Childhood and Youth
Herman Wald was born on the 7th July 1906 in the city of Cluj, presently named Cluj-Napoca, at the time also known as Kolozsvàr, Klausenburg or in Yiddish: Kloiznburg, where he was raised in the centre of the Jewish quarter. Nestling within the Carpathian mountains, the city was the cultural, industrial and political centre of Transylvania and in 1940 became part of Romania.
He was one of eight children of Rabbi Jacob Meir Wald (1866-1928),[i] a descendant of a prominent Hungarian rabbinical family extending back seven generations. Rabbi Wald was renowned for the erudition of his sermons. He served as a dayan (judge), and in his later years, as rosh beth din (head of the rabbinical court). Herman’s mother Pearl was the daughter of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Glasner (1856-1924) who from 1877 to 1923 served as the chief orthodox Rabbi of Cluj. [ii]
At the time of Herman Wald’s birth the Jewish community of Cluj, which from the beginning of the 16th century had faced official repression and antisemitic attacks[iii] had become astonishingly diversified. Whoever regards the Jews as a homogenous people will find the antithesis among the community of Cluj at the beginning of the 20th century. There was the Reform movement, otherwise known as the Neologists[iv], engaged in many clashes with the Orthodox and the Zionists. Their magnificent synagogue in Horea street with its prominent onion domes has remained active to the present day. The Sephardic[v] congregation, known as the Nusach Sefarad, the melodies of its Torah liturgy combining Sephardic and Ashkenazic[vi] music, belonged to the Hasidic movement[vii]. Their men were distinguishable by beards and peyots (side-locks), rezhvolkes (overcoats), halbe-hoyzn (knee breeches), shtreimls (fur hats), stockings and slip-on shoes (because on Shabbat it is forbidden to fasten shoelaces).
A further grouping consisted of a liberal middle class of Jewish intelligentsia[viii]. They adopted the name “Congressionals”.[ix] Then there were the ultra-orthodox Satmars from Poland, who spoke exclusively Yiddish, using the holy language of Hebrew only in prayer. They were anti-Zionist, believing that a Jewish state could only be established with the coming of the Messiah. Jewish labourers were dressed in plain working clothes and small-brimmed caps or yarmulkes (skull-caps). The rabbis and community leaders wore long black caftans, wide-brimmed hats and in winter a peltz (a fur-lined overcoat).[x] In 1922 a second orthodox Synagogue was erected in Cluj. Known as the Shas-Chevra Temple, it was situated four houses away from the home of the Wald family who lived in Mikes Kelemen street.[xi]
The Jewish community of Cluj was furthermore divided between the wealthy and the poor. The affluent section was said to have sparkled with blazing neon lights whilst the peripheral streets were lined with “decaying houses”.[xii] The prominent Hungarian Jewish author, poet and journalist Istvan Barzilay (1906-1981) described the Jewish world of Cluj as “crazy complicated” and “complex”, but united by a bond of deep solidarity, immortalized by Klezmer music, poetry folklore and Talmudic scholarship.[xiii]
Herman Wald, who grew up in this ambience, eternalised the diverse Jewish prototype. In an early works he eternalizes one of the street scenes which he witnessed as a boy, depicting an impassioned debate between three Jews who are so utterly engrossed in the realm of theological speculation that they remain oblivious of their surroundings. They are united in their quest to establish the incontrovertible truth through rigorous argument and counter-argument. A shared current of thought – and reaction to that thought – flows through them, triggering off their physical and mental responses, not to each other, but to the pure, disembodied idea. The figures wear flowing robes and radiate unworldliness and intense spiritual elevation.[xiv] Herman Wald remembered these characters in a time when Eastern European Jewry stood on the borderline between traditional life and its complete obliteration.
RELIGIOUS DISCUSSION (1931)
(Also entitled: Talmudic Dispute)
Bronze. 42 x26 x 34 c,
(A bronze cast was made in South Africa
For the Yiddish scholar Leibl Feldman.)
Meanwhile an abyss began to divide the older and the younger generation of the Jews of Cluj. The younger generation accused their elders of failure to recognise the jeopardy in which the European Jews were living,[xv] and were charged with “dreaming and speculating about the future whilst waiting for the Messiah”.[xvi] This feeling was captured in the following two poems by Hubert Adler, a contemporary of Herman Wald:
“We are wrinkling.
Sometimes nothing comes to the
trouble in the house,
and as wrinkle ruffles
that’s how faith in having to wait for the Messiah
diminishes from inside of us.”[xvii]
This pessimism is also expressed in the following poem by Hubert Adler:
“Lo, days pass, years go by
life ploughs grooves on the face –
and, like music flowing from a flute,
shivers the soul full of complaint
like the tufted sky on a summer night,
the yellow stained galut[xviii]existence
lashes tears on your eye,
there is no road here anywhere,
there is no road here anywhere.”[xix]
The community elders felt remorseful about this situation and in an attempt to bridge the generation gap they established the “Jewish Student Support” by collecting funds to enable the youth to pursue their studies.
But apart from this underlying sense of foreboding the Jews of Cluj enjoyed a vibrant cultural life. Besides the city opera, there was the theatre which often ran under Jewish directors. A Yiddish theatre was founded after World War I[xx] and a number of Jewish newspapers provided current intellectual stimulation.[xxi] Thus the cultural climate of Herman Wald’s childhood and youth was constantly oscillating between tradition and modernity.
Herman Wald had a deep relationship with his mother, Pearl. In his own words his memory
“…crystallized into a concept of wholeness between the process of seeing my mother cooking, sewing, working and feeding a family of ten, week in week out…”[xxii]
Herman was a precocious child, intensely musical and creative on the one side, impulsive and impetuous on the other. His young life unfolded within the religious rituals of his home. He liked to sneak a sip of kiddush wine before passing on the bottle to his father for the recital of the blessings.[xxiii] He cherished his environment of learning, but felt very different from his brothers and sisters because of their incompatibility. One day he ran away from home only to be discovered and safely returned to his family.[xxiv]
His father, the Rabbi, was astonishingly open-minded. Despite the fact that the orthodox community had a well-established religious school for boys, he allowed Herman to attend the local state school and to receive a secular education which endowed him with a love of the Hungarian language, literature and poetry. Three decades later, after the terrible events in Europe and after settling in South Africa, when he held an acclaimed solo exhibition of sculptures in New York, the school principal of this state school, Úr Erdelyi, still remembered him. With a touching national pride the former teacher reported about Herman Wald in an American-Hungarian newspaper: “He is a student of Hungarian schools, Hungarian artists inspired him, (…) he works as a Hungarian artist, and he has brought glory to the Hungarian nation” [i.e. with his sculpture].[xxv]
Herman had a magnificent baritone voice, which he exercised enthusiastically during Jewish festivals. His father had him trained in choral singing in order to develop his voice as a cantor[xxvi]. However, his noncompliant son was also attracted to secular songs and his passion for what his father regarded as profane music was so powerful that he once sold his carving tools to buy a ticket to an opera performance.[xxvii]
But above all he yearned to become a sculptor. Growing up within the soaring silhouettes of the Carpathian mountains, their contours of light and shadow interacting with the sunrise and sunset, inspired him to carve and to shape.
“My first serious attempt at modelling started with an indescribable urge. I felt as if I were loaded with rocks to be blasted by the fuse of an inner detonation of the spirit.”[xxviii]
His rabbinical father, however, felt that he would contravene the decree of the second commandment and could not give his consent to his son’s urge. Then Herman presented him with a portrait head of Theodore Herzl, which he had shaped clandestinely in his mother’s pantry. This sculpture made such a powerful impression on the Rabbi that the conflict was resolved and allowed Herman was finally permitted to follow his vocation. The close bond between father and son would later find expression in Herman Wald’s figures of Biblical fathers and sons.
[i] For information about Rabbi Jacob Meir, his wife, Pearl (Herman Wald’s parents), his wider family and the Jewish community in Cluj during the first half of the 20th century I am indebted to Ossi Horovitz, President of the Hebrew congregation of Cluj-Napoca; conveyed by e-mail dated 27 April 2011.
[ii] Shmuel Glasner established the Mizrachi movement in Cluj and was the author of the book “Zionism and its Subsidiary Phenomena within Religion”, (1920). Deduced from a letter by Herman Wald to the Director of Yad Vashem dated 30 August 1962. Copy in the family archive collection of Louis Wald.
[iii] Attila, Guidó. The Jewish Face of Cluj-Kolozvár. (2011).
[iv] This movement, which at times was divided even from within was led by Rabbi Dr Matitiahu Eisler (1865-1930).
[v] An ethnic division of Jews originally from Sepharad, Spain.
[vi] The Ashkenazim are the second great ethnic division comprising the Eastern European Yiddish speaking Jews. The Nusach Sepharad congregation in Cluj had erected its own house of worship in Malom Street in 1875 under the name of Beth Avrohom.
[vii] Hasidism, a Jewish religious group which arose as a spiritual revival movement during the 18th century teaching God’s immanence in the universe. Marc Chagall belonged this movement.
[viii] Established in 1881.
[ix] They built their synagogue in 1887 in today’s Hosea Street.
[x] Rabbi Berel Wein. Jerusalem Post. Friday, 21.1.2005.
[xi] In 1923 Mikes Keleman street became Tudor Vladimirescu street and as such appeared as Herman Wald’s home address on his registration certificate at the Academy of Art in Budapest. After 1945 it received its present name: Croitorilor street. Kindly conveyed by Ossi Horovitz, op.cit. The home of the Wald family was two houses away from the Jewish hospital.
[xii] Barzilay, Istvan. Street 92. Sociological Report: Jozef Hamburg. Kelet és Nyugat Kӧzӧtt (“Between East and West”) 1937, p.21.
[xiii] Hamburg, Jozsef. Ibid. , Preface p. 1.
[xiv] I am indebted to Lloyd Pollack for the in-depth interpretation of this sculpture.
[xv] Barzilay, Istvan. Street 92. Ibid.
[xvii] Poems from Exile. Translated from the Hungarian by Katalin Pankotay. Barzilay, 1937, p. 14.
[xix] Ibid, p. 15.
[xx] Under the directorship of Solomon Stramer.
[xxi] Newspapers such as Al-Hamishmar (1928/9) and Hashomer Hatzair (1935) reinforced the intellectual momentum of the Jewish community. The Zionist newspaper Úk Kelet (Hungarian for “New East”) was established in Cluj under the editorship of Istvan Barzilay.
[xxii] Herman Wald. Lecture in typescript entitled “The Bible in Sculpture” (1959) p.4. Archive collection of Louis Wald. All documents of this archive collection can be found under www.hermanwald.com. For this document see under: Writings.
[xxiii] Joseph Sacks. Jewish Affairs, April 1947, p.22.
[xxv] Erdelyi: Amerikai Magyar Nepszava. (Amercian Peoples Hungarian Newspaper). Undated English translation of the newspaper article, in typescript. It must have appeared shortly after the 7th Sept. 1952. Personal archive files of Louis Wald.
[xxvi] Edgar Bernstein. The Art of Herman Wald. Jewish Guild New Year Annual 19 (105), 1951
[xxviii] Joseph Sachs,. Herman Wald, Jewish Affairs 2 (4) 1947: 22/23.