A true story of endurance
The Persistence of Hope: An Artist's Wartime Journey, by Albert Alcalay, University of Delaware Press, 2007, 323 pgs. $55.
The painter Albert Alcalay, a Vineyard summer resident of more than 45 years, had a life full of challenge and danger before he came to the United States after World War II. He writes about it in his remarkable memoir, "The Persistence of Hope."
At the onset of World War II in 1941 in Belgrade (then in Yugoslavia), he is living with his parents, Samuel and Lepa, and his sister Buena. Once the Nazis take control, he and his immediate family, who are Jewish, escape rather than risk deportment to a concentration camp and almost certain death.
For the next five years, Mr. Alcalay wanders homeless through the strife-torn regions of Europe - most often with his family - and spends time in a Nazi prison and an Italian concentration camp.
Like "The Diary of Anne Frank," "The Persistence of Hope" describes the daily wartime experience of a Jewish family. The difference is that Mr. Alcalay writes as an adult - a student/soldier who has taken on the responsibility of keeping his parents, his sister, and himself safe while on the run from Nazi persecution.
Against enormous odds, the author succeeds, so his story has a happy ending unlike Anne Frank's. But along the way, the Alcalay family is subjected to exile, abuse, physical deprivation, discrimination, and confinement. "The Persistence of Hope" frequently reads like a thriller.
In the early chapters of the book, the author provides background on Yugoslavia that aids an American audience likely to be more familiar with the history of Western Europe than a nation artificially created after World War I and replaced today by six separate nations.
As a young architecture student at the University of Belgrade, Mr. Alcalay was working for a Zionist youth organization and dreamt of going to Palestine to help form a Jewish homeland. First comes military service, though, and once the Axis powers invade Yugoslavia, life as he has known it ends.
Many tests of courage and endurance follow. Mr. Alcalay becomes a prisoner of war. His SS guards beat him and, learning that he is an architecture and painting student, try to damage his eyesight. Unbroken, he goes to the head of the prison camp and asks to be sent home to Belgrade.
The general says, "Do not think that I like Jews. I only admired your desire to live and your civil courage," and agrees to release him. With a Red Cross armband to protect him from further harassment, Mr. Alcalay returns to Belgrade. Staying with relatives, he manufactures a job for himself marshalling the lines of Jewish workers looking for sick leave.
To keep from being discovered by the police, he refuses to wear the yellow armband that would identify him as a Jew. When Germans occupy his family's apartment, Mr. Alcalay watches as all of its contents are tossed into the street and hauled away.
Working with an organization in charge of Yugoslavia's Jewish communities, he decides to leave for Palestine. By sheer luck, he escapes a mass killing in retaliation for an anti-German bombing incident. With a forged passport, Mr. Alcalay heads to Italy, where anti-Semitism is less virulent.
"The Persistence of Hope" includes excerpts from the diary Mr. Alcalay's father kept, with its vivid descriptions of the family's troubles while separated from their son. Confined to a rat- and frog-infested camp in Italy, the senior Alcalay helps organize internees and improve sanitary conditions.
The author pays a brief visit to his parents before leaving for Switzerland and Lisbon on the way to Palestine. He manages to see the last Biennale art exhibit in Venice until the end of the war, and a brief interlude in Padua allows the young man to study art history and paint.
Realizing he must give up his dream of Palestine to care for his family, Mr. Alcalay ends up in Ferramonti, the Italian camp where the rest of the family is interned. There he is able to study under Michael Fingesten, a German Expressionist painter, once part of the Berlin Secessionist Movement. The reader quickly gains an appreciation of how wartime internees create a semblance of normal life under impossible circumstances.
By the end of 1942, the Alcalay family is granted confino libero, allowing them to leave the concentration camp, and eventually land in Pergola. Even so, they are treated as refugees and not allowed to mingle with Italians. Romance offers an interlude of happiness.
As the war progresses, the Allies invade Sicily and Mussolini falls from power, threatening the relative safety of the family. Once news comes that all Jews will be arrested, the Alcalays flee into the mountains, and the last 100 pages of "The Persistence of Hope" become the most dramatic. The family is chased from one hiding place to another, always dependent on the willingness of courageous villagers to hide them.
Alcalay develops a friendship with a Catholic priest, Don Domenico, who arrives on a motorcycle and engages him in religious debates. The author describes Don Domenico as "like a goggled flying Dutchman in a curiously futuristic movie."
When the war ends, the family nearly starves, and both Mr. Alcalay's mother and sister suffer serious health problems. Throughout these harrowing years, he continues studying and painting, selling his work when he can.
Six years after peace, he and his family begin a new life in the United States. The achievements of this remarkable man continue, with recognition as a painter and a teaching appointment at Harvard. His story reflects strength of character, courage, energy and optimism that demonstrate the value of immigrants to American culture. "The Persistence of Hope" includes black and white reproductions of drawings and paintings inspired by the experiences recounted, but they do not do justice to his brilliant work and the vivid colors he often uses.
Brooks Robards is a regular contributor to The Times.