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“The birds were hungry too: the art of Holocaust survivor Olga Horak OAM”

By Dr Jana Vytrhlik

For over three decades, Holocaust survivor Olga Horak OAM (born 1926 in Bratislava, in the former Czechoslovakia) has addressed international forums, met with politicians and shared her story with students. Her memoir Auschwitz to Australia was published in 2000, and her video testimony was recorded by the Shoah Foundation. Most recently, Olga’s eloquent voice provided an immersive artificial intelligence experience of her life for visitors at the Museum. Yet, there is something she does not talk about: her art. Only a few people know that Olga Horak is a talented artist who discovered a passion for colours and forms many years ago.

Holocaust survivor Olga Horak

Olga Horak ( photography by Katherine Griffiths)

“I was always creative, as a small girl, I loved colours and was always making things. My parents encouraged me to draw and make models. In my teens I was enrolled in Professor Rosenthal’s art school in Bratislava. But that soon finished. I pinned the yellow Star of David to my clothing and everything changed.”

Olga was 15 when the Nazis occupied Slovakia and the persecution of Jews began. Jewish children were excluded from schools, their homes were looted and their parents attacked on the streets. After a short-lived hiding, the family was denounced and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1944.

Olga endured a gruelling death march to Bergen-Belsen, where she was eventually liberated in April 1945. She was the sole survivor of her family. Her physical and emotional healing was slow, but two years later in Bratislava, Olga met her future husband, Jan (John) Horak (1919-2008), also a Holocaust survivor. The young couple emigrated to Australia in 1949 and started a new life with admirable force and determination, a trait seen in the generation of survivors worldwide.

Soon, their two little daughters were born and by 1960, the Horak family settled into a busy routine between their Dover Heights home, school and their flourishing blouse factory in Woolloomooloo. Olga designed blouses and fashionable garments and was eager to return to her passion for art. Encouraged by her husband, the young mother and businesswoman set up a small studio in the laundry of her home, and started painting, but it was far from easy.

Did the memories of the Holocaust impact her art?

“I didn’t want my art to be about the horrors of the Holocaust. I wanted to express myself with happy colours and shapes. But the colours turned black and my flowers turned into dark skulls. It was not intentional, it happened. My inner feelings were affected by my tragic memories which in turn were reflected in my art.”

“And it was the same with my sculpting. I carved in timber and soapstone, and the shapes turned into skinny skeleton-like figures. They were reflections of the walking skeletons I used to see in Auschwitz … and I was one of them. And the birds were hungry too, and instead of modelling Bondi seagulls, the skinny native bird brolga begging for food came out,” Olga said.

The Bird (1960)

Fear, Fire and Death (1967)

In the painting from 1967, the black and disfigured lines emerge as scattered symbols: barbed wire, a prison cell window, a fallen figure and finally 1944, the year when the entire Rosenberger family was deported to Auschwitz. Yet, the black contrasts with bright and pastel tones.

Was there a hope to escape the past?

To shift her memory from anguish and loss, Olga decided to enrol in evening art classes at East Sydney Technical College.

“I met two wonderful Australian artists, my teachers. John Ogburn (1925-2010) opened his painting studio in 1963 and I was one of his first enthusiastic students. Ogburn emphasised the importance of techniques in drawing and painting. He taught us art theory and history and we studied the works of old masters. I painted in oils and he encouraged me to create my compositions from the centre out, or one corner to another.”

“I was never bogged down with a detail. Instead, my composition grew organically and in harmony with colours. My colours returned in my first paintings with Ogburn. In William Street at Night I discovered that a dark night can be colourful and happy, and my flowers and shapes blossomed bright again.”

“In sculpting classes, my teacher was Lyndon Dadswell (1908-1986), the first Australian sculptor appointed as a war artist. He understood my memories and encouraged me to see and model a human figure for its forms, not for the past trauma. Dadswell admired the British sculptor Henry Moore and taught us respect for material and forms.”

William Street at Night (c 1963)

Flowers Grow Again (c 1963)

Nude (c 1964)

Indeed, some of Horak’s figures, created in resin or patinated plaster, are reminiscent of the most celebrated sculptor of the twentieth century. Olga tried other materials and worked with cement, wood and fibreglass.

After five years of evening art classes with John Ogburn, Olga Horak’s style and technique matured. The paintings stand out for their confident lines, impeccable compositions and bold colour palette. Her feel for human forms and spatial volume resulted in monumentality regardless of the artwork size. The past did not go away but was channelled through the symbolism of Horak’s artistic expressions.

In her first and only large sculpture,The Family, Olga experimented with a bold Moore-inspired figurative composition. The figures stand motionlessly, as if in a frozen moment of the past and expectation of the next move. While mourning the loss, there was the determination to rebuild life and those powerful family connections.

The Family (1966)

In 2008, Olga Horak’s sculpture Exodus was selected for a representative exhibition at the National Museum of Australia. The artist’s rare work in bronze was praised for modern expression and emotional depth.

Exodus (1965)

Torso (1969)

Siesta (1960)

Could Olga Horak ever escape the ghosts of the past?

“I don’t live in the past, the past lives in me and the art was healing, whether I saw it that way or not. Art brought me back to the times when I first discovered the joy of creating. I didn’t need anybody’s opinion. My paintings and sculptures were not for public eyes. They were my diary when the words failed me. Over and over again, my art brought methe happiness that is hard to find in other aspects of one’s life”.

Olga donated several sculptural reliefs from the 1980s to the Museum. Their titles, Mother and Child and Mother Protecting Child, reflect the Holocaust theme of Olga’s painful memories of a child losing her mother. True to her style, the figures are long and stylised, depicted in a sombre and contemplative composition.

Together with the family memorabilia, old photographs and Holocaust-era objects she also generously donated over the years to the Sydney Jewish Museum, her art complements the account of her life.

In Olga Horak’s own words, “her art shows a world that was ending but was at the same time beginning”, but – more importantly – was one in which she too took part and survived. “A wisdom”, she adds, “that only art can articulate”.

Olga’s art represents a rare genre in post-war Australia and is possibly amongst the first of its kind worldwide. It is the work of a Holocaust survivor who understands the importance of preserving the memory of the Shoah victims. Motivated by her genuine love of art and creativity that provided an outlet for expressing her trauma and resilience, Olga was instrumental in establishing the Museum in 1992.

Although Olga sees herself as “an amateur who loves colours”, her art, created between 1960 and the 1980s, might be unjustly dismissed and her artistic creativity hidden from public view. It is hoped that one day Olga’s art will come to the spotlight it deserves. Olga Horak remains unfailingly positive about life. Two years shy of celebrating 100, she is courageous, creative and immensely inspirational.

Olga and the author of this article, Dr Jana Vytrhlik

About the author

Prague-born Dr Jana Vytrhlik is an independent Jewish art and architecture historian and Judaica specialist with a PhD in Art History from the University of Sydney. Jana worked in the Jewish Museum in Prague and Sydney, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney and is presently leading the curatorial review of the A.M. Rosenblum Jewish Museum at The Great Synagogue Sydney. Her new book Treasures of Old Jewish Sydney: The Story of a Visual Heritage was published in May 2024.

A version of this article was first published by The Jewish Independenton 3 March 2024. Photographs by Giselle Haber.

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