MORE THAN anything, it was the abandoned shoes of the Holocaust that spoke most vividly to artist Jenny Stolzenberg about the suffering of concentration camp victims. Walking boots, high heeled shoes and baby bootees were turned into an art installation that reflected the full horror and pathos of those murdered by the Nazis.
But Stolzenberg, who has died in London, aged 68, of viral encephalitis following cancer treatment, did not fit any stereotype. She was a drama teacher, a Gestalt therapist, a jewellery maker, a marathon runner, a Relate counsellor, a fitness trainer and a creative artist in ceramics. But above all, she was defined by her willingness to help those in adversity, those she knew as well as those she didn’t – an innate desire to ease heartache in the world. Her generosity of spirit knew no boundaries.
Stolzenberg believed in colour in a drab world. Her clothes and jewellery glowed in the darkness of everyday life. Her home was a myriad display of wonderful — from a psychedelic chandelier of upside down cups and saucers to the radiating brilliance of a multi-coloured sofa. For Stolzenberg, colour created enjoyment, warmth, enlightenment and the wonder of discovery. Even the exhibits in her garden competed with the natural beauty of the flowers in all their colourful glory.
She was deeply involved with the New North London Synagogue community and helped an entire generation of young people to deliver their bar and batmitzvah Her commitment to social welfare in the community led her to install a large freezer in her home, stocked with food for those in times of need.
But it was her commitment to doing good which also defined her art. And this in turn emanated from her father’s silence on his experiences in pre-war, post-Anschluss Vienna. Born a few weeks after the end of the First World War,William Powell Wilhelm Pollak, was caught distributing Communist leaflets, thrown out of medical school and incarcerated by the Nazis, first in Dachau then in Buchenwald.
Stolzenberg’s father reached Britain just a few months before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and became a teacher at Chiswick Grammar School. He met and married Cissie Solley, a dressmaker and evacuee from London’s East End. When the full unimaginable details were revealed after 1945, William found he was the only member of his family to have survived the Shoah.
Her father’s motto: “Forgive and do not forget” inspired Stolzenberg to recall the fate of those Jews who did not manage to reach these shores before September1939.Akeencyclist,herdetermination to understand her father’s background after his death was central in her decision to cycle from Berlin to Auschwitz.
Stolzenberg, who was born in London, was an only child. Educated at Walpole Grammar School in Ealing, she trained as a teacher and spent the next few years teaching drama and English, mostly at Acland Burghley School in Tufnell Park, before retraining as a counsellor and psychotherapist. But she spent her spare time creating clay sculptures.
She took a fine arts degree at the age of 50 and her graduation piece which won her a first in ceramics from the University of Westminster in 2002, was the installation based on her father’s words.
She was inspired by Primo Levi’s description of the ceremony of the changing of the shoes in Auschwitz in
Prisoners would be forced to take shoes for their own use from a pile of confiscated ones. This led to their wearing odd shoes of different sizes, shapes and designs. Stolzenberg produced probably around a thousand ceramic odd shoes, based on 1940s fash- ions and paired them to chilling effect. When exhibited at the Imperial War Museum and other sites, the shoes were surrounded by images of abandoned clothing, shorn hair, broken glasses and empty suitcases — to the silence and shock of the onlookers.
Her son, Julian, explained how painful Stolzenberg found her father’s inability to engage in dialogue with her about his experiences. “After William’s death in 1990 she started a conversation with him through her work as an artist, notably with
Yet Stolzenberg wanted to recall the beauty of the lives destroyed and took issue with artists who concentrated solely on destruction. She commented: “The deed was ugly, but the victims were not.” Museums and galleries from the four corners of the earth requested these ceramic shoes — including the memorial museum at Buchenwald, her father’s place of imprisonment. In the UK she exhibited at the Ben Uri and the Jewish Museum and there were displays in Leicester, Dundee, Mansfield and Ely.
Most recently some of the ceramic shoes were on display at Ivy House, home of the former London Jewish Cultural Centre. A second exhibition — a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s — showed how children are damaged by trauma. She wrote:
The fragmented figures tell stories of anguish and abandonment, but crucially speak of survival and how ultimately so many remain strong at the broken places.
A life-long vegetarian who loved nature, Stolzenberg was laid to rest in a woodlands funeral. Many among the mourners testified to her many remarkable acts of kindness and to her sense of social justice. She is survived by Lawrence, her husband of 40 years, her daughter Mirry and son Julian.
Jenny Stolzenberg: born November 9, 1947; died August 13, 2016
Jewish Chronicle 7 October 2016