Bill Salamon


Art for Life

by Laurel Fishman

Copyright 2012


To many, the award-winning Bill Salamon is a legend. Not only was he a prolific artist whose work deeply moved people and continues to do so, but his cheery optimism also affected them in ways they will never forget. Salamon’s life story, unforgettable in itself, continues to have an impact on all who know about this extraordinary man.

Though many artists claim it is their art that sustains them through the hardest of times, Salamon’s artistic talents literally kept him from death. If not for what he was able to create to please his captors, he likely would have died at the hands of the Nazis. At the age of 16, Salamon was taken prisoner in 1944 with his family, sent from his home in what was then Czechoslovakia to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

While more than 20 members of his family died in the Holocaust, including both parents, Salamon survived by painting on the orders of the Nazi SS officers. As other prisoners were enduring torture and hard labor, Salamon was decorating drinking mugs and painting murals and signs.

Yet when it came to the bitter end of his captivity, Salamon almost didn’t make it. Sent on a final death march he was never supposed to survive, he was victorious against all odds.

For the rest of his life, Salamon was  — and is to this day — a role model of forgiveness and the triumph of the human spirit.  Some even say he was saintlike.

As a youth, Salamon already was a positive-thinking person who always looked for the best in people within whatever circumstances he found himself. The son of a clothing-designer mother and a carpenter father who handcrafted custom furniture, Salamon was born in 1927. He was a gifted, natural artist who took up drawing and painting at an early age. From the time he could hold a pencil, Salamon was making art.

Growing up in the small Carpathian Mountains town of Khust (originally part of Hungary, then Czechoslovakia, now Ukraine) he spent any spare money he was given to buy art supplies instead of candy or toys. Salamon happily created his pieces, innocent of the drastic circumstances he and his family would be facing.

After a poster appeared in the Khust town square announcing that all Jews must assemble to be taken to work on German farms, Salamon and his family were marched to the local railroad station and shipped off in cattle cars. They were tightly packed inside with the others for three grueling days.

When they arrived at Auschwitz to see prisoners in their striped uniforms, Salamon naively observed, “Look, how bad can it be? They are still in their pajamas.” His mother replied, “At least we are together.”

But that would quickly change. The Nazi guards told the Salamons, “You see those chimneys? You smell that? That’s human flesh. You fools are all going to die.”

Amid the prisoners’ screams and the terrible stench in the smoky air, Salamon’s family members were separated into lines indicating who would live and who would die. Many of his young cousins, his grandparents, and his aunts and uncles were instantly selected for death.

It was the infamous Dr. Mengele himself, known as the “Angel of Death,” who pointed each prisoner to his fate, either to the gas chamber or to the barracks. On that day, more than half of Salamon’s extended family was murdered. Their own lives spared, Salamon, his father, uncle and one cousin were transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto a few weeks later.

Salamon would later talk about that brutal place where starving prisoners were constantly dying, “The Warsaw Ghetto was actually rubble on top of a city that the Germans had destroyed, and they built a concentration camp on top of the rubble. We were not there that long, because rumors spread that the Russians were coming. By now it was summer, and the SS made us walk for three days to cattle cars which awaited us.”

In this particular one of his multiple brushes with death, Salamon and his few remaining relatives were marched through a small town. He noticed that another prisoner had a piece of bread, obtained through having run into a house along the way and begging for something to eat.

Salamon thought to himself, “I can do that.” When he got the opportunity, he ducked into a home, where some women gave him bread and a baked potato. “Then I looked outside,” he later recounted. “The whole unit was gone, down the road. All I saw was an SS officer, his gun, and his German shepherds patrolling the end of the line. One of the ladies said, ‘You’d better get back to your unit.’

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m a goner. I’m dead now.’ With all of my strength, I ran to the end of the line. One of the dogs snarled and bit my foot. But I managed to jump right back into the group, clutching my little bit of food, which I shared with my father.”

Relieved to survive yet again, Salamon marched with the other prisoners for several days, eventually reaching a large field on the Jewish High Holiday of Rosh Hashanah. The march came to a halt, with the prisoners surrounded by German soldiers.

“It was hot,” Salamon would remember. “We were all starving and extremely thirsty. There was a lake nearby, and some ran to jump into the lake and drink. They were shot instantly.

“We were exhausted, and we all began digging into the ground in agony. All of a sudden, here was water! Everyone had enough to drink. It was a miracle.”

Near the German border, the prisoners were again put into cattle cars, headed for the Landsberg concentration camp, where Salamon would spend the majority of his imprisonment. At Landsberg, he would paint signs, murals and gift items for the Nazi guards and their families.

Though Landsberg had no crematoriums, prisoners underwent torture and suffered severe disease. Many died of starvation or typhoid fever. While others were dying outside in the snow and freezing temperatures, Salamon was indoors, painting for the SS officers.

One day, he went to the barracks to bring his father, sick with typhoid fever, a piece of bread. But the cot was empty, and he was told that his father had peacefully died in his sleep the night before. Salamon would later reflect, “I didn’t cry. I just dropped the bread. We felt like every day was our last day anyhow.”

At this point, the Germans were losing the war, but life was still hellish for those in the camps. The SS had already left, putting older German soldiers in charge of the prisoners. Ill with typhoid fever himself, lice-infested, and emaciated to a skeletal frame of just over 80 pounds, would look past the camp’s fence and see cows in the pasture, envying them their freedom.

In the spring of 1945, the German guards took the prisoners out of Landsberg to march them to Dachau, and many died while living only on leaves and snow. Salamon again survived, and soon the Germans had the remaining prisoners on the march again, out of Dachau and into the Bavarian Forest.

Salamon would watch Allied Forces bombs dropping from the sky and wonder what would happen to him. He pondered whether he would be put out of his misery by one of the bombs, starve or freeze to death, or be killed by the German soldiers so there would be no witnesses left to attest to their atrocities.

By the third day, he was so weak that he could barely walk. Salamon was sure he was dying this time. Just as he was telling another prisoner that this was his very last day of life, he heard someone shouting, “The guards are gone! We’re free!”

Salamon felt a rush of adrenaline and a feeling of hope. “It was indescribable,” he would later say.

The prisoners moved down the hill, where they had stopped marching, and into the village below. The townspeople were waving white flags, and they fed the ex-prisoners milk and bread. After eating, the exhausted Salamon stumbled into a barn and covered himself with hay.

He was shortly awakened by loud noises and scrambled out of the barn to see American soldiers in their tanks, throwing out chocolate bars and cigarettes. He waved to the Americans, and one of them motioned to Salamon. The compassionate soldier took Salamon to a nearby house and persuaded the resistant homeowner to provide clothing and a bath, his first in more than six months.

The soldiers saw to it that the now-liberated prisoners were well fed. Then the soldiers bussed the grateful survivors to an abandoned German barracks, and they spent a few weeks recovering there. After receiving care from the Jewish community, Salamon went on to the railroad station in Pilson, Germany, miraculously encountering his sister, also among those returning from concentration camps. The two joyously reunited.

Salamon and his sister went to a German relocation facility, where she met a man and married him while they were waiting to immigrate to Canada. Chicago’s Jewish community sponsored Salamon, who went first to New Orleans, La., by boat and then by train to Chicago, Ill. He immediately enrolled in a class to learn English and attended the prestigious Art Institute.

Ten months later, Salamon was drafted into the U.S. army, and he was one of only 29 out of 1,100 men in basic training who did not have to fight in the Korean War. Instead, he was stationed in Washington, D.C., taken out of harm’s way through designing and illustrating manuals for military intelligence. During this time, the well-liked Salamon painted portraits of his fellow army buddies on the weekends.

After two years in the service, Salamon moved to Southern California in search of a warmer climate. On the same day he arrived in Los Angeles, he got a job hand-lettering signs and ads for the May Company department stores, and was quickly promoted to the position of sign shop manager. With his fashion-conscious sense of style, he also contributed to May Company window displays.

To refine his painting skills, Salamon attended the highly regarded Chouinard Art Institute on the G.I. Bill and soon after, he met his wife, Carol. While he worked for close to 20 years with the May Company, the Salamon family expanded to include the couple’s two children, Lisa and Mark, to whom he was an unfailingly devoted father.

Throughout his lifetime, Salamon painted more than 700 paintings, and his work was featured in several galleries in Los Alamitos, Newport Beach, and Laguna Beach, Calif. Until he passed away in 2011 at the age of 84, Salamon painted almost every day in the Rossmoor, Calif., home garage he had converted into an art studio.

Neighbors and passersby were mesmerized to watch him in the process of creating his work. One neighbor bought a painting while it was still wet, which would repeatedly happen during the many times Salamon painted in live demonstrations.

Salamon painted with freedom and flourish, with quick, sure and expressive strokes. As the paint would fly around him, observers stood back in fascination to see him create vivid landscapes, seascapes, florals, nature scenes and portraits emanating love and light. Salamon’s bold, vibrant, brilliant colors beckoned viewers to enter his joyful world.

Just as Salamon practiced throughout his life, he always spoke of treating others with kindness and forgiveness. He believed creating art was the ideal release from difficulty, a way of celebrating life, and a means of expressing gratitude. Many were delighted by the gift of one of his paintings, which he freely gave away on several occasions.

In his later years, Salamon volunteered, donating his time, money and paintings to charities. He would bring cookies, juice and an uplifting presence to hospitalized war veterans. Wherever he went, Salamon’s positive attitude and sense of humor brightened the day of all he encountered.

During his lifetime, Salamon won hundreds of awards, from Grumbacher to Windsor Newton to City Purchases, as well as many Bests of Show and county fair awards. He was featured in numerous newspapers and on radio and television, telling the inspirational story of his life. This was also documented for posterity by Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.

Bill Salamon continues to influence those who see his work, know his story, or were fortunate to have met this well-admired man who nearly didn’t survive, but instead prevailed to be a beacon of light to others. He endures as a shining example of the power of love, forgiveness and healing through art.

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