Holocaust the one barrier in artist's portrayal of life

NO MATTER how the events of life are rationalised - fate, chance or God’s will - Hilda Goldwag survived to enjoy a rich life while her loved ones died in the Holocaust, a few among millions.

Sherena, her mother, Bertha, her sister, Herman, her brother-in-law, and Paul, her infant nephew, all perished, probably in Dachau, and even now, at the age of 91, the prolific Austrian-born artist still cannot paint their faces. It is too painful.

It has been the only barrier in a lifetime as an artist and illustrator, which is now being celebrated in a retrospective of her work currently at the Lillie gallery in Milngavie, Glasgow, where she lives.

Nine of her 46 paintings, the majority of them scenes from her life in Scotland, executed in her characteristic strong lines and broad strokes of colour, have already been sold to private collectors, the destination of so much of her output over the last century.

In that time, she has poured out paintings and still works every day, as if grateful to be alive.

She is also renowned as a book-cover illustrator. Her work, which includes the 1955 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse, is recognisable to generations of children.

"I am very happy and grateful for my long and fulfilling life," she said, conscious that her survival and the loss of her family in Vienna in 1939 were separated by little more than a matter of a few hours.

In that year, after months of Nazi persecution of the Jews, her family asked for permission to leave for Scotland, where they had friends.

The permit for Ms Goldwag, then an art student and former pupil of the Anna Schantorch school, came through and she left, expecting them to follow.

Their permits arrived two days later, but it was 3 September, the day war was declared; they were trapped in Austria and died in a concentration camp.

"How can one rationalise? I am here and they are not," said Ms Goldwag. "Angry? I don’t know even now, after all this time, how I truly feel.

"I still have them in my heart. I think of them every day and I dream of them. I cannot paint my mother, even though I have her image in my mind to this day.

"I think of her, my sister, her husband, and little Paul, who was eight months old when last I saw him. I understand he survived until he was four.

"Such evil was visited on them, and on so many."

Ms Goldwag arrived in Edinburgh, where she worked as a domestic servant. She then moved to Glasgow, where she did "war work" in an engineering factory. After the war, she returned to her first love and got a job as a textile designer. She continued to paint and her reputation grew.

Eventually, Ms Goldwag was determined to establish what happened to her family.

She wrote to the Austrian authorities and, for a time, believed they had not replied. But a friend had intercepted their letter.

Ms Goldwag added: "I couldn’t understand why I had received no word until a friend revealed that she had seen the letter and it recorded that my family had died. She thought the news was too terrible for me to learn, but I had to know what happened to them. Strange as it may seem, I have never regarded myself as being lucky. There is too great a burden to carry to be described as lucky.

"But I have been fortunate in my life and I will continue to paint until I can no longer hold a brush."

Hildegarde Berwick, the curator of the Lillie gallery, in Milngavie, where the exhibition is running until 8 November, said: "There are 46 works covering 40 years, remarkable works of great strength of line and colour.

"Hilda is also just as well known for her book illustrations which are known to many. She is a gifted and remarkable artist."