Chaim Goldberg (March 20, 1917 - June 26, 2004)
A Jewish artist, painter, sculptor, and engraver, who is best known for being the chronicler of Jewish Shtetl life whose roots were as an Interwar Polish Artist.
Goldberg was born in Kazimierz-Dolny a picturesque village in southern Poland. He is best remembered through his life-like depictions of the shtetl's colorful characters, and the village lifestyle that has vanished. However his full range of themes has not been shown before and thus has been overlooked.
This website is intended to correct this aspect while redefining the artist and present his total oeuvre, the already familiar works of Chaim Goldberg, with a view on his less familiar work driven by his deep desire to create art as a form of his expression, thereby giving you the viewer an opportunity to weigh his overall contribution to the art world and his true uniqueness.
Chaim Goldberg was a man driven by a sense of history while being torn to respond to the new world in which he found himself living and creating his art. This site is operated by SHIR Fine Arts, Inc., official representative of the artist's estate (The Chaim Goldberg Trust).
We extend an invitation to all parties to contact us with questions.
Part 1 - Kazimierz Dolny, the roots
Hailed as the visual chronicler of the Jewish life of the shtetl, Chaim Goldberg had proven himself true to that calling and more. His shtetl is called, Kazimierz Dolny, and it's still one of the most picturesque places in Poland. It has become an even more significant destination than before either one of the World Wars.
The artist’s colors and compositions speak of a childhood deeply rooted in the culture inspired by the Jewish shtetl of Eastern Europe. His interest in art began quiet innocently. He liked exploring the banks of the River Vistula as a child, and the small tributary that ran by his house. He would find river stones and try to look for the shapes that lay hidden within.
One day he decided to scrape away layers with his father's shoemaking tools. Which did not get a good reception for the senior Goldberg. The son had made them dull. So he fashioned a chiseling knife from a farm tool one of his friends had provided, and began to sculpt the stones using a smooth stone as his hammer. He would 'discover' heads of lions and goats, which he would give away as gifts to his older friends. In exchange his bond with the older boys improved.
Later, when he got bullied in school, his 'private guards' would step in and help 'calm things down.'
The polish villages, referred to as a "Shtetls", and this particular one had proven itself as safe and friendly place for the Jews for over seven centuries, since they first settled there.
Jews lived a life that revolved around the old customs, holidays and their rituals. These were central to the young Chaim Goldberg.
The bustling shtetl was like a tapestry of many colors comprised of merchants, farmers, shoemakers, musicians, a water carrier, horse traders, laborers, with the marketplace being a bi-weekly event, (see below), it became central to its survival.
One of these artists was Nathan Korzen who had painted a portrait of Chaim as a young boy of eight. It is now in an unknown collection in Europe.
(Please contact us if you know about this portrait's whereabouts).
Chaim was born in this two-room cottage (below) built by his father, a shoemaker, and raised along with his eight sisters and two brothers. His father had built it with a pointy roof for more space. It became a landmark in the entire region for the vagabonds and the Klezmers who frequently needed a free place to stay. The Goldberg home became known through the beggar and musician grapevine and it served them well.
It also served the young artist with numerous new characters each week to paint. They were willing subjects and often times too absorbed in the legends they told and the news from the far places they had visited.
His talents dominated his youth and marked him as a unique and gifted prodigy. By the time he became a teenager, he had added making life-sized sculptures out of clay. In the watercolor below, the artist's father, Summer the cobbler explains to his customers, a Polish couple who were farmers, that these sculptures were made by his son, Chaim. To which the farmer responded, "When my son makes these, they walk and they talk!" The future artist who had just returned from work as a house painter could overhear this conversation just as he was about to enter the small house. This event had stayed etched in his memory for nearly forty years.
Chaim was never short of subject matter in this tight, folklore-filled and often-visited picturesque village. The artists visiting the village who contributed to the growth of the art colony also inspired the young lad, in fact some became his first customers. The "painter-twins," as they were known, the landscape artists Efraiim Seidenbeutel (1902-1945 and Menashe Seidenbeutel (1902 1944) purchased from Chaim one of his landscapes of Kazimierz Dolny prior to its completion, saying, "Here is your payment for this painting, when you complete it, please bring it to us at the hotel."
In 1991, during Goldberg's 3rd Shtetl Period, he painted a large oil, (40" x 60"), titled Twins, as an Homage to the two brothers who were twins and were painters and were known to be able to complete each other's work.
The painting above is homage to Ephaiim and Menashe Zeitenbeutel twins who painted together and were together the first to buy a work of art by Chaim Goldberg.
Part 2: Chaim Goldberg is Discovered & The Art Colony Years in Kazimierz Dolny, 1931-1939
On that fateful, brisk morning in the fall of 1931, when Dr. Silberstein needed to have his shoes repaired he had no idea what else he may encounter when he was directed to this cobbler, for his honesty. He was Summer Goldberg, the artist’s father.
As Silberstein entered the small, two-room home-workshop, he noticed the numerous works of art on paper that were attached to the walls with short shoe nails and inquired, "Who's the prolific artist?” The cobbler proudly answered that the artist was no other than his teenage son, Chaim!
Later that day when the young artist returned home from his day of laboring as an apprentice house painter (see Chaim, the apprentice housepainter in the painting The Twins) he could sense that the visitor will change his life forever.
His days as an apprentice house painter were over. Just as the master painter had predicted a few days before this event. Prophetically, he stated, that once young Chaim’s talent will be discovered, he assured him that his true calling would emerge.
Suddenly, Chaim felt the prophetic words come to life. Silberstein spent the entire night reviewing the works of the young artist. In conclusion he told Chaim about the great world that’s out there, beyond the shtetl boundaries. He told him about places like Vienna, and the enlightenment, and of a magical place called Paris, where new art styles were exploding with Cubism following Impressionism and Expressionism as well as Surrealism.
Dreams of a great life in exploring the arts were stirred in young Chaim. He yearned for such an opportunity. After studying the young lad’s work Silberstein told him that he was destined to become a great and well-known artist. He promised the young artist that he would make sure he received the education and the opportunity to accomplish his dreams.
In the morning they set out by foot to the city of Lublin and then to Krakow by train. Silberstein contacted his friends and made new acquaintances as he sought support to fulfill his promise to Chaim. He was referred to the accomplished sculptor and teacher Henryk Kuna, who recognized the young man’s talent immediately and contributed toward his scholarship. Among his teachers at the prestigious Mehoffer School of Fine Arts, was Władysław Skoczylas. Others patrons he had contacted contributed to the boy’s education as well. They included the honorable Judge Felyks Kronshtein and his wife, who became his greatest pre-World War II collectors, as well as the Editor and Publisher of a Yiddish newspaper who became Chaim’s “managing trustee.”
He thrived in this new arena of intellectual enrichment under the prodigious Pruszkowski. The landscape below is an example of those years as the Fourth Group that Pruszkowski organized with his students converged on Chaim's 'home-town.' As providential as it may appear, which was not the case; the professor also loved the scenic village and built his summer studio there.
The years at the Academy of Fine arts in Warsaw and studying under the rector of the department, Professor Tadeusz Pruszkowski gave Chaim a unique opportunity to sharpen his skills and become more confident.
Pruszkowski had a flair for the drama. Often he would point out to the rest of the class Chaim's landscapes of Kazimierz Dolny. This also gave him a better perspective of Chaim who came from utter poverty that Pruszkowski came to know first hand when he met the young artist's parents. He understood the progression and maintained contact with his parents by visiting on occasion.
Before Chaim was discovered, he yearned to be a 'real artist,' like the older, more established artists who arrived in Kazimierz Dolny to paint and socialize.
He saw them as his future role-models and he did everything he could to develop those senses within him, so that he would end up the same.
Chaim’s painting style was primitive and expressive. His subject matter was the village characters and the colorful village. Kazimierz-Dolny possesses a charm like no other place in Poland. It became a magnet for artists, writers, poets and vacationers. As Chaim was growing up the artists who frequented the village became his source of inspiration and awakened his natural and deep need to create.
Part 3: Chaim Meets Rachel, 1938
During a school holiday in 1938, Chaim was introduced to his future wife Rachel (1920-2003), at the boat slip by the River Vistula. She was also vacationing in the village. Although Rachel lived in Warsaw with her parents at the time, she had her roots in the same village as Chaim. With her father born there, and her mother who had come from Pulwawy, a bigger town across the river --- and now their worlds crossed.
Chaim and Rachel were married in Novosibirsk on April 15th, 1944. Together, Chaim and his wife Rachel endured and triumphed over the worst period in the history of mankind.
On August 15, 1945, the day the Japanese signed the surrender pact, their oldest son – Victor was born.
Part 4: Surviving the Holocaust, 1939-1946
By September 1st, 1939, when World War II began, Goldberg had already been serving as a corporal in the Polish Army for nearly a year. He was conscripted into a three-year obligation to serve, despite his hearing disability and placed in an artillery battalion stationed in Warsaw.
Chaim Goldberg lost his whole family in the Holocaust except for one brother and one sister who escaped early. The horrors and guilt of surviving the man's most devastating events in history were etched deeply in his mind for the rest of his life. One of his earliest works, titled Gas Chambers can be seen below.
The artist had escaped with his future wife and her family to Siberia, where they became refugees. Despite the difficult wartime conditions, Goldberg was able to gain employment as set designer at the Novosibirsk Opera House. This source of income provided him with some stability so that he could consider starting a family, have his first son, Victor.
The news of the mass exterminations began to trickle in by way of radio and newspaper as early as 1941.
The artist, shaken to his core by the news plunged into making a visual the horrific news he had heard.
Later, in 1946, when Goldberg and his new family returned to Poland he witnessed the near complete destruction of Warsaw. He then began to document the debris that once made up familiar buildings and streets of Warsaw.
At the same time he began considering various monuments to memorialize the mass of murdered humanity so that future generations would remember. He also began to draw from his memory various scenes of life in the Warsaw Ghetto.
While they were there, he witnessed the progress of the war as a soldier, then a POW in the Majdanek Labor Camp, whose 14,000 prisoners were made to build the concentration camp.
Chaim and a friend managed to get away and escape that chapter, by writing a letter in German to the superior officer in charge of the military prisoners, saying that his mother was gravely ill and on her deathbed and needed him." The time was prior to the implementation of the Final Solution and his letter was convincing enough to be set free.
He looked for Rachel whom he had been courting and located her in hiding with her family in a basement of an un-bombed house.
He immediately set a plan into action - to escape!
He headed for Kazimierz Dolny to gather his family and join him and Rachel and her family in escaping from Poland.
His father and mother would not leave saying, that they are too old and frail to undertake such an effort, and also the Germans they remembered from World War I "were nice to the Jews..." in fact they persisted in trying to assure Chaim that no harm will come to them, "they even gave out chocolates..." they said.
Chaim returned to Warsaw heartbroken and with a deep sinking feeling. He knew from having studied German as a foreign language at the Warsaw Art Academy, and having read Hitler's book, "Mein Kampf" that a madman was set loose with a state sanctioned agenda of mass murder and destruction the world will be a different place within a few years.
He made his way back to Rachel who was still in hiding with her family.
The time: end of October, 1939.
The colder weather began to move in and the Germans had begun to close their noose around the Jewish population of Warsaw. The final solution had not been implemented yet, but one could sense the foul stench of the war and see the destruction.
His own art, which he had stored with a non-Jewish artist colleague and friend in the Polish side of Warsaw, was destroyed later. The ghetto wall confines had not been put in place yet. Only a barbed wire indicated the perimeters.
Those who lost their homes and businesses, like Rachel's parents were forced to eat the rationed soup that the Germans had prepared and were dishing out in thinly watered down servings with a small piece of bread.
Then each Jewish person had to wear the yellow Star of David and Chaim understood the sinister thinking behind the yellow patch... marked for extinction!
By early November, Chaim had gotten word back from his network of friends that a guide has been found who will get the family through the guarded border on a certain agreed-upon night in exchange for gold jewelry. Now came the escape plan.
Rachel had stowed some items before running out of her home on September 1st, just as the bombing began. Her mother had grabbed some valuables as well. They gathered all their personal items and prepared them as payment/bribe for the border guide. Somehow they managed to get out of Warsaw before the Jewish section was made into the ghetto, and made their way at night. They managed to escape to the country. Then they proceeded east to the border by travelling mostly at night and established contact with the Polish man who was to show them the trail through the woods.
With the German guards on constant vigil and patrol they placed their trust in their guide to deliver them to safety and no to the German soldiers. Luckily, they were helped by a man who had kept his word. They travelled by foot, and on some scarce occasions by wagon; getting rides from some friendly farmers, until they reached a nearby village when Rachel had fallen ill and could not go on any further. She had to be carried for a long distance. Chaim and his future father-in-law, Meyer took turns carrying her to the nearest hospital which was over seventy kilometers away.
When the Nazis advanced against Russia, they were forced to flea again. Each time the German forces managed to get closer, Chaim and the others were forced to flea. They finally arrived in Novosibirsk, northernmost city in Russia. Believing that the Nazis would not get that far, they stayed there to the end of the War. Chaim was able to get work immediately in the big city as a set designer at the Novosibirsk State Opera. He also began to paint his first Holocaust paintings there in 1942.
|Part 5: Poland (part II), 1946-1955
The couple returned to Poland aboard a cattle train in 1946. And in 1947, after submitting an application Chaim was granted a two-year fellowship by the Polish Ministry of Culture to study in Paris at the prestigious Ecole National de Beaux Arts. There he studied under Ossip Zadkine and others. While in Paris he finally had the opportunity to take Chagall up on his earlier invitation to meet and visit him in his studio.
Upon the expiration of the Fellowship, Chaim and the family decided to return to Poland, despite many invitations to stay in France and offers from family to help him emigrate to Canada. He was convinced that his work would be essential to the rebuilding of the country in exchange for security.
Before heading to France, Chaim began to feel a stir within him when he visited Kazimierz Dolny in 1947. The stir became a loud calling to paint the life that was there before the war. The life he remembered so well and his beloved Shtetl. He began to respond to the calling and was told that the art had no business being made. Everything was the proletariat and nothing else mattered. He had to follow the party-line and began to make plans to escape this new hell. Between the years 1949 and 1955 he delivered numerous designs for the official communist monuments, while secretly he made drawings of the faces and places he remembered. These drawings he determined had to become oil paintings when he would free himself and his family from Poland's oppressive grip on his freedom.
In 1955 his family grew with the arrival of his son, Shalom on July 4th, 1953.
His wife Rachel had a feeling that he would return, despite his parting words, that he did not know if they would even allow him to return to his family rather than ship him off to a labor camp for standing up and asking for his artistic freedoms.
The artist now had a plan on how to leave the oppressive Communist regime and the lack of freedom for him to create the art he also wanted to make - his own subject matter. He became intent on immigrating to Israel.
It took two years of pleas and requests to finally be allowed to immigrate. Only three families were allowed to leave, finally had their wish and were allowed to leave and go to Israel in 1955. Chaim was free at last to return to his passion, painting and sculpting Jewish subjects inspired by the life he remembered from his beloved village Kazimierz Dolny.
Part 6: The Israel Years, 1955-1967
Getting to Israel for the artist Chaim Goldberg was the first challenge. Now he had to find a way to support his family.
Upon their arrival, Chaim and his family were given a temporary state-provided apartment and some basics. He created his art in the common area, or the apartments' courtyard.
One day he decided to begin looking for his old friends and seek opportunities as an artist. First and foremost he needed a place to work and some commissions. He criss-crossed the country and found many of his friends from Poland now in various positions that could order a commission.
He was introduced to a War of Independence hero by the name of Yehuda Arazi, the owner of a resort hotel called, Ramat Aviv. Timing was right and Yehuda was looking for just an artist who could help him make the hotel a more memorable place.
Yehuda Arazi became the artist's greatest fan, patron and lifeline to others, who shared Polish roots, and then suddenly, tragedy struck, and he was taken away. He passed away at the age of 51 from a brain tumor that was discovered too late to be treated. Chaim's life again was marked with a terrible loss. It was a painful blow that the artist took to heart. It was as if all the people who had mattered to him were taken away.
Despite the repeated loss, Chaim dove right into making more paintings. For the next four years he created the most significant paintings of his career. He painted his shtetl characters from memory and depicted them in large canvasses, such as the Simchat Torah, Wedding, Parents, Bread Carrier, Water Carrier and others. The earlier pen and ink drawings that he made in Poland between 1947-1952, during the Communist regime, became the foundation for his new paintings.
A pattern became self evident, that the drawings had been done anywhere from ten to twenty years before the oil painting was created. This pattern became clear throughout his life. He could never quite catch up with the lost twenty some years, from 1939 to 1960. Regardless, the new studio and the stress-free environment of Israel provided an excellent, and secure place to explore Judaic subjects and to make eternal his beloved shtetl.
Some of the Israelis from Chaim's generation who called Poland their former country and numerous Canadian and American Jews became his new fans. The studio's location provided easy access to many tourists who made the short trek and visited the artist's humble villa. Some became buyers of his art and were very glad to leave with the painting or sculpture. Years later they kept in touch and purchased more. One of these steady buyers was Baron Oscar Ghez, a collector and museum founder from Geneva, Switzerland.
Chaim's circle of friends expanded and his art was exhibited in Israel in various venues. In Petach Tikvah, he had a one man show at the spacious Beit Yad Labanim, which was well attended. Some of the visitors included the future Prime Minister, Golda Meir and Kadish Luz the Speaker of the Knesset during the early to mid sixties.
Another exhibit was held at the Pioneer House in Givataiim. With others in the works, Chaim had to abruptly give up his newfound slice of heaven to Jewish progress. The family was approached by the City of Tel Aviv and was informed that due to development plans, they were forced to sell their property – his new found dream to the city.
Chaim sought the advice of friends, one of whom was the President of Israel, Mr. Zalman Shazar. After consulting with him, Chaim decided that it was time to seek brighter horizons and to accept his offer for the unique 2-year business visa to America. These extended visas were not easily obtained in those years, so Chaim decided that it must be pointing to another door opening. With his new business manager, Mr. Yaron, the family embarked on a ship voyage to the United States. Chaim's entire art collection was loaded aboard the S.S. Olympia and they sailed off to New York on a seventeen-day voyage.
Part 7: New York, 1967-1974
New York City’s hustle and bustle had an immediate impact on Chaim, but he was too busy with getting settled and responding to the great reception his art enjoyed at the gallery exhibits. The exhibited art had sold-out, with much selling out on the first evening of the opening. Finally, Chaim had met with the success that had eluded him most of his life.
He liked the ready availability of art supplies in New York, but disliked the tumult. He could not adjust to the way of life, or fit in too well due to his hearing disability and his knowledge of the language. The Goldberg’s gravitated to the Yiddish speaking intelligencia that also lived close by. He was introduced to Issac Bashevis Singer almost as soon as he settled in his west-side apartment just down the street, in 1968. They discussed a possible collaboration on a series of books that Chaim would illustrate. But the ongoing demand on Chaim to deliver more oil paintings increased and the illustration project was shelved. Chaim also met S.L. Schneiderman again, a journalist and historian also from Kazimierz Dolny, whom Chaim had known before the war as his “senior” and now their age difference became insignificant. He became friends with Shea Tenenbaum who wrote several books in Yiddish about the artist. A very prolific writer, he had visited many studios of Jewish painters in the New York area, as well as Marc Chagall during the War years while Chagall lived in upstate NY. This exposure made him the natural writer to pen many books about the Jewish artists whose origin was Eastern Europe or Russia.
S.L. Schneiderman also wrote about Chaim in his book “When the Vistula River Spoke Yiddish.” Chaim’s drawings became illustrations to the book.
In 1970 the family moved to Queens, a New York City Borough and a quieter area than the upper West Side. Here Chaim began to develop etchings and engravings based on his paintings and drawings. He printed his work in his basement graphic studio, while painting in the attic studio. Even the more harmonious Queens winter challenges of icy sidewalks and pipes breaking caused Chaim to re-consider the New York.
In 1973 the Goldbergs received their US citizenship.
In 1974 when a collector from Houston, Texas contacted the artist about adding to his already growing collection of Goldbergs paintings, Chaim took a look at moving out of NY to the warmer climate of a north Houston town called Spring, Texas.
Part 8: Texas, 1974-1986
The family made the move to a large home situated on a plot of land that would make a spot for a studio. The distance from town proved too much as challenge for both husband and wife when it came time to learn to drive a car.
The 70’s also were a period that marks Chaim’s response to life in a complex, modern society. He created hundreds of drawings that while they recall recognizable symbols and faces they also present a frightening observation of modern drivers and behaviors. Chaim observed the aggressive street life on New York’s West Side and the less than friendly drivers and saw a life that could only end in peril unless we revert and learn how to relate to one another in a more peaceful manner. He also painted the circus and numerous landscapes.
His dance theme is a calling to the more harmonious manner of village life that he became accustomed to in Poland. In describing the rationale for the dance theme, Chaim explained that he sees the shapes as rising freed spirits from the crematoria of the Holocaust. These are the Jews from my Shtetl and the millions of others as they rise to freedom. The concept is unique and the imagery can be seen intricately combined into certain paintings that recall a moment when musicians reunite with the spirits of their ancestors. Then the spirits drift back to their dimension, free at last. They can also be seen in his sculptures and monument concepts for Holocaust memorials, such as Triumph II and others.
Chaim kept himself busy with many projects and mediums and with several studio spaces in his house he was able to devote time to exploring the numerous mediums that ranged from painting on paper, on canvas, sculpting in wood, stone and in concrete as well as engraving and etching.
After Chaim had created a body of work with the rising spirits, or dance he moved back to what became his Third Shtetl Period, (the First Shtetl Period is defined as his years there 1925-1939; the Second Period being 1946-1972, and the Third Period being 1983-2000). This collection of large canvases tell the story of the family and of life indoors to a large degree. The paintings set outdoors detail celebrations and a lost culture. While the ones set indoor reveal the way his family, or other poor Shtetl folks lived. His paintings are a celebration of a way of life and its intricate mannerisms that belong to a different era. They recall the work of the Dutch Jewish artist, Joseph Israels and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Part 9: Florida, 1986-2004
Chaim and Rachel became uncomfortable in Houston due to the petrochemical pollution that rose and drifted over their house from neighboring Pasadena and decided to move to Florida in 1986. After an interim residence in Southeast Florida and looking around for a while with their son Shalom who had been living in Florida since 1985, they decided to build a house that would better suite the artist with a large studio, in Boca Raton and finally moved in 1992.
In 1997 the Rosen Museum in Boca Raton, in the Jewish Federation campus held a major exhibition of Chaim's watercolors, Oil paintings and sculpture, called "Chaim Goldberg at 80", celebrating the artist's 80th birthday. The exhibit opening drew large crowds and again his sales set records.