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Friday, October 9, 2015

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Anti-Semitism spurred math prof to paint

Tags: Arts
Harry Tiefenbach with his painting of Sara Ginaite-Rubinson

A conversation with an anti-Semitic man in Germany was the impetus behind Sisters in Resistance, a series of 13 paintings of World War II female resistance fighters by Toronto artist Harry Tiefenbach.

The child of Holocaust survivors, Tiefenbach, 67, said he began painting full time after a 26-year career as a math professor at Centennial College. “I had always wanted to be an artist, but my parents wanted me in a safe career. They thought artists were vulnerable.”

It was when he moved to Germany for two years with this wife and three children, where his wife was going to teach, that he went to art school and also befriended his mechanic, who “influenced” his career.

“I met this man in Heidelberg when he was servicing my old car, and we had lots of good conversations,” he said. “One day though, he warned me that the ‘Jews were going to rise up again.’ All of a sudden all my bottled up feelings came out. I didn’t interrupt him, because I needed to understand what my parents had gone through.

“I didn’t tell him I was Jewish, and I never saw him again, but it was an important event. Thirty years later, I still think about it often. Maybe I should have said something.”

That man is the reason Tiefenbach paints female resistance fighters, he said. “He was influenced by his heritage, and I have to counter that by being influenced by mine.”

He created the series of paintings, done in oil on canvas, from photographs, he said. “I usually knew about the woman I was painting, but I saw one image of a rather intense looking woman who I could find nothing about.”

He contacted Ellie Gotz, part of the Sarah and Chaim Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre’s Holocaust survivors speakers’ bureau, who sent him the information that he wanted, but also added in a photo of another woman,  Sara Ginaite-Rubinson, taken in 1944.

Tiefenbach had already found her picture on the Yad Vashem website, and had made plans to paint her.

“Was it a coincidence that Ellie sent me her picture?” Tiefenbach asked. “Am I reading something into it? I am a math professor, so I do have a rational side, but this was confirmation to me that I should be [painting] these images.”

Ginaite-Rubinson, now 91, is a teenager in the picture, holding a rifle. “It is a very powerful image to me. She is a seductive young woman but [the rifle tells another side of the story.] She is in the prime of her life, but she arms herself and protects her values,” he said, explaining that his notion of heroism comes from that picture. “It is when ordinary people step up in extraordinary circumstances. It fills my heart to know that Sara did what she had to do.”

When Tiefenbach first met Ginaite-Rubinson, she told him to not call her a hero. 

“She doesn’t exalt herself. She did what she had to do. More of us should do that,” he said. “If she, or people like her, hadn’t stepped up, the world [could] be different.”

Ginaite-Rubinson stayed in Lithuania after the war and became a professor of economics. She moved to Canada in 1983 and joined York University as an adjunct professor.

An exhibit of the paintings was held in March at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, “and when Sara spoke at the opening, you could hear the people listening. They were so moved, there wasn’t a sound,” said Tiefenbach.

Ginaite-Rubinson will be the guest speaker at a meeting presented by the National Council of Jewish Women of Canada, Toronto Section. It takes place on Sept. 8 at 8 p.m. at the Council House, 4700 Bathurst St. 

Tiefenbach’s series, Sisters in Resistance, will be on display at the Council House from Sept. 8 until Sept. 11. There is no charge for the event. Call 416-633-5100 or email

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