosives and steel.”
Thanks to a well-timed illness, he managed to avoid being conscripted to attend a military academy, but became one of 260 promising students at his college to be recruited as chemists for the government. “I had an engineering mind, a rational mind,” Tibor explains. By 1949 he had already earned a PhD in Chemical Engineering and begun working with glass, researching glassmaking technologies, inventing and patenting new processes.
By 1966 Tibor Spitz was at the top of his field, with a reputation as a brilliant troubleshooter, but troubled by the political and religious repression in his native land and in the USSR, where he lived and worked for a while. With his wife Noemi – also an engineer and a Holocaust survivor – Tibor was sent to live in Cuba for a couple of years, charged with rescuing three glass factories that had been experiencing technical problems due to the brain drain in the country following Castro’s rise to power. He was told in no uncertain terms that his life would be forfeit if he failed to turn the facilities around within two years. His expertise in the field soon had factories that could barely make a bottle converted to production of laminated glass for automobile windshields, mirrors and other more “difficult” glass products.
When the end of the Cuban assignment came in sight, Tibor knew he didn’t want to live in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe anymore. He kept a low profile to avoid raising suspicion, knowing that he was under surveillance wherever he went. “When I was sent to the International Glass Congress in Brussels, I had two bodyguards. But it wasn’t me they were guarding,” he recalls.
So, when the decrepit aircraft that was supposed to carry the Spitzes back across the North Atlantic from Cuba put down in Gander, Newfoundland for refueling and repairs, they carefully noted the location of the airport’s tiny immigration office. They bided their time until all the rest of the passengers had reboarded and then quickly handed their passports to the immigration officer, requesting asylum. It was Friday, December 13, 1968 – “my lucky day,” in Tibor’s words. Dressed in tropical clothing and speaking no English, they defected to the West.
They were made welcome, he says, because “We were both engineers, so we were useful to the Canadian economy.” They settled in Montreal for a while; Tibor quickly became the chief chemist and CEO of a company running six glass factories and the highest-paid immigrant in Canada at that time.
The rise of the Québécois separatist movement made him worry about living under a potentially Soviet-friendly government, so in 1978 the Spitzes relocated again, this time to the US. They lived in Philadelphia, then West Virginia, then New Jersey, until “a company created by IBM runaways” needed a glass expert to help them perfect magnetic recording heads for audio and video equipment and recruited Tibor to resettle in Kingston.
He stayed on with National Micronetics for 14 years, retiring at age 68 when the company was acquired by Korean investors and was moved out to California. Only then did he begin his career as a full-time artist. He studied painting, drawing, sculpting and digital arts at Ulster County Community College and pursued a growing interest in pointillist technique. “I wanted to tell my story,” he says. “My grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins were murdered. I had to come to terms with it.”
Many of Tibor Spitz’s paintings evoke the horrors of the Holocaust, with titles such as Sorrow, End of Family, Living Nightmare, Unbearable Pain. And yet his work is full of joy and movement and warm colors, balancing tragedy with hope. A large oil called March of Eternity depicts one of the death marches that occurred when the concentration camps were being shut down by advancing Allied troops; corpses line the roadside, and a plume of smoke, presumably from a crematorium, rises ominously in the background. But the foreground is dominated by the figure of a rabbi wearing his tefillin, gazing away at something we cannot see, with a look on his face that says, “We’ve been through worse before. We will survive this.”
If Marc Chagall had been a pointillist, his paintings might’ve looked something like those of Tibor Spitz, filled as they are with folkloric images of animals floating in the air, people playing musical instruments, circus scenes, all rendered with a vibrant sense of color. And then there are his works in ceramic, taken up after a lifetime spent manipulating glass for industrial purposes. When the artist teaching a pottery class had to shut down her kiln due to COVID, Tibor got interested in working with leftover pieces of broken greenware, painting over them and building up many layers of glaze. “I hate to waste it,” he says.
Clearly, none of Tibor Spitz’s life experiences, however traumatic, has gone to waste. He’s about to turn 93 and busy lecturing internationally, mounting exhibitions, always making more art. He’d better be, since eight of the pieces in the Unison show had already found buyers by the end of the opening reception. To view them yourself, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange an appointment. Unison Arts is located at 68 Mountain Rest Road, just west of New Paltz. To watch the documentary about Tibor and the other local Holocaust survivors who paired off with songwriters through the SageArts program, visit www.pbs.org/show/we-remember-songs-survivors.