May 31, 1944 a poem by Isabella Leitner

Leitner, Isabella.
May 31, 1944 a poem by Isabella Leitner.
New York: Oil Creek Press, 2000. (AFK2000)

Linoleum blocks by Gerson Leiber. This volume is no. 29 of 40, signed by Gerson Leiber and Isabella Leitner.

Gift of Stanley Marcus.

May 31, 1944, was the day that Isabella Leitner (1921–2009) was deported to Auschwitz along with her mother, four sisters, and brother. Leitner recounts the horror of that day and her time at Auschwitz in her memoir Fragments of Isabella. Her mother and her younger sister were immediately sent to the gas chambers by Dr. Josef Mengele. Her oldest sister later died after an attempted escape. She immigrated to the United States on May 8, 1945 (VE Day), and she and her sisters were the first survivors of Auschwitz to arrive on American soil.

May 31, 1944 a poem by Isabella Leitner is an unflinching look at that first day and the horrors the family endured. The words on each page are printed in black as are the linoleum block prints. The chosen opening is a stark rendering of the sounds recalled, the names, the desperation, the terror of the moment and the audacity of the soldiers ordering them not to panic, but to behave like human beings.

Illustrating this page is a block of solid black, a page with no light, by Gerson Leiber (1921–2018). Other illustrations are abstract drawings of bodies and body parts being forced down into the soil by menacing faces that hover overhead. As with the shown image, the differing sizes of text emphasize the frantic cries of the victims and the terror of those imprisoned at Auschwitz.

Gerson Leiber was an American modernist painter, a lithographer, and sculptor. Judith Leiber (1921–2018) was a famous handbag designer. The couple mounted joint exhibitions of their work on Long Island and in Manhattan. Prior to immigrating to America, Judith Leiber was on the list to be sent to the concentration camps. A friend added Judith and her family’s names to a travel pass, carefully typing in their names with a matching font that saved the family. Although there is no record of the author and artists meeting, the experiences of Isabella Leitner and Judith Leiber and the concentration camps is certain to have been an emotional one.  In 2005, Gerson and Judith Leiber built a gallery in the Hamptons to house their works of art and to chronicle their careers. The Leibers died hours apart on the same day in 2018.

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May 31, 1944 a poem by Isabella Leitner