I met Motke Blum sort of by mistake.
We were staying in Jerusalem and the Pope was in town. The streets were packed. Traffic jams everywhere. It was impossible to find a place to park. We decided to return our car to the rental agency because we didn’t plan on using it again until we drove to the airport anyway.
We wandered aimlessly. The Old City was closed. I didn’t even know that those ancient gates could close, but they do. The Pope had the whole Old City to himself. We weren’t sure what to do. We saw a sign that said “Artist’s Colony” so we headed in that direction, hoping to be entertained while we figured out what the heck we were going to do with our day.
Most of the studios in the colony were sterile and expensive looking. We saw one studio with a strange metal statue of a man outside, and decided to see what was in there. Inside we met Motke, an 84 year old man with a sweet but nervous disposition. He asked us to look around and showed us some of his latest works. We got on the topic of the Pope, and his mood turned grim. “They gave him some holocaust art, but it doesn’t show anything. Doesn’t portray the horror. They want to give him something beautiful, but the holocaust wasn’t beautiful.”
He told us about his own holocaust art. He said that he prefers to paint other things, but painting about the holocaust was his only way to deal with the nightmares that still haunt him. He told us that he doesn’t show his holocaust art in his studio showroom because people don’t like to see it. I told him that I’d like to see it. He took us into the back room. It smelled like dust and turpentine. I looked at the paintings. They were horrifying.
He told us that he got in trouble with the police the day before. The landlord came in to ask Motke if he had the rent money. Motke said that he didn’t. The man looked at him and said, “You’re a liar.” Motke had a flashback to when he was in the camps during the holocaust. When he was a 15 year old boy one of the guards asked Motke if he was hiding food. Motke said that he wasn’t. The guard hit him and said, “You’re a liar!” Motke said that he wasn’t. The guard hit him again and called him a liar. He hit him until he bled. Motke said that his landlord’s words reminded him of the guard’s words and it made him lose his mind. “I picked him up by the collar of his shirt and I threw him out into the street and told him that nobody calls me a liar.”
I was still looking at the paintings. I didn’t know what to say to him.
He must have felt that I was struggling to come up with something to say, because he changed the subject after that. He said that most days he tries to live life to the fullest, be as happy as he can, paint in the studio, and spend time with his beautiful wife. He says that he feels sad for people who go through life with their heads hanging, never appreciating anything about this beautiful world.
I left the studio feeling slightly dazed and highly inspired.
(Motke Blum can be found online at: http://www.motke.com/)