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  • As I enter Ava Kadishon Schieber’s apartment, my eyes are immediately drawn to a painting of two bare feet caught midstride. They are glowing, luminous, but the sky behind them is inky and forbidding. The earth is divided into tiles which shift without apology, causing a great, ominous crack to form that yawns wide. Arising from this crevice, in stark contrast, is a fragile green plant. To me, this plant bodes hope.

    Like most people, Ava hangs her memories on her walls. Unlike most people, her memories are darkened by the years she survived in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia.

    She was fifteen when Germany invaded her country. Her family was Jewish. In an attempt to escape capture, they each went into hiding in a different location. Ava’s sister’s fiancé found a farm where Ava could hide by pretending to be a farm hand. She pretend to be deaf and mute, for to speak would reveal that she was educated. She remained hidden there for four years.

    Ava is small in stature but commanding in presence. She speaks slowly and thoughtfully, her accent affecting each word. Her hair is short and silvery grey, and surrounding her mouth is a series of quivering lines. But her speech is confident, and her sentences have a rhythm to them that is powerful and packed with emotion.

    She encourages me to walk around her home and study each of her paintings. Most are done in oil, but some are collaged from torn paper. Each one carries the same heavy emotion. The same sadness.

    I ask Ava if she still paints. She says no; it’s too tiring.

    “And whatever it was that I was trying to express, it seems that I got it all out."

    During her four years in hiding, Ava never stopped creating art.

    “During the war, my main drawings were really indulging me from the reality that surrounded,” she said.

    She would draw pictures of nature—of trees and birds; or she would paint the faces of her loved ones from memory. She knew that she could not write because it would reveal her identity.

    “Drawings, you know, can be interpreted. That would not have really been proof that I am a Jewish, hidden, youngster,” she said. “I didn’t write anything down because I really emulated a deaf-mute farm hand. Definitely illiterate, so I didn’t want to have any proof of who I was in case there might have been some searches in the area. I didn’t want to implicate the people who gave me shelter.”

    Many of the paintings she created during her time in hiding are now on display at the Holocaust Museum in Skokie. A portrait of her grandmother is at the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.

    Although she is a successful artist who has sold many paintings, she is not concerned with how her art is received. She believes art should be a pure expression of feeling, not intended to please anyone else.

    “I don’t intend to conduct a response. You see, creating is expressing what you feel. It’s irrelevant how the feedback is going to be. If we create with the expectation of a particular feedback, in my opinion, that would really hamper the freedom of expression. And the moment we put those stoppers, the dynamic is slowed down or altered in its direction. To express trauma or experience has to be completely free in order to reach some level of quality, of honesty. Otherwise it becomes just a product,” said Ava.

    As I walk through her home, I stop at a painting with streaks of brown, black, and ivory plummeting down the canvas. In the center, there are three well-defined faces, but throughout the painting, within the brush strokes, many more faces are hidden.

    “This is a portrait of my grandmother, mother, sister, and father,” she says, pointing to the faces. “This is my hand, just almost touching them.”

    Looking at the image, I can feel the despair she must have felt to have her loved ones slip away from her.

    “Isn’t it painful to look at these memories each day?” I ask her.

    “No. Not at all. This is who I am. It is not difficult to live, even with difficult memories,” she answers.

    When the war ended, she found that she and her mother were the only family members who survived. Together they moved to Israel. Ava had to provide for both of them; her mother never recovered mentally from the war. Ava took work as a set designer, costume designer, interior architect, and illustrator—anything that would provide her with an income.

    It was in Israel that she got married and had three children. She lived there for over 25 years. But when her husband died, she decided to explore other parts of the world.

    She began to exhibit paintings in the United States, first on the east coast, then in Chicago. She came to the city to sell her art, but she stayed for love.

    A man named Nathan Schieber bought two of her paintings without knowing her.

    “It was a great love affair at the onset of winter in both of our lives. We were two old soldiers who found each other after many battles,” said Ava.

    He was a WWII veteran and also Jewish. They bonded over their shared culture and wartime experiences.

    So Ava left her children, who were already grown up with lives of their own, and began a new life in a new country. She was not yet fluent in English, and already in her late fifties.

    Now Nathan has passed, and Ava lives alone. But she has found a home in the United States—a place where differences are celebrated.

    Ava explains her fondness for her adopted country, “The United States is a place of refugee. Everybody came from somewhere else 200 years ago or 300 years ago or yesterday. More than in some of the European countries, where a stranger will always remain a stranger. It’s a much freer place than many people realize.”
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