This is the story of a Holocaust survivor who began her odyssey in Dej, Romania. Chanele Anne Grun Kempler was a teenager when she came to Auschwitz, almost 20 when she immigrated to Montreal and became a famous artist, and 64 when she passed away, alone in her bed, in 1994, on her chest a letter from Yad Vashem informing her that the painting she offered to the organization would be admitted and displayed.
She, like most artists, never achieved real success during her brief time on earth, although, some of her paintings sold for close to $10,000. Her tumultuous life before, during and after the war, helped create a body of artwork that covers the war, Jews and the concept of healing.
She first began to paint after immigrating to Canada, participating in her first art show in Montreal in 1964. Thereafter, she showed her work in at least one art gallery or public space every year in New York, Paris, and Montreal until 1984.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to tell you that my mother, Sarah bas Ben Zion z”l, had been a prisoner in Auschwitz during the war. It was there that she bunked with her cousin Anne Grun, Chanele, who ultimately became her best friend.
Chanele was an artist, quite bohemian actually and a remarkable and beautiful person. She came from an artistic Hasidic family. She always said that although her father was in the insurance business, he was a very expressive man who painted on canvas for personal gratification. Her mother painted on silk and her brother on glass. He was also a photographer.
After the war, Kempler (née Grun), lived in various Displaced Persons camps, married and, in 1949, immigrated with her husband to Montreal. She began to paint soon after.
Anne Kempler’s work can be divided stylistically into distinct categories: Expressionism, Abstraction, Surrealism and Op-Art. A visual analysis of her work shows strong regard for and the influence of artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, and Francis Picabia, among others.
Nearly her entire body of work is expressed by bright, jewel tone colors, no matter how serious the subject matter. She worked in oil and acrylic and was highly skilled in the medium of scratchboard or scraperboard. Working with this material was difficult and unforgiving as the artist has to “scratch or scrap away” the surface. Akin to the process of intaglio printing, the results often-yielded highly detailed pictures, many of which were enhanced with watercolor or paint.
Her work is linked to the celebration of Jewish life and holidays, her autobiographical experiences, memories of Auschwitz and her childhood.
Deeply personal in nature, Kempler’s art is representative of a dying population of Holocaust survivors who found a means of expressing their memories and emotions artistically.
Kempler’s art expressed her heritage quite simply in the most positive spiritual way possible. Through the agonies of this Jewish Diaspora and the horrors of Auschwitz, the artist depicts dire, horrible and inhumane events with some glimmer of the spirit that there is hope for humanity.
Although the art is “dark” in terms of subject matter, the spirit of her humanity is ever- present.
Her art questions the juxtaposition of “good and evil”: the sun shines bright in the sky while Jews are being transported to concentration camps; a Kapo rescues a child from selection from the gas chamber, anonymous hands reach out to help each other.
It also depicts with “abstract” candidness the unseeing eyes and deaf ears of the world, and also the betrayals. But it also depicts the beauty of the verdant forest landscape (from which she was deported), buildings in her beloved city of Dej, family birthdays and other celebrations, including many Jewish holidays.