|Born||April 20, 1923
|Died||December 28, 2008 (Age 85)
Miami, Florida, United States
|Notable work(s)||The World of Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tree of Life, Spiritual Lights over Jerusalem, A Shtetl Wedding, Grandmother...Left Alone|
Irene Lieblich (20 April 1923 – 28 December 2008) was a Polish-born artist and Holocaust survivor noted for illustrating the books of Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer and for her paintings highlighting Jewish life and culture. She is also a cousin of noted Yiddish language author and playwright Isaac Leib Peretz.
Irene Lieblich was born in Zamość, Poland, on the second night of Passover in 1923 to Leon and Chana (née Brondwajn) Wechter. Her father was in the medical profession. Her only sibling, a younger brother named Nathan, was killed at age 16 during the Holocaust. When asked about her experience as a Holocaust survivor, Lieblich said:
I do not speak of my experiences during the Holocaust. I do not dwell on these moments. What we must remember are the Jewish souls that did not survive and this is what I am trying to do-- capture them to bring back their spirit. They have much to tell us and show us of their lives. Maybe beside[s] an artist, I am now also a historian.
From 1955-1980, the family lived in Brooklyn, New York. Irene wrote poetry which was published in Jewish periodicals, notably the Jewish Daily Forward, from the mid- to late 1960s to the early 1970s. In 1971, at the age of 48, Irene took up painting. She enrolled in art classes at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where her instructors were impressed with her natural abilities. Encouraged by her professors, Irene began to exhibit her work in the New York area. She won first prize for painting at the Art Festival of the Farband in New York in 1972, only a year after she began to paint. During 1973 and 1974, Irene's work remained on exhibition at Artists Equity in New York, where noted author and future Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer saw it. Singer insisted that his publishers hire Lieblich to illustrate his books for children. (A Tale of Three Wishes; Farrar Straus Giroux, 1976, New York; The Power of Light: Eight Stories for Hanukkah; Farrar Straus Giroux, 1980, New York) One of Lieblich's works, Spiritual Lights over Jerusalem was reproduced on greeting cards by the Women's Division of the Zionist Organization of America. In 1980, Lieblich moved to Miami Beach, Florida, where she continued to draw and paint. In 1995, her works were featured in an exhibition titled Living Memories at the Fontainebleau Hilton, Miami Beach, held in conjunction with the last formal World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors. Lieblich's works were shown at the National Yiddish Library Gallery in Amherst, Mass., as part of a 2004 exhibit celebrating Isaac Bashevis Singer's 100th birthday. The Shtetl Museum at Rishon LeZion in Israel reproduced Lieblich's painting The World of Isaac Bashevis Singer on the poster it issued to commemorate its groundbreaking ceremony held there on June 1, 2003. A 2009-2010 exhibition at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion Museum, New York, featured her work on the front cover of the catalogue. Upon reviewing the exhibition, journalist Richard McBee wrote of one of Lieblich's illustrations depicting World War II Jewish Partisans celebrating the holiday of Hanukkah in a snow-filled forest while some keep an armed watch, "The simple composition slowly reveals first courageous piety, then childish playfulness and finally the deadly seriousness of their guards. Jewish faith at work." Artists Eric Carle, Raphael Soyer, and Maurice Sendak were among those also featured in the exhibition.
Irene Lieblich believed in the power of art to communicate deeply spiritual attitudes about beauty and art. “If there is a Jewish Spirit there must also be a Jewish Art,” she wrote. ”It is the breath of our Jewish soul which is imbued into the characters we create…I am just one of the creative Jewish artists who tries to project to the world through my paintings the nobility and the eternal endurance of the Jewish spirit.” She believed that Jewish artists had an obligation to use their spiritual powers to help Jews everywhere continue to resist oppression of all kinds.
“The Essence of the Jewish Spirit in Art,” a speech Lieblich gave in the mid-1970s at a national meeting of the Zionist Organization of America in New York details her philosophy of art and the power of artists.
“The Essence of the Jewish Spirit in Art"
Our dear friends, guests, ladies and gentlemen:
For us artists it is so much easier to carry our thoughts on the wings of imagination without any barriers. Though today I came from Brooklyn, I’m stepping out toward you, (having recently returned) from the hot sands of Israel with the warmest greetings! And now that I have touched our common source–the land of Israel–I feel at home with you!
The subject of our introduction is so immensely powerful, that if I would have had to embrace the deep meaning of the essence of the Jewish Spirit in Art it would take hours of lecturing and discussions. Until now I shared my feelings with audiences in a mute way, traveling with my brush through the canvases, trying to convince the American society that there is such a thing as Jewish Art. Many critics and even many artists contended that there is no such thing. My answer to this silly statement is: If there is a Jewish Spirit there must also be a Jewish Art. For many generations this artistic power in us was only potential, but the time has come for it to become actual. There was a yearning for beauty in our Grandmothers and Grandfathers which is now bursting out like lava from a volcano. Artists like Chagall, Soutine, Modigliani and many others are an expression of this suppressed craving for form and construction which we tried to keep back because art and idolatry were synonymous to our ancestors. The temptation to serve idols in our time has little connection with art. For the first time in 2000 years the Jewish Artists are FREE to give us the gifts which G-d bestowed upon them. Jewish art is only at the beginning. It will create new dimensions, new perspectives and a new approach to the essence of beauty and of art. There are no restrictions of expressing oneself in art. It is not the matter of the subject we choose–it is the aura in which we wrap our subjects….the unique style of each of us.
It is the breath of our Jewish soul which is imbued into the characters we create….The Yiddishe Neshuma!(soul) – THAT is the Jewish spirit in art and this identity we can find among our artists. I am just one of the creative Jewish artists who tries to project to the world through my paintings the nobility and the eternal endurance of the Jewish spirit. As I mentioned before, the Jewish art is only in its beginning. It will develop and ripen (and remember my prophecy), and play a great part in the redemption which will be also be the redemption of humanity.
I remember my Grandma Ethel, my Bobeh Ethel (G-d bless her memory). She was a wonderful story teller. We used to sit near the oven, and look at the flames together. I remember her so vividly. In a way, she was an artist. This beautiful glow of those flames combined with (my Grandmother) the stories she told me still warm my heart today. She had a special way to describe to me all the bible stories. About Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, David and Goliath, that I visualized them so clearly in my mind, starting to draw on all kinds of paper the characters with a child’s imagination. I drew even my people on the edges of a prayer book–I was spanked for this naturally, but my explanation was I wanted to beautify the Bible. I was 6 years old then. I’m not sure whether the children of today would experience so much joy visiting the Walt Disney World as I did listening to the magic world of my Grandmother. To be with her was so exciting.
She was my first inspiration in art. Later, I’ve realized that it was she who planted the Jewish roots in my heart. Though my parents were wonderful and loved me–kept a melamed (a Jewish teacher) for my brother and me–-it was my Grandma’s words which stay deep in my heart. Don’t you worry my friends, I’m not running away from the subject. She, my Grandma, my Bobeh Ethel lit this spark, the essence of the Jewish spirit which is alive in me today. And I’m sure, that each of you with a Jewish heart has similar feelings not being even aware that you, the Jewish woman of today, and you the grandmas, are the spiritual pillars of our future generations. And by the way, why shouldn’t we celebrate Grandmother’s Day? We should introduce this idea to the world. Think about this, and remember you heard about it here first!
Now that you know a part of my past you will understand my happiness when I was offered to illustrate a book for youngsters by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I know that pictures remain alive in children’s memories if the paintings evoke the beauty of our tradition and a warm feeling of motherly love. Finally I was given a chance to build a monument to my childhood dreams.
We look so modern today, but yet deep within our hearts we are old fashioned. I think this is the mystery of our spiritual strength. We feel our roots in our bones. Even if one does not admit it.
I am privileged to be one of the Survivors of the Holocaust. My soul was saturated with pain and sorrow but I’ve survived. I was breathing with memories and the glowing echo of the stories my Grandma told me caressed my body, warming my thoughts, giving me new hopes with each coming day. I remembered the words of my father (blessed be his memory) – “We are the chosen people, my child, not because we are better, but it is our duty to preserve our faith, our ethics, our traditions. I’ve learned how to accept God’s will.”
We paid a tragically great price for our land of Israel, but this too was God’s will to unite our goals, to strengthen our souls, and still maintain the most ethical, the most noble spiritual leaders in the world. We are all working for the same cause for a people who gave to the world the greatest it possesses, but the same world has never appreciated this gift and made us the scapegoat. We are the most isolated people. We cannot expect help or even sympathy from anybody in times of disaster. We must help ourselves and hope to G-d for this help. I am happy to do my part. The Jewish artist cannot stand apart from our effort. She or he must assist us with their spiritual powers.
I’m grateful to fate that I can contribute my little share and I hope with G-d’s help, to accomplish more in the future. I just want to assure you that the essence of the Jewish Spirit in Art is among us–You just have to accept it.G-d bless you.
(Text of a speech by Irene Lieblich on the occasion of the National Meeting of the Zionist Organization of America, New York City – Mid-1970s ) With permission of the Estate of Irene Lieblich.
Relationship with Isaac Bashevis Singer
Of Singer, Lieblich once said, “My vocabulary is too limited to describe Mr. Singer’s genius.”  Lieblich and Singer enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship, as Lieblich’s art illuminated the spirit of Singer’s recollections of shtetl life and traditional Jewish values. Singer and Lieblich first met at the Artists Equity gallery on Broadway, New York City, in 1973, where Lieblich’s art was on display. Lieblich recalled seeing a bent-over man who peered at her paintings and commented that he recognized the houses in them, certain that they depicted his own shtetl. Indeed, the painting in question did recreate a row of houses in Bilgoraj, the village in Poland where Singer grew up. This serendipitous encounter prompted Singer to ask Lieblich to illustrate one of his children’s books, "A Tale of Three Wishes." 
From a press release announcing the commission of Lieblich's piece The World of Isaac Bashevis Singer to commemorate the groundbreaking ceremony for the museum on June 1, 2003:
South Florida resident Irene Lieblich survived the onslaught of the Holocaust to create evocative paintings that record Jewish life of an era destroyed. One of her oil paintings, "The World of Isaac Bashevis Singer," has been reproduced as a poster commemorating the June 1, 2003, groundbreaking of The Shtetl, a living Museum at Rishon LeZion, Israel.
The Shtetl Museum is a 67-acre site dedicated to recreating a typical Jewish village that existed prior to World War II. The Shtetl Museum will restore the vestiges of a culture and traditional way of living that was an integral part of Eastern European life. The museum will be composed of several compounds situated about five miles southeast of Tel Aviv in Rishon Le Zion. The State of Israel and Rishon Le Zion donated the $80 million site to The Shtetl Foundation. Dr. Yaffa Eliach is the Founder and Director of the Shtetl Foundation and the driving force behind the museum.
Awards and honors
1972 Won First Prize for painting at the Art Festival of the Farband in New York.
1973-1974 Exhibited at Artists Equity, New York, where Isaac Bashevis Singer encountered her work.
1995 Living Memories exhibition at the Fontainebleau Hilton, Miami Beach, in conjunction with the last formal World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors.
National board member of Zionist Organization of America.
- Jewish Journal, Feb 28, 1985
- Flatbush Life, March 26, 1979