A 1967 self-portrait by Kalman Aron.

Kalman Aron (1924–2018)

Kalman Aron, an artist and Holocaust survivor whose portraiture allowed him to better understand his experience in concentration camps, has died at ninety-three, according to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. By trading sketches of Nazi guards and their families for bits of food, Aron would eventually endure seven concentration camps, the first of which he arrived at when he was sixteen. After the war, he received a scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and earned a master’s degree. He became a celebrated American portraitist after moving, in 1949, to California, where he continued to paint for the rest of his life.   

Born near Riga, Latvia, in 1924, Aron was recognized for his artistic talent early on. His first solo exhibition was displayed when that artist was just seven years old. He painted the Latvian prime minister’s official portrait at thirteen, and enrolled at a fine arts academy in Riga at fifteen. After the Nazis invaded in 1941, they murdered his parents, who were Jewish. “I survived by disappearing,” Aron told Susan Beilby Magee, author of the book Into the Light: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron (2012). “As an artist, I had always been in my own territory, if you will . . . one way to protect yourself, to insulate yourself, was to be alone. A deep, stark place of loneliness is where I was.”

In isolation, Aron was still a trenchant observer of and empathizer with those around him. A painting titled Mother and Child that Aron made in 1951 after settling in the United States revisits a memory from that time. The painting, which is now displayed at the entrance to the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, depicts a mother cradling a baby, their faces almost one, their bond seemingly inseparable.

Aron gained wider success in the 1950s and was ranked among the “100 outstanding American artists” in Art in America in 1956. During this time, he branched out from gray, haunting imagery and started to paint more vibrant landscapes and portraits, eventually making work commissioned by Ronald Reagan, André Previn, and Henry Miller.

“In the camps, I looked at and studied people,” Aron told Magee. “The Holocaust gave me an understanding of people that most people won’t understand."