Impressionable memories: Artist makes masks of Holocaust survivors

Holocaust survivor Allen Kredo, who was forced to live in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during the war, sits with a finished life mask of himself by artist Robert Sutz.

Holocaust survivor Allen Kredo, who was forced to live in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland during the war, sits with a finished life mask of himself by artist Robert Sutz. Photo courtesy of Robert Sutz

Through voices and faces of Holocaust survivors, Scottsdale artist Robert Sutz is devoted to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.

He’s interviewed several survivors through Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation. Videotapes of his interviews with nearly a dozen survivors from Chicago are archived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

And in the kitchen of a Scottsdale house transformed into a studio, Sutz makes life masks of Holocaust survivors. So far he’s made impressions of 10 survivors, mainly from the Chicago area.

“My goal is to continue to do them, as many as I can,” he says. “I would like to continue doing them before more of them are lost.”

Before making each mask, Sutz learns about the survivor’s life experiences and hopes to someday exhibit the masks with written or audiotaped versions of the respective survivor’s story.

His most recent life mask was of Alexander Bialywlos White of Scottsdale, who was 16 in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland.

White recently recounted his Holocaust experience in his book, “Be a Mensch: A Legacy of the Holocaust.” “Be a mensch” were White’s father’s last words to him as his father was forced on a train to Auschwitz.

As Sutz prepares the plaster cast for White’s mask, White sits in a barber-style chair set up in the kitchen. After applying a light coat of mineral oil to White’s face and hair to prevent sticking, Sutz applies plaster bandages to White’s chest. Next he applies more bandages upward toward the neck, chin and mouth – leaving openings around the nose and eyes. The whole process takes about an hour.

When the plaster dries, Sutz carefully removes the plaster mold from White’s face. “I’ve got a real good impression of you,” he tells him.

Next he will close the openings in the eyes, mouth and nose and lubricate the inside with “green soap,” a release agent, then pour plaster in it.

Once the plaster is poured in, the plaster bandages are torn off and he’ll mount the mask on a Styrofoam backing and paint it with oil paint.

In one bedroom of the house, walls are lined with shelves holding several of the life masks Sutz has made over the years. Besides a number of other people, he’s done several of his six children at different ages and has even done self-portrait life masks. “So I know what it feels like,” he says. One of the masks is of former senator Barry Goldwater, who sat for the casting in his own home in 1995.

Lately he has also been sketching many Holocaust scenes that he plans to use for the basis of larger paintings.

“My father’s whole family was lost in Auschwitz so I’m almost obsessed with doing these Holocaust sketches,” he says.

Sutz plans to exhibit his sketches and life masks at the Cultural Exchange Gallery in Scottsdale later this year, although a date has not yet been determined.

Sutz’s resume includes two years of service as an artist/photographer in the military, free-lance work in advertising and editorial illustration and 22 years as an art director at a Chicago advertising agency. In 1981, he opened his own portrait and fine art studio in Evanston, Ill. He and his wife Lea moved to Scottsdale from Glenview, Ill., in 1997. He will be installed as commander of Jewish War Veterans, Post 210, on April 18.

This article first appeared in the April 16, 2004 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.