Orphaned by the Holocaust, painter Marianne R. Klein feeds her soul with the imagination that helped her survive

By Kathy Leonardo

In “Mikado” (pictured) and other paintings, Marianne R. Klein creates joyful scenes with vibrant colors that speak to a heightened sense of emotion

Marianne R. Klein paints images that are full of life. In “Honeymoon,” a sunburst-yellow bride and blue-green groom embrace on a balcony overlooking a swirl of fall colors. In “Forest Fairy,” a translucent feminine figure is haloed by a golden moon that showers metallic flakes of magic onto her fingers and hair. In “Mikado,” three wispy blondes dance in a swirl of red, yellow and blue — a crimson-haired figure embracing them from behind like a mother would her daughters.

Such vivid, joyful scenes of vibrant color speak to a heightened sense of human emotion that Klein inherited as a survivor of the Holocaust. A native of Budapest, she was 12 when her mother’s death and father’s removal to Bergen-Belsen left her an orphan. At 13 she feigned death to escape a shower of Nazi bullets fired upon refugees in a safe house where she took shelter — one of the horrors she recounts in her 2011 memoir, “All the Pretty Shoes.”

After fleeing to recently liberated Paris and then Canada, Klein made her way to Santa Monica in the late 1970s and has lived here ever since. This week she exhibits some of her paintings as part of the group show “Female Figure” at Beyond the Lines Gallery in Bergamot Station. She recently spoke to The Argonaut about her personal journey and empathy for current refugees finding America’s doors closed to them.

When did you start painting?

Although I was always drawn to art being that my mother was artistic, due to war and the fact that I was orphaned from age 12, I was deprived of things like food or paper and pencil. It wasn’t until I immigrated to Canada in my twenties that I was able to develop my love for shapes and colors.

Is that when you started creating?

I started drawing and sketching Mickey Mouse and Disney characters out of boredom at work and learned that I loved creating forms and figures. … In [art] school I learned the techniques of creating shapes combined with colors and fell in love with the concept of creativity. To be able to give birth to a character that did not exist before I put my brush on the canvas was exciting, and it gave me instant gratification. Then to add colors to shapes completed the magic of creativity.

Did you always paint with such vibrant colors and happy overtones?

I always used vibrant colors because, to me, colors and shapes are interrelated.
One compliments the other. Painting is a creative process that has to come from within the person. I paint from my soul.

Was there someone who inspired you to be creative?

My mother. The only influence my father was able to give me was love. The only influence I got from my grandfather came from a painting he had hanging on the wall. It was a painting that depicted a “wealthy family picnicking in the park with their happy children playing racket ball around them.” Since we were very poor and I was orphaned, I envied that family and wanted to jump into that painting to be a part of their lives. That is how I discovered that I can create my own “fictional family” by painting and writing. I could give them shape, character and any colors I wanted, and they were mine. They belonged to me! This way I no longer felt alone.

How did you get over the trauma that you experienced as a child?

Having been deprived of a normal life, I had to learn to depend entirely on my ability to use my imagination. Whenever things became intolerable — such as the massacres I witnessed on occasion, or when I was terrified of the enemy approaching — I always escaped from reality by using my imagination. In my mind I traveled into the past, when I was loved and cared for by my parents. In fact, it was — and still is — my parents’ love that guided me throughout my life.

Today, there is not a moment that I don’t think of the millions of immigrants and orphans who are homeless, without food, without love, wandering from country to country without knowing how they are going to survive.  I pray that someday soon humanity will come to understand and accept solidarity, and instead of killing and prejudice they will distribute kindness and love.

How do you think we, as a society, can help these refugee children?

It is important to recognize that all men are created equal regardless of color and beliefs. We have the power to make this a better world if we all reached out and helped one another. It is ironic that during World War II it was Germany who was the evil force, and today Germany is kind to immigrants. Conversely, it is Trump who has taken over the role of Hitler by heartlessly separating families and refusing entrance to immigrants.

Are there any particular refugee stories that have affected you?

There was an image on CNN of a little boy about 3 or 4, obviously just having been pulled out of the rubble, sitting alone in torn clothes, bleeding, with no one around to comfort him. My heart went out to him, for I know firsthand what it’s like to be alone and un-loved as a child. There isn’t a worse feeling in the world. There is nothing worse than being thrown from your roots. Even trees and flowers can’t grow without roots. That is why we must be more vigilant to spread love and compassion wherever we can.

Many artists say their art has saved them. Do you find that to be true for yourself?

Art, or any creative form for that matter, is what feeds the soul. I could not imagine living my life without painting, without writing, without music, without dance any more than living without oxygen.

“Female Figure” opens with an artists’ reception from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursday (April 6) and continues through Wednesday (April 12) at Beyond the Lines Gallery, Bergamot Station G-8, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica. Visit beyondthelinesgallery.com or facebook.com/marianner.klein.