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Escaping Death Through Art : Bill Salamon painted because he liked to draw. But it also kept the Nazis from killing him.

April 14, 1993|LYNDA NATALI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The details of the mural that helped save Bill Salamon's life escape him now.

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It took up one wall in the cafeteria where his Nazi captors would enjoy their meals. A picture of a German soldier sitting on a bench, his arm casually draped around a young girl's shoulder, he recalls. He was 16 when he painted it.

"I probably survived the concentration camp because I knew how to paint and draw," says Salamon. "In the winter of 1944 when prisoners went out to work in the field or to be tortured and came back with frostbite . . . I was in a room painting a mural."

Today, sitting in his Rossmoor home, surrounded by pictures he has painted, Salamon recalls the stories of his life. He tells of being a young boy in Hungary, how drawing was something that came naturally to him. About coming to Chicago in 1948 after being orphaned in the war--only to be drafted by the U.S. Army in 1950.

There is also the tale of falling in love with his wife, Carol, whom he met in 1956. And the story of being taken to the concentration camps in 1944. And how he painted to keep his Nazi guards from killing him.

In 1944, five years after the start of World War II, 21 members of Bill Salamon's family boarded a train for Auschwitz. Only four survived.

"I used to paint very sad paintings," says Salamon. "I have a pretty good life now. I have happier paintings now."

He was born in 1928 in Chust, a town in the Carpathian Mountains, the youngest of four children of Hajnal and Martin Salamon, a seamstress and a carpenter.

Growing up in the mountains of Hungary, he doesn't remember a time when he wasn't painting or drawing. Unlike most children who would spend their pennies on candy, Salamon would buy pencils and paper.

Life went on largely unchanged in the town of 24,000 until the war. His older brother and one sister had moved to other cities. Salamon was training to make his living as a furrier.

In March, 1944, a poster appeared in Chust telling all Jews that they had to meet in the town square in order to be taken away. They thought they were going to work on German farms.

After three days in a cattle car, Salamon stood in a line with his family as they were separated into those who would live and those who would not. A few cousins, grandparents and young children were immediately sent to the crematorium. Salamon, along with his father, mother and sister, Adlele, were spared.

From that day he began a terrifying odyssey that in a year took him to Auschwitz, Warsaw and Germany.

Though he starved for weeks at a time, was forced to walk in the freezing cold from one camp to another and almost died, Salamon said that after being in Auschwitz, nothing else was quite as horrific.

At Landsberg, Germany, he was ordered to paint Christmas gifts for the families of Nazi guards. Still a child himself, Salamon decorated mugs with holly and the names of the children of those who held him prisoner.

"In the daytime (the guards) did the torturing--it was their job. And at night they would sit around the fire and enjoy Christmas with their children. It was very ironic."

That winter, those running the camp had another project for him: Work alongside a German soldier to do the mural in the guards' cafeteria. Salamon said he doesn't recall how he was chosen for the indoor task. But, he says, prisoners didn't volunteer for anything.

During that winter, an epidemic of typhoid broke out and his father, who was in his early 40s, died.

Salamon was emaciated, infested with lice and weakened by typhoid. He had no idea if his sister and mother were alive. He was alone and wanted to die. There was no way to know the war would end in months.

In May, 1945, the German guards marched the Landsberg prisoners to the concentration camp at Dachau. A few days later, when the prisoners woke up after a night in a field, their guards were gone. Instead, German soldiers were waving white flags. The war had ended.

The day he was liberated, Salamon took his first bath in a year, ate his first piece of bread in weeks and slept in a haystack. He regained some strength and eventually went to a displaced-persons camp. On his way to the camp he found his sister, Adlele, in a crowded train station.

She recalls their first words. "He said to me, 'Where is mother?' and I said, 'Where is father?' He told me father had died. I said I didn't know where mother was."

But Adlele did know where her mother was. She died in the gas chamber in Auschwitz, but the young girl, just a year older than her brother, continued to look for her mother.

"After a while my brother and I went home (to Chust) and we waited for someone to come home and nobody did."

Later, in a relocation camp, the brother and sister slowly began to plan the rest of their lives. Adlele met her husband, Tibor, in the camp. Bill slowly got back to his drawing.

After immigrating to Chicago in 1949 he began taking art lessons at the Chicago Art Institute. However, less than a year later he was drafted.

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