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Kalman Aron, whose art helped him survive the Holocaust, dies at 93

Kalman Aron in 2015 with a 1954 self-portrait.
Kalman Aron in 2015 with a 1954 self-portrait. (Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust)

Kalman Aron, who used his skill as an artist to survive seven concentration camps during the Holocaust and who later became a leading portrait painter in California, died Feb. 24 at a rehabilitation center in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 93.

The death was confirmed by his son, David Aron, who said there was no specific cause.

A child prodigy who had his first art exhibition at 7, Mr. Aron was studying at an art academy in his home town of Riga, Latvia, when German forces invaded the country in 1941. His father and an uncle were taken away by German soldiers.

“We never saw them again,” he said.

His mother was killed later that year in a massacre of Latvian Jews. Mr. Aron was sent to a series of labor and concentration camps and was ultimately separated from his brother.

“I survived by disappearing,” Mr. Aron told Susan Beilby Magee, whose book, “Into the Light: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron,” was published in 2012. “In the camps, we never knew when a friend might be struck down and die. So one way to protect yourself, to insulate yourself, was to be alone. A deep, stark place of loneliness is where I was.”

He emerged from anonymity when he began to sketch portraits of his guards, using smuggled pencils and scraps of paper and canvas.

“Before I knew it, I was suddenly in the commandant’s room,” Mr. Aron said in a 1994 oral history interview with the Shoah Foundation. “And I was sitting there, and he gave me a photograph of his mother and father and had me make a miniature . . . the size of a ring.”

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In return for his portraits, Mr. Aron received small favors, such as extra blankets, bread or soup — and was excused from forced labor. From one camp to another, in Latvia, Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia, Mr. Aron survived more than two years of the Holocaust on the strength of his artistry.

“I would tell the commandant or the guard I was painting, if I could just get a little more cheese and bread, I could paint much quicker,” he said in an interview with filmmaker Steven C. Barber, who is working on a documentary about him.

His seventh and final concentration camp was Theresienstadt, in what is now the Czech Republic. When Soviet troops liberated Theresienstadt in May 1945, Mr. Aron was not freed with the other prisoners. Instead, he and five other young men from Latvia and Lithuania were put on a truck because they were considered Soviet citizens.

Fearing that they would be sent straight from a concentration camp into the Soviet army, they escaped. Mr. Aron ultimately reached a displaced persons camp in Salzburg, Austria, where he continued to draw and paint.

One of his portrait subjects was the girlfriend of a U.S. soldier who passed the picture along to an art academy in Vienna. The academy offered Mr. Aron a scholarship to continue his schooling.

“If I didn’t have pencil and paper,” he told the Jewish Journal in 2015, “I would have been dead in the ghetto.”

Kalman Aron, whose father designed women’s shoes, was born Sept. 14, 1924, in Riga. He began drawing at 3. A decade later, he painted a portrait of Latvian President Karlis Ulmanis, who helped arrange for the aspiring artist to attend the country’s fine arts academy in Riga.

After World War II, Mr. Aron received a master’s degree from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts before settling in Los Angeles in 1949. He painted ceramics and later worked for a mapmaking company while painting on the side — often scenes of the Holocaust, done mostly in black and gray.

One of his portraits, of a haunted-looking child, was on display at a frame shop when Marichu Beilby, an interior decorator, noticed it in 1951. She asked Mr. Aron to paint portraits of her children, including Susan, who later wrote a book about the artist.

Mr. Aron soon received other commissions and was able to quit his office jobs to concentrate on painting. In 1956, the magazine Art in America included him on a list of “100 outstanding American artists.” As the years passed, he abandoned the dark, grim palette of his youth and began to paint with bright bursts of color.

“Over a period of time, he regained his light,” Magee said in an interview.

He went on to paint portraits of president Ronald Reagan, writer Henry Miller, conductor Andre Previn and other celebrities. Some of his works, which include landscapes and abstract paintings, are in the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and in other museums and private collections around the world.

His marriages to Gertrude Schneider, Suzanne Creyson and Tanis Hanson ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 12 years, Miriam Sandoval of Beverlywood, Calif.; and a son from his third marriage, David Aron, a painter in Hillsdale, N.Y.

David Aron said his father wanted to be seen as an artist and not simply as a Holocaust survivor. Nonetheless, his father recognized how his experiences affected his view of the world, including the way he painted.

“In the camps, I looked at and studied people,” he told Magee for “Into the Light.” “When I paint, I’m trying to capture their character, their spirit, the certain look they have. . . . The Holocaust gave me an understanding of people that most people won’t understand.”

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