Yesterday was over fifty years ago. Two paintings that hang in the entry of our home act as my constant memory of a past lived by two people whose love was the force that allowed them to survive the depths of human indignity.
Whole families disappeared from neighborhoods. Driven by desperation, their will to survive a destiny that was chosen for them by a man so evil and unequalled in God’s eyes, they remained free to degauss whatever music might be left within the shredded fingers of their spirits.
Could it possibly be fifty years since that very special day? Each and every day as I leave and reenter my home, two people in two paintings continue to speak to me. I look at the faceless paintings on our wall and the memories come pouring back.
My era of laboring in a variety of unrewarding tasks as a manager for my Father’s factory, offered me nothing more than entrapment. The flow of my creative juices was difficult to maintain. It wasn’t the people around me, or even my Father, which created the stubborn stifling of my dreams.
It was the necessity of obligation that provided a strangle hold on my will to leave. I found myself at the point where the daytime work for pay and the evening internships challenged my physical ability to continue on the same path. I wasn’t growing, or if I was, I certainly wasn’t moving in the right direction. It was a definite time of vulnerability. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t pursuing my life’s intended destiny.
Late one afternoon at the factory, as I more or less slowly went through the motions of semi-management, I found myself at the long line of forty sewing machine operators. They took up the full length of one wall of the building. It was procedure to periodically check all was moving well. Glancing form one operator to another, I was taken by the sound of a lady crying.
“Are you okay Irene?” I asked.
Irene Jankay was my favorite lady at my Father’s factory. From the time I met her, I felt she didn’t belong; not in a bad way, but her own natural presence was of a woman who was above and beyond the calling with much more demand for her apparent academic background. The first time I saw her I remember thinking, “What is a lady like her doing in a factory working as a sewing machine operator?” Her walk and talk was so much more.
He never sold a painting during his lifetime. Not because he couldn’t have but because he treated his lifetime portfolio of work as his endearing family. Each of his paintings he had an obligation to complete. Regardless of his trials as a human being, when a painting was finished another was duty bound to begin. Painting was his found destiny.
What I am about to relate is a first hand account of a man and woman’s life together, most of which I became aware of as a young man of twenty one.
At first, I was unable to fathom the magnitude of their love for one another. Then, as time went by and my own maturity began to show, an understanding of what they had built together revealed to me the joy of the true love, which had nourished them during the harrowing and most unmitigated experiences dreamed possible for any human to endure.
During the many weeks following her crying incident, during breaks in the day and lunchtime, she revealed her story. A story I have not shared until this occasion. A story that helped encourage my pursuit of my own true destiny.
Irene and Tibor Jankay had immigrated to the United States from Hungary following the end of World War Two. They met in their teens and began a love affair lasting a lifetime, a story rivaling Romeo and Juliet without self-destruction.
Tibor’s beginnings were meager while Irene was born into a wealthy family. Her family was against their relationship from the very beginning. They viewed Tibor as a man with little chance to succeed though he had been accepted early on to a prestigious art school and ultimately traveled many of the European roads while still a teenager. His demeanor was that of a gypsy artist.
Irene’s parents so vehemently objected to the ongoing relationship, the two of them began planning on her joining him in Paris where he was attending art school. That day never came. Instead, the onset of World War Two did.
It was at the same time the Germans occupied France that our young artist found himself in desperate straights. The Paris Artist’s Colony didn’t represent a safe haven for a young struggling and penniless Jewish artist. Tibor quickly decided on finding his way back to Irene who still lived in Hungary.
He was unaware that the Nazis had separated Irene from her family and stripped their home of all its art and jewelry. Irene’s family and their belonging’s exact whereabouts were never learned.
The same end came for the Jankay family. Tibor’s Mother and Father, it was later discovered, fell victim to a similar fate as Irene’s parents.
Both families were gone.
Irene and Tibor ran for their lives separately, not knowing if they were destined to ever be together again.
In 1943, both Irene and Tibor were captured and imprisoned by the Nazis. It is not clear which concentration camps they were sent to.
While in camp, it was discovered that Irene was a marvelous clothing designer. The Nazi officer in charge quickly removed her from her regular camp duties and made her a seamstress and maid for the commander’s family. She spent the next few years, until war’s end, in domestic servitude.
From almost the very beginning, the Nazi officer gave her a choice. She could continue on at his house, serving as a housekeeper in addition to giving in to his sexual advances or she would be sent back to the camp. When the commanding officer returned from a six-week assignment in Berlin, Irene was nowhere to be found. The commander’s wife had assisted Irene with her escape.
With forged papers and a small amount of money, she was on her way to the United States. She reasoned that her multilingual skills would provide her with a fighting chance of survival.
Her survival did become a reality, but not in America. Once again, Irene found herself working as a servant for the family of the mayor in a small city north of Budapest. Because the mayor was a Nazi sympathizer, the Germans never questioned Irene’s identity and it was never disclosed. The family was good to her and tried to help her find the whereabouts of Tibor. But it was not to be. Tibor had seemingly disappeared from existence.
When describing his years until war’s end, Tibor had a great deal of difficulty remembering the exact timeline transpiring between running from the Nazis, being captured, and ultimately making his way back to Budapest to begin his life anew.
I sat there in the home of Irene and Tibor Jankay and listened to a survival story not to be matched by anything I would become privy to during my lifetime. As they spoke, their hands clasped and remained together stimulating my admiration for their obvious love for one another. What existed in the household, void of children or pets, was the ever-present feeling of a love that never stopped growing. From floor to ceiling, every inch of their home was filled with what Tibor referred to as an endearment of their life together. He had depicted the minutes, hours, days, months, and years with nothing left out.
Often as they spoke, I was able to identify an abstraction of the moment being depicted. On occasion we shared a tear. I found myself growing stronger as our time together wore on. Never did they display resentment for what they had endured.
It was always the same. I entered their home and was greeted warmly as a friend coming to visit. I listened intently, rarely with a need to ask questions. One day, as my eyes wandered around the room, it became clear why Tibor resisted selling any of his work. Without using words, a diary of their trauma had been recorded in paint, charcoal, pen and ink, and metal and wood.
He had been taken by truck to a town he didn’t recognize. For three days he remained outdoors with a group of other Jews being readied for transport to a new location.
“It was during those days left out in the elements as if I were a homeless dog, I felt my will to live leaving me. Then, without warning the group moved towards the waiting trucks. We were literally pushed up and on and another eternity later again we were pushed down and off the trucks.“An unrelenting rain fell, hitting us and creating an odor I have not since experienced. As men, women, and children our mass was transposed into a barely recognizable commodity. The doors of the freight train rolled shut and we were in the dark, moving to what the German guards were overheard to say would be the Jews’ final destination.“The guards’ words somehow allowed for a germ of concentration to reenter my brain. I thought of my life, but it was no more than a fleeting memory of what was gone forever.“I was thinking more clearly, for whatever the reason, it didn’t matter.“Then in my mind’s eye, Irene’s beautiful face was there for me. And then, vividly living with the realization we were all heading towards certain extermination, a flicker of light entered through a small crack in the ceiling of the freight car. It was as if the light was a beacon on this desperate canvas.“I must record this.“I searched my pockets hoping to find a piece of charcoal to draw with. Irene’s face stayed with me as I searched to no avail. My trousers were frayed and barely provided cover. I slapped at my sides hoping to jar loose something, anything to draw with. And as I was about to give up, through a hole in the torn breast pocket lining of my jacket it came slithering out.“Not a piece of charcoal, but the palette knife I thought I had lost months earlier.“At first, I was sad it wasn’t what I was looking for but then, sitting on the rough floor of the freight car, a sliver of wood pierced my skin. It wasn’t a large splinter but it did bring a degree of pain.“Good, I thought, I’m still alive.“I stood upright as close to the crack in the ceiling as I could get and began to use my palette knife as an instrument to remove the splinter. I had it just about removed when the knife fell from my hand and onto the dark floor.”
I leaned in closer in anticipation of what more Tibor had to say. It was the first time that day his dark complexion showed a shinning grin at the corner of his mouth. Irene joined in with her own version of a happy smile as Tibor relished the taste of fresh water from his glass in appreciation of what it was like to have it there anytime he wished.
“The knife had lodged itself well into a crack in the wooden floor. As I pulled it out, I also pulled a chunk of floor slat along with it.“At first, I moved without a plan. I began digging into the floor faster and faster. To my surprise the wood gave way easier than I could have imagined. As I chipped away a plan began to take shape. I was still a very strong young man in those days, almost like you. And like many young men, I was on the fearless side of the ledger.“At the end of the second day I had burrowed into the bottom of the car allowing a space large enough to push my body through. The question was when would the train come to a halt long enough for me to escape?“In the wee hours of the morning of the third day out I got the horrible premonition of the train not stopping until it reached its final destination.”
Tibor enjoyed leaving me hanging there. He once again sipped some water and displayed a look I hadn’t yet seen. Pride.
“My mind and nervous system finally allowed for the decision-making process to continue. I reasoned, if I remained on the train, I would never see Irene again. She would never become my wife. Our parents were gone as well as any resemblance of family or friends. Staying on the train guaranteed Irene and I would never be together again. I had to give it a chance. If Irene were alive, I would find her.“Here I come Irene, my love.“I slipped down through the hole in the floor, holding on to the edge of the opening as long as I could, and then let go, keeping my body as straight as I could.“Oh my God, I thought in that instant.“I hadn’t considered which direction the train was moving. God and Irene must have been with me; I had let myself down in the same direction the train was moving. I let my hands relax and felt my back slide to the ground as if I had practiced this jump all of my life. I was perfectly centered in the area between the wheels of the train. In a few minutes the beginning of my escape would come to and end, and so it did.“In the dark, looking up at the stars, there I was a young man in his twenties, lying on his back between railroad tracks someplace in Poland. No longer was I a prisoner of the Nazis. I was a free man on his way to find the love of his life.“Believe it or not Harvey, I found myself smiling. To this day, I never really figured out how far I had to travel between where I was in Poland, and where I might find Irene in Budapest.”
Tibor and Irene found each other a few miles from where they had first met as children. They became Mr. and Mrs. shortly after the war ended. After immigrating to the United States, both became American citizens. After completing his education, Tibor became the Head of the Art Department at Pepperdine University.
And along the way, Harvey Kalmenson became the proud recipient of two of Tibor Jankay’s most noteworthy Impressionist works. Both are rarities within their own right.
None of his work was ever sold.
Somewhere in Hungary a museum bearing the name Tibor Jankay has been devoted entirely to his lifetime achievement as a fine artist.
The two of them remain within my heart as fine human beings.
The figures in both of my paintings are without facial expression. No tears would ever again be visible.