How sculptor Naomi Blake forged hope out of Auschwitz tragedy

Recalling an interview from years ago, Anita Peleg explains her mother’s relationship with her home studio. “What was it you said mum? Some people find heaven after they die, but I have found it here.”

Naomi Blake nods discreetly and walks over to a crowded worktable, where among the many tools and early stage projects lies a small polystyrene structure cut in one of her recognisable designs. “Did we ever cast this one?”

“No, I don’t think we did. That’s a nice one, though, don’t you think? We should get it cast.”

After a quick tour around the sculptor’s charming home in Muswell Hill, it’s hard to know where the piece would find space. Every inch of the garden and interior is littered with the bronze-cast fruits of her incredible 52-year career – many of which decorate cathedrals, universities and private collections, including those of the late Queen Mother and the Prince of Wales.

Two weeks ago, Blake turned 90. By chance as much as design, the anniversary roughly coincides with the launch of a new retrospective exhibition, Naomi Blake: A Retrospective at the Curwen Gallery in Fitzrovia.


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As if that wasn’t enough, her daughter has also written two impending publications – an accompanying book, Dedication in Sculpture, to catalogue Blake’s work and Glimmer Of Hope, a biography which regales her horrific experiences of Auschwitz, the Holocaust and the effect they have had on her sculptures.

 

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Supporter of human rights

“Art being the promotion of understanding between faiths – that has always been her driving force,” Peleg explains. “She has also been a great supporter of Amnesty International and human rights.

“There were many people who didn’t want to talk about their experiences after the war, but mum was the opposite and talked about it to me from when I was very small.

“Interestingly, I think it made me feel very proud and very positive. I know others might feel the opposite but, for me and friends whose parents also survived the Holocaust, their positive approach to life has given us a similar outlook.”

While keen to extol unity between faiths, Blake’s own relationship with Judaism is more complicated. Born in 1924, the youngest of 10 children to a strict Orthodox household in Czechoslovakia, art was not encouraged and she did not take it up until much later in life. In her teenage years, Blake instead rebelled against the religious views of her parents – to whom she was nonetheless extremely close – by joining a socialist Zionist youth group.

“While they always have to an extent, this was a time more than any when children began to break away from the ways of their parents,” Peleg explains. “She was a quiet rebel.”

“Some times I was a bit noisy,” adds Blake.

Her mother, Chay-Adel Shlussel, sadly died of pneumonia before war broke out and further tragedy soon followed. In 1944, after seeing their freedoms stripped away in home town Mukacevo, Blake and most of her family were rounded up into a cattle truck and deported to Auschwitz. There, she was separated from everyone except one of her older sisters, Malchi, in the infamous two queues, as her father, another sister and her nieces and nephews were led into the gas chambers.

When she asked a fellow prisoner of their fate, they pointed to a building with a smoking chimney. “That’s your family in the smoke.”

“I don’t really think you thought about it, you just focused on getting on,” says Blake, as Peleg tells how she was shaved, stripped of her clothes and belongings before being sent to two more concentration camps.

Once they arrived at the last in German-occupied Northern Poland, Blake and Malchi were put to work making bombs for the Nazis, but found a way to sabotage them during construction. Still harbouring dreams of travelling to Palestine, as so many Jews had before the war, the 20-year-old began to learn Hebrew in her rare spare time. Even after a hard day’s labour, friends would be astonished to find her often helping a Jewish doctor in one of the camp’s makeshift hospitals.

As Russian forces eventually began to descend on Brannau, the Nazis fled north towards the Baltic Sea with their prisoners on one of the infamous death marches. Sensing they were to be executed, a group of seven or eight girls plotted to escape and the two sisters quickly volunteered.

Blake raises one hand to her knee. “The snow was deep, up to here. We decided to run for it and the soldiers came after us. We didn’t know where to hide, where to go.”

Eventually, finding a piece of land with a roof to hide under, the group stayed silent as they heard gunshots. Remarkably, the soldiers didn’t check the structure but, when the girls finally felt it safe to emerge, it took several hours because their legs were frozen into the thick snow.

Over the course of nearly two months, Blake and Malchi trekked, rode and hitchhiked back to Mukacevo, trying to avoid Russian soldiers who were – despite being their liberators – “well known for their love of women”.

When they finally reached their hometown, the sisters were given shelter by a kindly woman after finding their house ransacked. In 1942, Blake’s family included 32 members – four grandparents, her parents, nine siblings, six spouses and 10 young nieces and nephews. By the end of the war, only eight members remained.

Both mother and daughter lead me into the dining room, where a few oil paintings by Blake dot the walls. She attempts to brush them aside as amateur and endearingly expresses her chagrin when we linger on them for a moment.

“But these are the works of art mum is most proud of,” says Peleg, pointing to a far more numerous collection of photos depicting Blake’s two children and five grandchildren. For her 90th birthday, the family had a number of the pictures printed onto a square cushion that is filled with a host of beaming faces.

In 1946, Blake made it to Palestine. Even after she finally arrived, her spirited nature soon thrust her in conflict again as she helped with the Haganah – Jewish defence groups set up to resist local Palestinian forces.

Living in Jerusalem, she found herself hospitalised one day at Mount Scopus after being injured by flying shrapnel, a piece of which remains in her neck today. “She made a soldier friend at the hospital,” says Peleg. “He was hungry and, since the patients got more than everyone else to eat, she would purposefully leave a bit for him.

“One day he brought her a piece of olive wood and a knife – the nurses thought it would be therapeutic. She carved a little dog and that was her first sculpture.”

 

Hornsey School of Art

And so Blake’s illustrious career began. After a short-lived marriage to an opera singer, she met German refugee Asher Blake on a visit to England and subsequently moved to London where they wed. Soon after, she gave birth to her son Jonathan and embarked on a five-year course at the Hornsey School of Art during which time Anita was born.

“I wouldn’t be able to do anything else,” the artist says of her decision to work with sculpture since her first exhibition in 1962. “I can do it with my hands, shape the anger and the joy.” Having started off with figurative, naturalistic figures, she gradually shifted to a more abstract style, producing kinetic, flowing series like Man Against The Odds and Wings.

The exhibition and upcoming publications will celebrate the life’s work of one of North London’s most accomplished sculptors, but also stand as testament to what Peleg calls “a huge faith in humanity and loyalty towards family”. Although she has rebuilt her life since unimaginable tragedy, ask Blake if she sees her work as memorial and the answer is emphatic: “Always.”

 

Naomi Blake: A Retrospective is at the Curwen Gallery, 24 Windmill Street, W1, from April 2 to 26. For further information, visit curwengallery.com. Dedication in Sculpture is available from April 1, Glimmer of Hope from April 24.

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