The tapestry of Jolana Von Fabian’s life is as colorful as the art pieces in the West Valley Art Museum gift shop she manages.
Von Fabian, who recently relocated from Cleveland, has worked at the museum, located at 17420 N. Avenue of the Arts in Surprise, since February.
Von Fabian was born in Czechoslovakia, survived the Holocaust, traveled extensively throughout the world collecting art and buying clothes, owned art galleries and clothing boutiques, and has been married and divorced twice.
Her entire family, except for Von Fabian and a younger sister, Judy, were killed during World War II. She says that prior to being sent to a concentration camp, her mother had arranged for her daughters to receive papers that stated they were Christians.
Although she was only 13, Jolana (pronounced “yo-lah-na”) went to work as a housemaid for Christian families. Judy, 10 years younger, lived in a convent.
After the war ended, Von Fabian had a visa for the United States, but since the quota was filled, her choices for immigration were Israel, South Africa and Australia. She says she didn’t want to go to Israel because at that time she “was very bitter. I couldn’t imagine living just with Jews. I blamed everybody for what happened to us,” she says.
She didn’t want to go to South Africa because, “my knowledge of Africa was that they would put me in a kettle and cook me. I was so ignorant. It’s a shame to think of it like that.
“(People) said that in Australia, there were wealthy men waiting for you at shipside (who would) marry you off immediately. So that’s where I went, with my sister.” When the two arrived, “It was nothing like that,” she says.
In Sydney, Australia, she went to the Jewish Welfare Society, where she was told to seek factory work. She refused and learned dressmaking instead.
A Jewish family adopted her younger sister.
Von Fabian worked as a dressmaker during the day and as a waitress at night, “Life was very colorful,” she says.
While working at the restaurant, she met her first husband, Jimmy King, who worked in the fashion industry during the day and as a cook in the evening. They were married three weeks later. She was 21.
After marrying, Von Fabian went into business, traveling internationally to barter-trade fashion. Because she missed her husband during her travels, she opted to work closer to home and opened a delicatessen in Sydney. Within a few years, she sold the deli and returned to traveling the world, “selling, wheeling, dealing,” she says.
Meanwhile, she studied art.
When she was 34, she and King ended their 13-year marriage. A few years later, she married Kurt Barry, a wealthy widower with two young children and a factory owner. They married about a month after they met.
Von Fabian says that gradually, her bitterness toward God faded.
“I believe that God is here with us now, watching us this minute. Through living the life I lived, I blamed God for what happened. And then I got out of all that and understood that God maybe had nothing to do with that.”
When she was in her late 30s, she visited her homeland, now called Slovakia. Seeing her by then-dilapidated childhood home, she felt “no feeling. Dead. Nothing.”
“As a child, I had to wear a yellow star,” she says. “We had to say ‘Heil Hitler,’ but instead I said ‘drei liter,’ which means ‘three gallons.’ One guy beat the heck out of me because he found out that’s what I said.
“I had lots of friends I went to school with my whole life. (After the war started) they beat me and they kicked me around. My friends. Because I was Jewish. I didn’t want to have anything to do with them. There’s nothing there. This is past. This is dead.”
After her husband had a heart attack, the family relocated to Australia’s Gold Coast resort community. Von Fabian learned more about art and became an art dealer. She again traveled throughout the world while her husband and children remained in Australia. She met Chagall and Picasso.
“I’m a gypsy, you see,” she says.
Von Fabian speaks fluent English, Italian, German, Czech, Hungarian and Polish and understands Russian and other Slav languages.
Then, after 14 years of marriage, she and Barry divorced.
Von Fabian started an art gallery and then a framing store. She moved to San Francisco only to discover that opening a gallery there would be out of her price range, so she set out for Cleveland, to live with relatives that she had never met. She opened a fashion store and traveled throughout the United States and the world yet again, buying and selling clothing.
Then about five months ago, Von Fabian moved from Cleveland to Surprise to be near her sister, a Sun City resident who works as a private nurse for Alzheimer’s patients.
Von Fabian, 72, has been working at the museum for almost two months and looks forward to – what else? – traveling as a buyer for the gift shop. She plans to visit trade fairs and meet other art gallery and gift shop managers. Her plans for the museum shop include changing the selection of merchandise and incorporating more exhibit-related merchandise.
Her home is filled with her collection of some 50 paintings, as well as sculptures, sculpted rocks and little shoes made of wood, porcelain and other materials.
“There is no extra space,” she says. She says her favorite place to view her art is the bathroom. “I can sit and look and look. Because there is peace; no one to bug me, no phones,” she says.
How does she look at her life?
“To me, life is what you make it,” she says. “I don’t look back at history. I can’t change it.”
This article first appeared in the April 21, 2000 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.