The World that Was: The Life and Art of David Labkovski


Devorah Talia Gordon

“My great-uncle had these intense blue eyes. He could look at you for two minutes and be able to draw you in great detail,” began Leora Raikin, who has made it her mission to tell the life story of her great uncle, artist David Labkovski. At the first of several upcoming art exhibitions in Southern California, Labkovski’s work will be on display at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills on Sunday, April 10, and for several days thereafter. Artist and speaker Raikin lectured on her great-uncle’s life and art at an event entitled, “From Prisoner in Siberia to Artist in Safed, Israel. The story of Jewish destruction, survival and renewal as seen through the images of artist, David Labkovski (1906-1991).”

Labkovski was part of the group of artists and writers called “Jung Vilna,” which flourished in Vilna (the “Jerusalem of Lithuania”) in the 1920s; he held his first art exhibition in 1922. In 1932, he was accepted into one of the most prestigious art schools in the world, the Art Academy of Leningrad, one artist selected out of 500 applicants.

However, Labkovski’s training at the Academy was cut short; within two years, under Stalin’s regime, he was forced to enlist in the Red Army. In 1936, one of Labkovski’s family members was accused of anti-Soviet activity and was sentenced to ten years in Siberia. As a result, David was pulled out of the Army and, due to association, was shipped to Siberia for three years. Prior to Siberia, he was imprisoned at the infamous KGB Lubyanka Prison, where Stalin jailed and tortured thousands of innocent victims.

One wouldn’t necessarily think it was a “move up” to go to Siberia, but, as Raikin said, “His time there actually saved his life. The environment was harsh, and the form of slavery (either having to cut logs in extreme temperatures or mine for coal) was difficult and, as an artist, Labkovski wasn’t a physically strong person. But one guard heard of his artistic ability and asked for a portrait.” Labkovski became the prison’s sketch and tattoo artist (various groups and gangs in Siberia had their own tattoos). In this way, he survived, by acquiring some extra scraps of food and being exempt from the hard physical work.

Following the annexing of Lithuania, with part under Stalin’s control and part under the Nazi regime, there was a mass deportation of 300,000 Lithuanian Jews to Siberia. Although 80 percent of these Jews survived Siberia, since these camps were never liberated, there was no video footage and the like. Consequently, one of the few ways to access this much-unknown part of the Holocaust is by viewing the art of David Labkovski. “His Siberian pictures are like finding intimate journal,” said Raikin.

David and his wife Rivka were permitted to return to Vilna in 1946, but upon arriving realized everyone they knew, and everything they knew, were gone. “David started drawing the pictures of survivors, and how life used to be in the Jerusalem of Lithuania, which was the heart of learning, culture and rabbinic studies. He drew images of the ‘world that was.’”

At the end of 1958, the Labkovskis were given permission to immigrate to Israel and settled in the artist’s colony of Tzfat, where he and Rifka lived “an exceptionally frugal existence.” Raikin said, “They had lived such a hard life. They couldn’t understand the need for two pairs of shoes.” In 1959, Labkovski held his first art exhibit in Israel, which portrayed life in Vilna and the horrors of the Holocaust. However, Raikin explained, “the world didn’t want to see it, and even Jews didn’t want to focus on it. They wanted to move on, wanted a new life.” David decided to keep documenting the “world that was,” but made a decision not to sell the art. “You put your heart and soul into it…the art is part of your very being. He dreamed one day a generation would appreciate it, and would want to learn about this part of the world, especially in the Diaspora.”

Upon Labkovski’s death in 1989, a complicated, 25-year court case ensued regarding his collection. Four years ago the case went to the Israeli Supreme Court, and the artwork was finally awarded to Labkovski’s niece and her siblings, with it divided equally among relatives in South Africa, Israel, and Los Angeles.

Raikin, an artist herself who lectures on the history of South African Jews, has undertaken to share Labkovski’s story and artwork with the world. “My great uncle’s art was always part of my life. His art hangs on the walls of my grandparents’ home, was always a part of who I am. I started talking to people and I realized it’s so important to educate this generation about what happened, and using art as his tool.”

With this goal, last year Raikin introduced an educational program at New Community Jewish High School, and this year has piloted the program at a charter school in Canoga Park for eighth graders. Of these students (with a 70-percent Hispanic base), not a single child knew about the Holocaust. Raikin has been given 16 hours of classroom time, with a multidisciplinary program of creative writing, art, history and social studies. At the end of May, the students themselves will display an exhibition of David’s art. Raikin hopes to continue tweaking and perfecting the curriculum, with the plan to make it accessible to all schools, both public and private. “His art is among the most tumultuous in Jewish and world history. The art depicts life before the War, impending gloom and horror, Holocaust and destruction, Siberia, and finally, in later life, Israel in gorgeous colors, with fruit, flowers. It’s renewal.”

In order to fully grasp all that was lost in the Holocaust, Raikin said, it’s important not to teach about it in isolation. “You have to understand this vibrant Jewish community, with the artists and writers who were celebrated and admired. Only when you understand what was can you understand what was lost. By taking one person’s story, it becomes real…you can’t imagine millions. But when I show the students a picture of me standing right next to them (David and Rivka), these are real people to them. You see they understand.”