Archibald tribute to survivor
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Archibald tribute to survivor

WHEN Holocaust survivor Leon Jedwab agreed to have his portrait painted for this year’s Archibald Prize, he insisted that the title include the number tattooed on his arm by the Nazis.

“It was very important for me to include the number to help keep alive the Holocaust message for the future,” says Jedwab, 89, who was born in Zagorow, Poland, and survived Auschwitz/Birkenau and Buchenwald camps during World War II.

Last year Melbourne artist Ross Cockle met Jedwab and was taken by his optimistic spirit despite what he had been through. They became friends and he offered to paint Jedwab’s portrait, complete with yarmulkah.

This week the painting, titled Leon Jedwab #144768 Holocaust Survivor arrived at the Art Gallery of NSW in Sydney to join hundreds of entrants for the 2013 Archibald Prize.

The list of finalists will be announced on March 14 and the winner of the $75,000 prize will be announced on March 22.

Cockle held his first exhibition of paintings, titled Shrine Guardians, at Melbourne’s Gasworks Gallery last year and has entered the Archibald Prize on four previous occasions.

“I think Ross painted me so well because he knew my past,” says Jedwab. “My wife Tosha was very pleased with the result. I think it’s a bit like the Mona Lisa – half of my face has a smile and the other half is sad.”

With Hitler marching towards war in 1937, Jedwab’s father Ide travelled to Australia with two of his sons, Abe and Max, to organise for the rest of the family to emigrate.

Unfortunately, the outbreak of war prevented the rest of the family from leaving Poland.

Jedwab, who was just 15, was sent to a labour camp and managed to stay alive with the support of a family friend, Chaim. They were both moved to Auschwitz/Birkenau in 1943 and survived the death march to Buchenwald in 1945.

Unfortunately, Chaim died days after liberation by US forces in April 1945, and Jedwab continued onto Paris via Sweden on his own, where a travel permit was waiting for his passage to Australia.

A 12-week trip by a French freighter to Australia reunited Jedwab with his father and older brothers in 1946 and he joined them in the family clothing manufacturing business.

“I never lost hope during those five long years in the camps,” says Jedwab. “With Chaim we managed to get through all the hardships.”

In Melbourne he married Tosha, a Polish woman who had also survived the war in Europe, and they had two daughters and a son who live in Melbourne, as well as three ­grandchildren.

The Archibald Prize exhibition is at the Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney from March 23 to June 2, before touring interstate.

REPORT by Danny Gocs

PHOTO of Holocaust survivor Leon Jedwab with his portrait by Ross Cockle. Photo: Peter Haskin

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