The Artist Who Forewarned the Dangers of the Nazis

Take a look at the incredible treasures from the archive of the Hungarian-Jewish Artist, Gyula Zilzer.

Shaul Greenstein | 09.04.18 |
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This 1933 drawing is apparently one of the earliest illustrations of a Nazi concentration camp

The materials in the archive of Hungarian-Jewish born artist Gyula Zilzer were bestowed to the Archives of National Library of Israel in 2002 as part of the estate of Mary Zilzer, the artist’s widow, after she passed away in 2001.

The story of the artist’s life can be traced back through the personal documents, photographs, correspondence, literary works, paintings and illustrations contained within the archive.

Most of the paintings in the archive are lithographs, which, unlike a painting, can exist in more than one original copy. Making duplicates with the lithographic method involves a lot of effort and all duplicates are made by the same artist, using the same stone on which the original image was painted.

"Opium". Lithograph by Gyula Zilzer
“Opium”. Lithograph by Gyula Zilzer

Gyula Zilzer, a descendant of an artisan family, was born in 1898 in Budapest, Hungary. Members of this illustrious family include the Bavarian king’s court painter Antal Zilzer, the sculptor Hajnalka Zilzer, and the modern painter Frigyes Frank.

In his youth, Zilzer had a special interest in machines and spent time working on inventions.

Certificate from the Royal Hungarian Museum of Technology given to Gyula Zilzer concerning absolving a gas engine operator course in 1920
Certificate from the Royal Hungarian Museum of Technology given to Gyula Zilzer concerning absolving a gas engine operator course in 1920

In 1917, together with two of his friends, Trotzer and Mintz, he worked to create a radio controlled torpedo. During the Russian Revolution, the Russian Army gave the three young men access to a factory to build their torpedo model and to produce it for military purposes, but the project was never completed.

The model became a secret German patent and later served as the basis for several technological innovations, including the dial mechanism of telephones and missile control systems developed in other countries.

The artist Gyula Zilzer in his study. Photo by André Kertész
The artist Gyula Zilzer in his study. Photo by André Kertész

As a Jew, Zilzer was prevented from continuing his academic studies in mechanical engineering due to the implementation of Numerus Clausus. In 1919 he fled from Hungarian nationalists to Trieste, Italy. There, while involved in the leadership of a factory that he founded along with his business partners, he began to paint. After displaying much talent, from 1922-1923 Zilzer went to study painting at the school of the famous German painter Hans Hoffman in Munich.

In 1924, after acquiring a Triestian certificate which attested to his status as a Christian, Zilzer returned to Budapest and signed up for the Academy of the Arts. When his Jewish origins were revealed to the academic administration, he was dismissed from the Academy as “untalented.” Despite this humiliation, Zilzer pushed forward and published his collection of lithographs entitled, “Kaleidoskop,” in 1924. This publication was so successful that it enabled him to leave Hungary for good. After leaving Hungary in 1924, he lived in Paris until 1932 where he worked for the French magazine Clarté and the daily newspaper L’Humanité, both of which belonged to the Communist Party. It was during this time that he became friends with the French writer and publicist Henri Barbusse.

From 1929, Zilzer’s works became clearly anti-fascist in nature with several of his pieces focusing in on Hitler and Mussolini. In 1932, in an exhibition in Amsterdam, he presented his “Gaz” album, a collection protesting the use of gas as a form of warfare against the civilian population. That year, following the success of the original installment, the collection was also displayed in the United States.

Zilzer, the socialist artist who suffered at the hands of anti-Semitism from his youth, expressed his political and general worldview through his paintings. He was an artist ahead of his time, presenting the horrors of the First World War in the 1920s. When he published the collections “Kaleidoskop” and “Gaz” in 1924 and 1932 respectively, he hoped they would forewarn of a future war that the fascist authorities may inspire. Additionally, his paintings criticized the cruelty of the National Socialist Party, as portrayed in his drawings of concentration camps from the early 1930s.

The cover drawing of the album "Kaleidoskop" by Gyla Zilzer, 1924
The cover drawing of the album “Kaleidoskop” by Gyla Zilzer, 1924

 

GAZ GAS By ZILZER GYULA
One of the drawings from the album “GAZ” by Zilzer from 1934

Concentration camps were not an original invention of the Nazi apparatus in Germany. The camps set up by the British in South Africa during the Boer War at the end of the 19th century, as well as the Russian Gulag (a punitive system based on forced labor), preceded and influenced the formation of the Nazi camps. The first concentration camp on German territory was established in Dachau after Hitler came to power in 1933. The camp intended to imprison opponents of the Nazi regime as well as people from social groups marked by the Nazis as “undesirable,” including homeless people, homosexuals, and others.

drawing from 1933 representing the concentration camp

Women and Children under the Swastika
Two drawings from 1933 representing the concentration camps. The second (bottom) one served as the cover page of the English booklet “Women and Children under the Swastika”, which collected factual reports on terrorism and oppression in the Third Reich, published 1936 in New York, USA

Zilzer belonged to the expressionist artistic movement, protesting the fascist ideology, calling for unity against the Nazi horrors in his published paintings as early as 1933.

"The Peace Talk" of Hitler calling for war. Caricature from 1934
“The Peace Talk” of Hitler calling for war. Caricature from 1934

 

" Let us share it" - Mussolini and Hitler sharing the globe. 1935
” Let us share it” – Mussolini and Hitler sharing the globe. 1935

By 1932 Zilzer left Europe and moved to the United States, where he spent a year traveling throughout the country all the while continuing to draw and to paint.

Letter of recommendation
Letter of recommendation from G. P. Putnam’s Sons given to Zilzer concerning his US citizenship. 1934

 

Social Security Card of Zilzer Gyula
US Social Security Card of Zilzer Gyula

 

Gyula Zilzer apparently in the late 30s
Gyula Zilzer apparently in the late 30s

He moved to Hollywood in 1939 where he worked designing stage sets of famous films as an art director. Outside of his work in the film industry, Zilzer created more patents for items such as a toy book for children, a helical underground parking area with shelter and the “VISI-Recorder”.

Stage set Zilzer Gyula
A stage set planned and drawn by Zilzer for the film “The short happy life of Francis Macomber”
Patented book for children
A patented toy book for children planned an designed by Zilzer

 

Helical parkin by Gyula Zilzer
A helical underground parking area with shelter planned by Zilzer, Kovacs and Williger

 

Air raid precaution parking place
Another version of the same shelter as above called “Air raid precaution parking place”

 

Logo of the Visi Recorder
Logo of the patented Visi Recorder by Zilzer

 

Membership certificate from The Institute of American Inventors given to Gyula Zilzer
Membership certificate from The Institute of American Inventors given to Gyula Zilzer in 1940

After the end of the Second World War, Zilzer returned to Europe and traveled between Paris and Budapest for a few years. In 1954 he moved to his final residence in New York City where he worked for the television networks NBC and Cinerama, all while continuing to paint and manage his private exhibitions, until his death in 1969.

An oil painting by Gyula Zilzer
An oil painting by Gyula Zilzer

 

Gyula Zilzer in his atelier in ca. 1943
Gyula Zilzer in his atelier in ca. 1943

 

Throughout his tumultuous life, Zilzer rubbed shoulders with many well-known, contemporary personalities including American writer and publicist Upton Sinclair, the French director Jean Vigo, the Mexican painter Diego Rivera, the movie actor Gregory Peck, the writers Roman Roland and Ilya Ehrenburg, the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși, the Hungarian poet József Attila, the author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. Zilzer was also in close contact with the physicist Albert Einstein who received a collection of paintings gifted from Zilzer himself. This is certified by a letter of thanks sent from Einstein to Zilzer on March 26th 1933.

Records on “My Heritage” database show that Gyula was married to Irene P. Kellog. After their divorce he married Mary (Fuchs) Pitjel. Mary met Gyula in the USA, where she moved after the death of her first husband Kalman Pitjel, who fell during Israel’s War for Independence in 1948. This information is based on Tanya Rubinstein-Horowitz from Düsseldorf, Germany. Her father was a cousin of Kalman Pitjel.

A letter from Henry Miller to Gyula Zilzer 1956
I am glad you have found a wife – a real one! – writes Henry Miller to Zilzer in 1956. Apparently regarding to Mary

For the Gyula Zilzer Archive at the National Library and detailed information click here.

The Gyula Zilzer Archive has been reviewed and described thanks to the generous support of The Leir Foundation.




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Shaul Greenstein

Shaul Greenstein, archivist at the National Library. Married and father of three children, deals with the registration of archival material and catalog. Speaks, reads and writes six languages. A graduate of the Faculty of Humanities at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. Hobbies: dogs, cycling and more.

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