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Sigmund Laufer: A Brief Biography

Sigmund Laufer’s expansive life spanned three continents. He was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1920, during the politically turbulent years between the first and second World Wars. He spoke often of how much Berlin was like New York, sophisticated, with streetcars, theatre, and a vibrant cultural life. While he attended the Gymnasium upper school in Berlin his education was cut short at the age of sixteen by the rise of Nazism in Germany. He always said that the extermination of the Jews wasn’t something that happened overnight. Rather it was an evolution, a slow closing off of the rights and access for Jews.

His immediate family took the Nazi threat seriously and sent Sigi out of the country in 1936 to emigrate to Palestine through the Youth Aliyah or youth emigration. While Sigi’s immediate family, including his sister and brother followed two years later, 19 members of his family were killed in concentration camps mostly in Poland. This was, in part, due to the fact that the town his family originally came from in Poland, Chernow, was along the train route to Auschwitz.

Though Sigi’s departure to Palestine might sound wrenching to some, Sigi said that he was very excited to be going off on a great adventure to a new land while relatives who came to bid him farewell at the train station in Berlin were crying and distraught.

Upon his arrival in Palestine he was sent to a northern Kibbutz, Ayelet
Hashakar. This kibbutz had the distinction of being located right below the Golan Heights and so for many years he slept in semi-permanent tents and, along with others in the kibbutz, had to stand armed guard during the nights to protect the kibbutzniks from attacks. He also smuggled into Palestine Jews stranded on boats that were refused entry by the British as was depicted in Exodus. The city boy became a shepherd and agricultural worker alongside his kibbutznik comrades. His political activism was towards the left and he and others of his era were far more Socialistic that they were Zionist. The Palestinian socialists believed that a bipartisan government would be more ideal than a pure Zionist state, but this was not a position that would prevail as the State of Israel was formed in 1947.

It must have been a romantic time as he was swept up by politics, living on his own, and experiencing an exotic and turbulent country. Upon leaving the Kibbutz he moved to Jerusalem where the British Army employed him as an ironworker repairing boilers. It was in Jerusalem where he met Miriam Ickowitz, who, also a refugee from Berlin, was studying art at Bezalel Art School. She was a sign painter for the British army and said that the decision to get married was based on the knowledge that a married couple could gain a free pass from the British Railroad to travel anywhere in the Middle East.

But, Sigi and Miriam were not content to stay in the poor, war-torn country of Palestine and yearned again for the sophisticated cosmopolitan European life that they had left behind. This was more easily accomplished after the war by emigrating to the U.S. in June1947, which was possible because Sigmund’s uncles – some recently liberated from concentration camps and brought to America - were able to sponsor the young couple. Nevertheless Sigmund had to finance their passageway and so he sold his book collection that he had brought from Germany. During their voyage across the ocean on a Liberty Ship he was also connected to an apartment in Manhattan through a Greek sailor on the ship.

Sigmund and Miriam opted to return to the urban life they had cherished in Berlin and moved to the German and Irish neighborhood of Yorkville on 85 th Street and Lexington Avenue. While the apartment was small, they actually took in boarders for a number of years. Miriam continued to earn a living as a calligrapher and illustrator and Sigmund–a self-taught graphic designer–got a job with the Board of Jewish Education because he could do design work in two languages – Hebrew and English. His job at the BJE was secure and satisfying and he worked there from 1948 until his retirement in 1992 – 44 years. He designed books and was the art director of the publication for children, World Over. He was the last designer to execute his designs without a computer.

He was a printmaker and artist and worked at Pratt Graphic Design center to produce black and white and color etchings and lithographs. He also made many drawings. He had solo shows at the AFI Gallery and FAR Gallery in the 1950s and 1960s and was in many group shows from the 1940s to the 1980s. His work is in many public and private collections and was well reviewed.

While Sigmund and Miriam suffered much upheaval in their early lives once they were settled they didn’t really make too many changes. Sigmund lived in the same apartment on 85 th Street for 60 years. His daughters, Susan and Abigail both grew up in that apartment. Miriam and Sigi shared a life-long passion for the arts be it music, or art. His home was filled to the brim with the beautiful collections from the many countries he visited.

After Miriam’s death in 1980, Sigi circled the globe heading to China twice, India three times, and countless visits to Europe and the Middle-East. He was very devoted to his grandchildren: Emma, Felix, David, and Ian.Up until the end of his life, he was as active as ever, rarely missing a day at the gym and commuting out to his rental property in Brooklyn. In May 2007, he made a final visit to Israel to visit his family.

Sigmund represented a link to the past that is being lost. He became, over the years, the happy unexpected patriarch—from the shy gentle boy in Berlin to the wise sage who represented an unusual generation.

—Abigail Laufer