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The South African years: part 2

The Outbreak of World War II

Just when Herman Wald began to find his artistic roots in South Africa, the Second World War  broke out.  It ushered  in  the darkest hours of European Jewry.  Shocking reports about the deportations and massacres of Jews[i] reached South Africa and with these came the realisation that a genocide was unfolding.  Anxiety about loved-ones abroad and a sense of helplessness shook the Jewish community. Herman Wald experienced an emotional turmoil that affected his creative work.


The South African Zionist Federation[ii] organised a United South African Jewish War Appeal to raise funds  for  Jewish refugees who tried to flee the Nazi genocide. Wald had just completed a sculpture  entitled  “The Refugee”,  [iii] which he donated to the Appeal.   The  South African  Jewish Board of Deputies was urged in an open letter[iv]to initiate  a drive for recruits to join the South African Defence Force in the war against Hitler’s Germany[v].  Herman  Wald left his studio and had joined up with many others.  He was first assigned to the Medical Corps and then transferred to the Engineers Camouflage Unit, in which he held the rank of sergeant. But he was not  sent to battle.


During this time he  recorded his reminiscences of his formative years in Europe in notes entitled “Carved Thoughts”.  He also composed a collection of aphorisms which he would later enhance with photographs of his sculptures.[vi] In the  army he created  portraits of his superiors. He was commissioned to carry out a group of sixteen figures   entitled “Engineers laying the Nose of a Bridge”[vii], which he executed  in the social realist style.[viii]

One day on his army leave when he visited his brother in East London,  he  met and fell in love with  Vera Rosenbaum. They were married on the 12th November 1942. In Vera he found an anchor and emotional haven during a time of unspeakable disaster, the time  in which the Jews of Europe were relentlessly slaughtered. He was not  yet fully aware of what was happening, but was gripped with a constant sense of foreboding. The marriage was a  happy  union filled with a profound spiritual understanding.  The cultured Vera  admired Wald’s spontaneity, his musicality, his exquisite  voice, his art and   intellect. She collected all his writings and diligently dated his work.  They had three children, Michael Jeffrey,[ix] Pamela[x] and Louis[xi].  He called her “the love of my  life”,   his “joy and inspiration” and he  respected her opinions  about his art. In his letters he called her “my darling Veriky”.  After his untimely death she worked tirelessly to keep his memory alive.  

Discharged from the army in 1944, he returned to Johannesburg and to Vera, starting to work in a studio in Parktown North, as she recalls  “at a pace and with a fever pitch of a man famished for his vocation.”[xii] This “fever pitch”, however, also was a symptom of his psychological state. News was seeping in about the Holocaust in Europe. How would he be able to deal with this as an artist who must draw inspiration from his inner being?

Outwardly Herman Wald resumed his life and  his artistic career. After his discharge  he opened a studio in 44 Pritchard Street, Johannesburg, where he established the Beaux Arts Gallery, the venue of several prominent solo exhibitions.

As a result of his five  years of  absence in active service Herman Wald was almost forgotten by  the wider public. On the other hand, his Jewish supporters, writing for the Jewish press  regarded him  as “one of the best sculptors we have in South Africa today” [xiii].  

In this crucial year of 1944, he launched himself into the public. He participated in a group exhibition that included  the sculptors Lippy Lipshitz, Moses Kottler, and Gerard de Leeuw,   held under the auspices of the South African Academy of Science and Art. Wald exhibited  forty sculptures, which he had created prior to his days in the army, and he  managed to sell  nineteen works.[xiv]

It is surprising  that  no closer relationship developed between Kottler, Lipshitz and Wald, who had so much in common, given their background and world view and the catastrophe that befell  their families and co-religionists in Europe.  Kottler and Wald at a later stage even lived in adjacent suburbs in Johannesburg, Parkview and Parktown North[xv] but  had no contact with each other.

In the same year, 1944,  he held a most successful  solo exhibition, which was opened by Barnett Potter, sub-editor of The Star.  According to Vera this exhibition was  a “truly great success and established Herman’s name among the first ranking artists in South Africa.”[xvi] He showed thirty-seven sculptures of which he  sold twenty.  

This great success boosted Herman Wald emotionally and financially. He became a founder member of the Brush and Chisel Club[xvii] which was a society of professional South African painters and sculptors. They exhibited regularly at the Schweickerdt Art Gallery in Pretoria.



The Impact  of the Holocaust on the art of Herman Wald

During this time Wald lived in in two different realities. When the war was over, life in South Africa seemed to carry on normally, but  only on  the surface.  For the South African Jews it  was impossible to grasp and to handle the enormity of what had happened to their families and friends  in Europe.[xviii]  The news  had unfolded in stages, even during the time when  Herman Wald was in the army.

In 1943 the news of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising had reached South Africa. A day of mourning was held on the 7th December, strongly supported by Christian denominations. The gatherings  were dominated by discussions about how to rescue the Jews of Europe. By mid-1944 South Africa and the world had heard of the horrors of Auschwitz.  This was the year in which Wald had tried to launch himself as an artist into the South African art scene.

Then there was the country of his birth, Hungary. The Holocaust did not reach Hungary until almost the end of World War II, when it was clear that Germany would lose the war. This was one of the most disgraceful chapters in the history of the Holocaust, in which the Hungarian state as well as the Allies are  shamefully implicated by doing nothing to prevent this catastrophe, as they meanwhile were fully aware of the genocide that was taking place in Auschwitz. Although the Jews of Hungary had been continuously harassed by the gendarmerie of the Horthy regime, they believed that somehow they would be spared the gas chambers. Yet their destruction in Auschwitz right at the end of the war had been meticulously planned[xix] by the notorious Sonderkommando, the special mobile units headed by Adolf Eichmann.

At the end of 1944, the first survivors of the Holocaust arrived in South Africa and related the horrifying fate that had befallen the Jews of Europe[xx]. The reaction was a terrible silence, an inability to articulate the horror  and disbelief which the news had evoked within the Jewish community. A second day of mourning was held throughout South Africa on the 14th March 1945.

 Herman Wald wrote:

“…After the war, in 1946, as soon as I was demobilised I had found out for certain that, like so many others, almost my entire family had been wiped out…[xxi]  

Among those who perished was his mother, Pearl. Herman Wald was  too shattered to continue working in his previous style.  In his grief he expressed himself through work his genre sculptures,[xxii] which can be seen as  manifestations of his reminiscences of his childhood in Cluj. They  reveal the very essence of his  being.



Rabbi, Shamash and Gabba.jpg


Clay. 44 x  32 x 19 cm

This trio of a Hassidic  Rabbi and his  assistants who  ran the synagogue service,  in his memory still slightly tipsy from the ceremonial wine, are  clad in  torn and ragged garments which reveal their poverty.  Although nominally the scene is set in the aftermath of some religious ceremony, the wine does not appear to have brought much solace to the celebrants. The exhilaration and excitement that leavened Talmudic Dispute cedes to a downbeat mood of deflation.  

31 years separate the two sculptures.  Gone is the energy, confidence and vigour that animated the three scholars in Talmudic Dispute. Exhaustion and unease are clearly apparent in the desperation with which the three figures cling together for mutual comfort, reassurance and support while his face is turned upwards.

The apparel of the men is gnarled, pitted and scored with a rough asperity.  The deep corrugations, rugged creases and jagged, craggy and abrasive surface become Wald’s  means of exteriorizing an inner trauma.

Does their faith falter? The Rabbi’s exaggeratedly large hands protectively embrace his fellows’ shoulders and urge them to nestle their heads on his chest. 

Chassidic Dance.jpg


Clay. 41 x 41 x 40 cm

Within the Hasidic tradition, music and dance were always deemed to be valid forms of worship. One prime goal of Hasidic teaching was for the faithful to attain states of ecstasy, rapture and joy, and dance was encouraged as a highly effective method of achieving such bliss. Not only did dance purify and uplift the soul, it also  strengthened the bonds among the  community.  

By far the most popular and prevalent dance was the round dance. The participants would form a circle and place their hands on each other’s shoulders before they started to move  in one unbroken line.

Although Herman Wald began working on this group immediately after the Holocaust he only brought it to completion in 1951, and it may well have had a cathartic effect upon him after he had sustained so many grievous losses.  No doubt he intended the sculpture to celebrate the existence of the survivors who would restore some element of continuity to the shattered fabric of Jewry and ensure the continued existence of the Jewish people. This  dance precludes all merriment and gaiety. After the great catastrophe it is a muted, solemn, ceremonial act of  remembrance.  It is the gaunt and weathered male elders of the community who are to perform the dance. They stand at attention, fixed, rigid and alert as they await the musical cue that will enjoin them to commence the dance. Time comes to a halt as they hearken to the celestial melodies to which their limbs will soon respond. The spirit of the dance is most meaningfully encapsulated in the  sturdy central figure with the mane of hair and flowing beard who seems to embody the resilience and strength of the Jewish people displayed in the face of their annihilation.  Unlike his companions who look outward, or at each other, his gaze is firmly fixed on the beyond as if imploring God to infuse the dance with the divine spirit. His comrade to the right reaches out towards the spectators, summonsing us to grasp his hand, bidding us to complete the circle, reaching out across the passage of the years and proposing that we step back in time to become an intrinsic part of the sculpture and participate in the dance.

Pinch of Snuff.jpg

A PINCH OF SNUFF  (Shmektabak). 1960

Clay. 39 x 22 x 14 cm.

During Herman Wald’s youth snuff-taking was a common practice amidst Eastern European Jews  and no religious law regulated the practice.  It could be casually sniffed anywhere and at any time, as the two old men in this  sculpture demonstrate. An air of defeat, demoralization and attrition clings to Wald’s sculptures of old world Jewry executed in the wake of the Holocaust.  Does he shuffle time and history and make the Jews of his youth, victims of atrocities that were only subsequently visited upon them or their descendants? It is the awareness of this that unites the two snuff-takers in such touchingly warm, fraternal amity.  The man to the right impresses us as strong and vigorous. By  contrast his slump-shouldered friend with bent head seems to droop with weakness as if his body were no longer capable of supporting its own weight, so that he leans against his neighbour to hold himself up.

He appears fully aware that all snuff can provide his ailing friend with is a momentary respite. Herman Wald worked for ten years on this little sculpture. He endowed it with a memory of a typical scene from his childhood in Cluj with the pathos, emotional intensity and profound sense of human suffering that are the hallmark of this  group of sculptures that form a  lament for all that he had lost.


TEVYA. 1962

Clay. 48 x 24 x 17 cm

Sholom Aleichem (1859-1916) was the sobriquet of the most popular, prestigious and beloved of Yiddish writers, Solomon Naumovich Rabinovitch. His stories elevated Yiddish into an eloquent vehicle for literary expression.


His masterpiece was Tevye the Dairyman (1894), a medley of highly amusing yet deeply inspirational short stories about turn of the 19th century Jewish life in his natal village of Boyberik, modelled on the town of Byarka in the Ukraine which in the theatrical adaptation “Fiddler on the Roof” became Anatevka, a prototype of  small, isolated villages and towns of Eastern Europe.   Tevye, the central character of Aleichem’s narrative cycle established himself as the most famous character in all Jewish fiction. His compassion, gruff, salty wit and irrepressible vitality and optimism are irresistibly endearing. In “Fiddler on the Roof” Tevye is presented as a typical  shtetl Jew steeped in the Torah who struggles to bring his recalcitrant daughters up in the time-honoured, traditional Jewish way.


Tevye spends much time addressing himself to God in lengthy conversations  on a strangely casual and intimate basis. He does not hesitate to call God to account, and reproaches him for heaping so many undeserved sufferings upon him. He also interrogates God as to why he has heaped such tribulations upon the Jews.  


Tevye, an archetype embodying the very essence of the Eastern European Jew, was an obvious candidate for representation in Herman Wald’s repertoire of old-world Jewish set-pieces.  He portrays Tevye in a mood of tempestuous anger and fierce accusation as he wildly protests against God’s merciless ill-treatment.  But despite his anger, faith  prevails. 


To avoid all distracting complications, Wald abridges the horse cart and omits the horse. The abbreviated carriage and seat becomes a mere shorthand for their real equivalent, and instead they are used as a means of  elevating Tevye, both physically and spiritually, so that he loses his purely subaltern theological status and enjoys a great degree of equality with God.


Tevye’s intemperate fit of anger against his creator is such that he no longer sits, but is caught in the midst of rising from his seat and shaking his clenched fist at his maker,  but – for better or worse – God remains far beyond his reach.


The sculpture cuts across religious affiliations to strike a universal chord  It concerns God’s omnipotence and his inaction in the face of the most terrible iniquities.


Musicians 2, The.jpg

MUSICIANS  2. 1963

Clay. 32 x 13 x 13 cm 

These three figures are built up in roughly hewn contours. The cellist in the centre is flanked by two musicians whose instruments are invisible. They form a Klezmer band, the name derived  from the Hebrew combination of  klei (vessel)  and zemer (song)  which became the term describing  the professional Jewish folk musicians of Eastern Europe. Klezmer instruments were easy to carry from place to place to be played at weddings and Jewish festivals. The  Klezmer music is characterized by  sudden changes of mood within one musical piece to which  the energy of this music can be ascribed.  Herman Wald’s three musicians bob up and down to the melodic  rhythm of their music,  their facial expressions surrendered to the tune. The  dreamlike aura exuded by these three figures conjures up the spirit of a past which has forever disappeared.

These genre sculptures stand outside the periphery of his official sculptures. However, the previous vitalism which had been inspired by  Jacob Epstein had mutated into a motionless angularity,  alternating with thin-lined  drawings in space. With this newly found meandering  linearity  he grappled with the shadows of the  abysmal tragedy.  Wald also  began working  from Jewish sources, myths and narratives which deal with the shadow lurking within the human  soul.  Unable to  give direct expression to the dark powers of hatred and destruction, he sought analogies in the Hebrew Bible, as evident in his sculpture of  “Cain”, “Job” and “Lot’s Wife”.


CAIN. 1946

Bronze. 42 x 47 x 27 cm                          

Cat. [Work ID 127]

(See description in  Part II, Fig. 4)

Job 1.jpg

JOB 1. 1950

Clay. 54 x 32 x 26 cm

Photo: [Work ID 129]

(Description in  Part II, fig. 11)

Lot's Wife.jpg

LOT’S WIFE. 1954

Clay. 70 x 47 x 26 cm    

Photo: [Work ID 145]

(See  Part II, fig. 19)

The Jewish custom of mourning was expressed in the over-life sized  figure entitled “Kria” .

NEW Kria_RGB.jpg

KRIA. 1946.  

Bronze. 276 x 20 x 63cm

Photo: cat. [Work ID 218]

(See description in Part II, fig. 7)

The wooden sculpture  “The Martyrs” has  a direct reference to the conflagration.  

Martyrs, The.jpg


Shamfuti wood. 120 x 35 x 6 cm

Photo: Cat. [Work ID 154]

(Described in  Part II, fig. 10)

In the following two sculptures, “The Prodigal Son” and “Returning to Mother’s womb”, Herman Wald reveals his psychic wounds and  the searing guilt he experienced as a survivor.

Prodigal Son.jpg


Clay. 45 x 45 x 13 cm

Photo: Cat. [Work ID  232]

(See Part II fig. 30)

Returning to Mother's Womb.jpg


Clay. 42 x 48 x 20 cm

Photo: Cat. [Work ID 244]

(See Part II, fig. 30)

These works clearly did not resonate with members of the  South African public.  For the man in the street, life simply continued. The country  was heading towards its own political decline and then into the abyss of the Apartheid years.

Herman Wald’s creativity suffered.  Even the highly respected art historian Joseph Sachs was worried about direction that the  creativity of Herman Wald  was taking. He  wrote  about his large-scale works such as “Kriah”:

“…His sculpture suffers from an excess of didactic zeal. His creations are largely conceptual; they are sermons in stone on the grandiose theme he wishes to preach. As works of art they lag behind the noble flights of their moral intent. They embody tremendous tension suspended in the air, their responding rhythms being left to the beholder who supplies a moral rather than an aesthetic response.”[xxiii]


With regard to Wald’s works on a smaller scale, however, Sachs presented  a positive evaluation. He deemed them “free from apostolic fervour and prophetic ire. It is by concentrating on the plastic character of his sculpture that he will achieve the calm and clarity which results from perfect control by virtue of which the moral grandeur is matched by the aesthetic grandeur of form.”[xxiv]

Herman Wald realized that he needed to regain his artistic equilibrium. So he planned to undertake a trip abroad.  In order to finance this undertaking he held a solo exhibition in 1952 at the Beaux Arts Gallery, but this too  reflected his artistic  uncertainty.  He  showed  stylized ceramic pieces, African themes and works of literary inspiration,  such as “Leda and the Swan” and “Tartuffe”.  They did not appeal to the  public and of the forty-nine works on show,  he only sold fourteen.[xxv] This would barely  cover the expenses  of the trip and he had to leave Vera and the children behind in financial distress. She bore this without complaint. His  painful farewell from her was expressed in his sculpture  “The Parting”.

Parting, The (bronze).jpg


Bronze. 52 x 30 x 24 cm            

Photo: Cat. [Work ID 239]

(Description in  Part II, fig. 14)



[i] For a detailed study of the reports about the Holocaust in the South African Jewish Press see:  Michael Anthony Green. South African Jewish Responses to the Holocaust. M.A. Thesis, University of South Africa, Pretoria,  March, 1987.

[ii] Under the auspices of the Jewish Board of Deputies, acting through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. See also: Edgar Bernstein, 1962, p 122.

[iii] Cat. [Work ID 247]

[iv] By Lionel Phillips in 1942.

[v] Michael Anthony Green. Op.cit.  p. 39.

[vi] See: Writings.

[vii] op.cit. Catalogue: Work ID 84.

[viii] In the collection of the Ditsong National Museum of Military History,  Saxonwold, Johannesburg.

[ix] Born on the 25th July 1945.

[x] Born on the 17th January 1947.

[xi] born on the 27th May 1958.

[xii] Vera Wald, biographical notes, op.cit.

[xiii] Kriel, J.J. Herman Wald shuns the Limelight. The Women’s Auxiliary. Sept. 1946:84.

[xiv] List of sculptures, exhibitions and sales drawn up by Herman Wald. Undated fragment in the collection of  Louis Wald, op.cit.

[xv] Ute Ben Yosef  in:Jewish Affairs 67 (1), 2012 p 24.

[xvi] Vera Wald, Biographical Notes, op.cit.

[xvii] In 1947.

[xviii] Michael Anthony Green.  1987,S.A. Jewish chronicle 24. 12. 1942 p. 839.  Jewish Affairs 3 (7) Dec. 1943.

[xix] Rudolf Vrba. Preparations for the Holocaust in Hungary. In: Braham and Miller (ed.) 1998 p.68 ff.

[xx] Green,  op.cit. p. 102

[xxi] Herman Wald. Undated document, op cit.

[xxii] The author is indebted to Lloyd Pollack for enriching the descriptions of these genre statues with his insightful contributions.

[xxiii] Joseph Sachs. Jewish Affairs op.cit. 2 (4) 1947:25.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] List of exhibitions and sales, op.cit.  During  this exhibition a bronze entitled “Picadilly Corner” was stolen

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