This interview is from Sandra Bornstein’s blog.
Q & A With Andrea Strongwater, Author & Illustrator
Decades ago when I was a student at Spertus College in Chicago, I studied the Holocaust. As a lifelong learner, I have continued to read many books about the Holocaust. Most recently, I have written about the controversial issue of sharing Holocaust picture books with primary aged children. Some of these blogs have appeared on this site while others have appeared as guest blogs on the Nerdy Book Club and the Boulder Jewish News.
While I was accumulating resources for those earlier postings, I unfortunately never came across Andrea Strongwater’s series of Holocaust picture books. Instead a social media posting connected the two of us.
In 2012, Andrea published Where We Once Gathered: Lost Synagogues of Europe. (Eifrig Publishing) This book received a silver medal from Moonbeam Children Book Awards and was cited as a finalist for the Book of the Year award from Forward Reviews. This year, Andrea will publish
Today, I have the pleasure of welcoming Andrea Strongwater to my site. I will be asking her questions about her background and specific information about her extraordinary book series.
Individuals who comment on this interview will be eligible for a book giveaway.
Welcome Andrea. Can you share some information about when you first decided to become an artist and the training that you pursued to achieve your goals?
I think being an artist is something that just happens. You don’t really choose it. You decide to go with the flow or do something else. In many ways doing something else can be easier.
I was always drawing, painting and making things. My father would bring home all kinds of materials to play with – oil paints, a Japanese sumi brush and ink set, iron filings and magnets, first person French history books – Joan of Arc’s writings – ceramic tiles, grout and clippers for mosaics. It was especially nice to get sick. I would get fabulous new arts and crafts material to keep me busy while I recuperated.
As for lessons, I went to Mme Jonnard in New Rochelle for several years. It was a place for ladies to paint genteel paintings. You would choose a picture from a magazine or a postcard and copy it. I worked mostly in pastels and loved it. Today, this isn’t considered art education. I did learn useful skills such as hand-eye coordination and how to draw.
When I was older, I went to Buck’s Rock Camp. It was a high level creative camp. I won a place in the Scholarship Painting workshop at NYU which was mind blowing. The idea was to take exceptionally talented high school kids and groom them for NYU. It was experimental.
I took classes at Columbia as the “little sister” of the art teacher in my high school. She pretended that she was baby-sitting me. I had to accompany her to class. Most important were my four years at Cornell University College of Architecture, Art and Planning. I studied all three disciplines and discovered that I could be a professional artist.
Your website provides a wonderful overview of your artistic abilities and the wide range of products that you sell. I encourage my readers to check out your site.
What prompted you to focus part of your attention on European synagogues that were destroyed during the Holocaust?
This project like many things in my life was serendipitous. It came about by following my nose. I work for the gift market – wrapping paper, puzzles, dinnerware, textiles, anything with art on it. My agent felt that quality Judaica available for licensing was in short supply. I was asked to do a Jewish calendar. I did a really nice series of paintings covering all the holidays and rituals. It was reproduced as large scale prints and assorted objects.
Customers asked if I made anything else with a Jewish motif. I rummaged through my mother’s books shelves. I found a book which had postcards of Jewish life from 1897-1917. The images were black and white, and grainy. I felt the postcards needed to be reinterpreted for today’s world.
I decided to paint four synagogues. Everyone thought they were magical. I painted four more and people were entranced.
I started looking for other pictures of synagogues. Obviously there are many images. I had to narrow it down. I decided to only paint synagogues that were completely erased in Europe during the Third Reich. Additionally, I wrote the story of each synagogue as if it were a person– birth-life-death-memorial.
This project evolved. I have 100 paintings. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum asked if I could do a pamphlet. While working out the details for the USHMM, I decided to create a book.
Why did you decide to create a series of books instead of just a limited edition pictures and/or postcards?
I do make postcards and prints. I sell and exhibit them. The publishing world is struggling. I knocked on many doors trying to promote a big coffee table book. Everyone said they loved it, but didn’t think they could make money.
Penny Eifrig was willing to give me a chance. She thought a selection of the works would make a great kid’s book. The idea blossomed into four more books – each focusing on a specific region. The books would mimic an art book style with a bit more text. Eventually, I will sell the five as a set.
As a Jewish historian and educator, I can appreciate the tremendous amount of time you spent researching this topic. Are there any individuals or institutions that you would like to acknowledge?
I went to the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC and visited their archives. Sharon Mintz was very kind and generous with information. She introduced me to the Council of American Jewish Museums. Many people from that group also assisted me. Bill Gross, a Judaica collector, supplied me with a CD of hundreds of synagogue postcards. Scott Miller of the USHMM was a great listener and friend.
Cornell University has been an ongoing resource for this project. Carla Bahn in the Fine Arts Library and all the guys in the Olin Library map room helped me enormously.
Most important is the encouragement I have received from those closest to me. Roger Tamraz who knew my work for years told me the synagogue paintings were the most important thing I had ever done and should be developed. He also wanted the first four. This is pretty rare for Roger who never asked for anything. Lydia Fakundiny, a great friend and teacher, also saw the importance of my work. These two people guided me to do more.”
What was the most challenging aspect of tracking down the background information that you needed to draw the pictures and write the narratives?
The hardest part of my work is identifying each synagogue. The photos usually have only the name of the city. The name can be in any language. I have to research which city and which building it is. Sometimes it’s complicated. There were actually 2 synagogues on the same parcel of land in Darmstadt. My publisher who speaks German had to work that one out.
The number of communities that were totally destroyed is astounding. In many instances, Jewish life and history were totally erased. Do you have any ties to any of these communities? For instance, did any of your ancestors live there? Have you visited any of these places?
I haven’t visited any of the locations. What I am looking for is not there. I do have a feeling for European architecture as I went to school in France and have traveled. Also, I studied history of architecture.
My mother’s family is from Grodzisk, a suburb of Warsaw. I recently obtained a picture of the wooden synagogue in Grodzisk. Grodzisk was at the edge of the forest and lumber was a local commodity. My grandparents were extremely worldly, sophisticated, and well-traveled. I included the big Tlomackie synagogue in Warsaw in their honor.
For my father’s family I included the synagogue in Bialystock – the city. My grandfather, 8 of his brothers and one sister left Bialystock for England and later came to the USA. In my research, I discovered that three Strongwater sisters died in Bialystock in 1943. Most likely it was a result of the war – starvation or a more active killing.
I find synagogues for other people too. It’s one way that I support the project. Anyone can commission a synagogue that speaks to their heritage. They can buy the painting. It can also be included in one of the books and acknowledged as a huge contribution. My friends, Kathy Frankovic and Hal Glatzer, made two synagogues possible.
Your pictures depict structures that you never saw first-hand and no longer exist. What resources did you use to make your drawings?
I use archival photos. With an education in architecture, I know the building forms and materials and know how to read photos of buildings.
As time goes by there are fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors. Have any former residents from these destroyed Jewish communities provided feedback on your drawings?
Survivors have told me that the actual synagogues look like my paintings. I try very hard to get the details and setting correct so I am sure that’s true. But I also think that what I am projecting is more than the shapes. I am exhibiting the beauty and joy in these buildings. People respond to that too. The paintings remind them of happy times.
Then there are people from small poor shtetls who can’t imagine anyone they know having gone to one of the big synagogues. These people came earlier to the US and can’t remember.They look at the wooden synagogues and figure that’s what it looked like. They don’t realize that the interiors of the big wooden synagogues were gorgeous. They were carved and painted on every inch.
How would you like parents and teachers to use your books?
Kids LOVE the book and it turns them on to history. The book is the best intro to Jewish history. It makes history feel real. I’ve picked stories to make it not deadly dull. I urge parents and teachers to use my books and NOT make kids remember the names of all the great Rabbis or war battles. I almost failed World and US history in high school. It was taught in such a boring way. Listen to the questions and go from there. There will be plenty of opportunity to aim at things you want the kids to know. Kids have lots to say and have questions about my book. I am available for lectures/talks with kids and adults.
Have you had the opportunity to share your books directly with primary or secondary students? If so, can you describe their reaction?
I have shared my book with primary and secondary students. It’s very exciting to watch them get turned on to the information. They want to know more. The pictures lead the story. The bits of information make them think, question, and imagine. The little kids are freer to make assumptions from visual clues. It’s quite exciting to experience.
You have already published two books. Can you provide a preview of the books that will follow and the anticipated completion dates?
After Where We Once Gathered – Lost Synagogues of Europe and Where We once Gathered – Lost Synagogues of Germany there will be one book focused on Poland, one for Czechoslovakia & Austria, and one for Eastern & Western Europe. Where We Once Gathered – Lost Synagogues of Germany is now available in a pre-publication version – print run pending financial support. I need to fund the printing in some way – donation or pre-publication sales.
As soon as funding is secured the book will go to the designer and the printer. It will be on the market a few weeks later. The work for the other books is almost done. Those books also need to be funded. Money is the only thing holding up the process. Once funded, all the books can be printed and in stores worldwide in about 3-6 months. The project has a fiscal sponsor and pre-pub sales will help. I am asking everyone for help. I’m hoping something will come through soon. These books are a solid contribution to Jewish history. The books speak to all people.
What do you hope to accomplish when your Lost Synagogue project is completed?
I don’t really see a completion date for the synagogue project. I would like to expand the work to North Africa and Arab countries where synagogues were destroyed around the time of the establishment of the State of Israel. This would make the project a more comprehensive story. I also have a back log of European synagogues.
I’ve done the research and am ready to paint. I can’t continue without funding. If anyone is interested in buying the original paintings or contributing to the project, please email me- email@example.com
Andrea, thank you for responding to my questions.
If you are an author and/or illustrator and would like to be featured on this site, check out my interview and review policy.
I’d love to hear from you after you check out Andrea’s incredible contribution to Jewish history.
Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons.
The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, the 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and received an Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global e-book Awards.