When 6-year-old Susan Beilby sat for her portrait with an Eastern European artist who could barely speak English, she couldn't have known that more than 50 years later, she'd be telling his story.
That's just one of many twists that make Into the Light: The Healing Art of Kalman Aron by Susan Beilby Magee so engrossing. The book collects many of Aron's paintings, sketches and portraits and tells the fascinating story of his journey from a house behind a shoe factory in the outskirts of Riga, Latvia, to sunny Southern California.
When Beilby's mother, an interior decorator, saw one of Aron's portraits, she was struck by its resemblance to her first daughter, Nonnie, who didn't survive infancy. She commissioned the artist to paint her deceased daughter's portrait from a photograph. She was so pleased with the result that she had Aron paint her daughters Susan and Elena.
Thus began a lifelong friendship that led to the painter entrusting his story to Beilby. And what a story it is.
Aron was born in Latvia in 1924. He was a child prodigy whose family called him "the little Mozart of art." He had his first gallery show when he was 7 years old. The president of Latvia sat for his portrait when Aron was 13. Through the President's influence, he was enrolled in what the book refers to as the Fine Arts Academy.
There, he met a dressmaker that he wanted to take to the ball at the end of the school year, but her father had recently died and her family had fallen on hard times. The memory is like a scene out of an O. Henry story: A painter who can't afford to buy canvases falls for a dressmaker who's so poor she can't purchase the fabric to make her own dress.
"Then one day she told me she could go after all. She had taken the drapes down at home and made a smashing long white gown that set off her blue-green eyes, framed by her blondish brown hair. She was the most beautiful girl at the ball. How proud I was to escort her. After the Germans came, she disappeared. Sixty years later I have nightmares trying to remember her name."
"After the Germans came" would become a familiar refrain.
The first time the Germans came, they took Aron's father and uncle away. The second time, Aron was separated from his mother and brother and forced to work at the Luftwaffe clothing depot. He learned that if he made sketches of the guards, they'd give him a little extra food, which he smuggled back to the ghetto. Anyone caught smuggling food into the ghetto was shot on sight.
Aron attributes his survival to learning how to be invisible, to watching without being seen. "To be seen meant death."
Aron was moved from camp to camp—seven in all—in Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia, where the Russians finally liberated him. This was a mixed blessing, as the Russians often imprisoned Jews from the Baltic states and sent them to Siberia. After the war, Aron risked capture by staying in Vienna to resume his fine-arts education. But as soon as he completed his studies, he fled to America and never looked back.
"When asked if I would return to Latvia, I have said I never will. Why would I? They killed my father and my mother."
Lots of people come to California to reinvent themselves, but for Aron, it was a matter of life and death. He arrived in Los Angeles at 25 "with a wife and four dollars in my pocket." He worked menial jobs and painted at night. Shortly afterward, he was discovered by the author's mother.
Painting by painting, sketch by sketch, he worked through the darkness of his past while exploring the exquisite play of light in his new home. Aron established himself as one California's finest portraitists and painted a wide range of figures, from author Henry Miller to President Ronald Reagan, while he was the state's governor.
The book's author has a story that's nearly as intriguing as the book's subject. After a career as a Washington, D.C., insider and international business consultant, Beilby Magee took up the healing arts. She practices meditation and hypnotherapy and is the founder of the Washington Circle of Master Healers.
Her book is the story, in words and pictures, of a man who survived one of the darkest chapters in human history and, instead of being consumed by the past, imagined a future that explodes with color.
Susan Beilby Magee will be signing Into the Light on Tuesday, November 5 at the San Diego Jewish Book Fair at the Center for Jewish Culture in La Jolla.