Survivor’s scupltures exhibited at Hamilton gallery

HAMILTON — Upon meeting Ora Markstein, right, – who is big as a minute and had a bubbie-like concern for a cold visitor on a snowy day – I could not grasp the commanding talent behind that sweet smile.

Markstein, 83, is an accomplished sculptor. Her current show, “Atelier:
Ora Markstein,” is on exhibit at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until
April 27.

Carved by hand, her sculptures are formed from blocks of soapstone, marble and alabaster in every imaginable colour.

Born and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in a town near Budapest, Markstein studied drawing and painting. When she was 15, the Holocaust began. She had met her fiancé, Francis, weeks before the men were taken away for slave labour.

Markstein, her sister and her parents, as well as her fiancé, survived the war. But at least 35 other relatives, uncles, aunts and cousins, died.

A survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, Markstein returned to Hungary and reunited with Francis on Sept. 15, 1945. They were married 10 days later.

“It was the poorest wedding I’ve ever attended. And it was mine,” Markstein says.

The town’s synagogue was destroyed and the Jewish community was virtually wiped out. The wedding took place in an old age home, with cake and wine and a challah baked by Markstein’s mother.

“Who cared at that time. It did not bother anyone,” Markstein says. “What bothered us was that there were no Jews.”

In 1946, the Marksteins travelled in an illegal transport organized by the Jewish Agency to a UN-sponsored refugee camp in Germany, where Markstein gave birth to their son, Igor.

A year later, the Marksteins went to France and then back to Hungary, which they left for Israel in 1949.  

“We lived in utter poverty. We had no electricity for six years,” Markstein says.

Igor demonstrated musical talent and began to study violin with a master teacher.

“I picked the violin because my sister played the violin. She saved herself and me by playing in the Auschwitz orchestra, which was ordered by the Nazis,” Markstein says.

She also found a teacher and learned how to sculpt in clay and plaster.

Igor moved to Illinois in the early 1970s, and Markstein and her husband went to Montreal in 1974.

“I felt I needed some peaceful years. I started to carve stone here. I couldn’t have done it anywhere else,” she says.

In Montreal, Markstein received a scholarship to the Saidye Bronfman Centre. Her instructor saw her talent immediately. “You don’t need me. Just work,” he told her.

Markstein’s husband was also an artist. He wrote poetry and translated classic works into English, French, German, Hungarian, Hebrew, Italian and Spanish. He found employment in as a teacher at Hamilton’s Beth Jacob Synagogue’s afternoon school, and the couple moved to the city in 1975.

Markstein soon had an exhibit at Hamilton’s Jewish Community Centre. Many other exhibits followed, including two one-person shows in the 1980s at the McMaster Hospital gallery.

Her son, Igor, became a professional musician, even though Markstein would rather that he had chosen a more practical profession. Igor and his wife, both successful musicians, live in Florida.

In 1991, Markstein’s husband died,  and she did not sculpt for two years. She eventually realized she couldn’t live without it.

“I had to. There was no use to punish myself. It did not bring back my husband,” she says.

In 2006, Sara Knelman, the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s curator of contemporary art, visited Markstein’s studio.

According to literature accompanying Markstein’s current show, her work often describes the pain of death and loss. “More often, though, she counters with explorations of love and spiritual renewal,” it states.

The works explore her expression of three themes: love, loss and renewal.

 “I think she is an exceptional sculptor. Regardless of her biography, she is exceptional,” Knelman says.

“She has a beautiful classical style, which sometimes moves into a more abstract, almost deco style of sculpture. She finds life in these slabs and creates an emotional tension in the works and a kind of purity that comes through.”

Markstein can’t wait for spring, so she can return to her outdoor studio.

“It’s like an obsession. You have a drive, you feel you have to do it. You just have to,” she stresses. “It’s a dusty dirty job. It’s physically demanding. But what I get out of it gives me so much pleasure. I forget about the dust, the dirt and everything else.”

Markstein’s home is filled with sculptures, as well as her own drawings and paintings.

She says that as long as you are in good health, age should not slow you down. “I am just as interested in everything as I was 50 years ago. I am not going to sit down and stop.”

“Life is hard. Some are harder than others. Our background is not normal, but life is still beautiful.”

For more information about Ora Markstein’s exhibit, contact the Art Gallery of Hamilton at 905-527-6610 or visit the gallery’s website at