Lewen was born in Lublin, Poland in 1918. At the age of 5, he became interested in painting and decided to become an artist while recovering from tuberculosis at a Swiss sanatorium. Soon after he returned home, his family was forced to leave Poland to escape pogroms. His dream was to move to the United States.
They left for Germany, which, after World War I, was under the rule of the Weimar Republic. For a few years before Hitler’s rise to power, Lewen was influenced by the German artistic renaissance.
“The Weimar period influenced my own work a lot,” Lewen said. “It was a period of a German expressionism. What I have added to it was a dimension of storytelling.”
After the fall of the Weimar government, Lewen and his family fled to France and then to the United States. By 1935, the entire family was living together in New York City.
When the United States entered World War II in 1941, Lewen enlisted. He became part of a mostly Jewish special military intelligence unit that trained at Fort Ritchie, Maryland and became known as the “Ritchie Boys” (Lewen was featured in a 2004 documentary by the same name).
He fought in France, Germany and helped liberate the Buchenwald concentration camp—facing there the grim reality of what would likely have been his fate had he stayed in Germany.
“World War II doesn’t so much inspire me. It powers me. I’d like to get away from it,” Lewen said. “But it pursues you. You can’t get away from it.”
His experiences in World War II influence a great deal of his artistic ouevre. His work “The Parade” consisted of 55 drawings that told the story of how the armistice parades after World War I translated into the horrors of World War II. This resulted in a letter in 1951 from Albert Einstein, who wrote him, “Our time needs you and your work.”
Lewen received other accolades from critics and financial success—having exhibits in both the United States and Europe. In 1976, he started to become disillusioned with selling his work, removing his pieces from galleries. In 1985, he declared his work “no longer for sale.”
“I was never part of the art scene,” Lewen said. “Art became about fame and fortune. That was not for me.”
Since then, he has continued his work and become good friends with Art Spiegelman, the critically acclaimed 1991 graphic novelist, whose book Maus depicts the horrors of Nazism through the story of his father, a Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor,. Spiegelman featured some of Lewen’s work in his show “Wordless.”
Unfortunately, while trying to build a stretcher bar (where artists mount their canvasses), Lewen injured his dominant right hand. Since his injury, he has had to teach himself to create using mainly his left hand. No one would think less of him for retiring at the age of 96. But for Lewen, it’s not a choice.
“An artist—a real artist—is not in full control,” “Lewen said. “I have this imagery. I can’t stop.”
To see more of Lewen’s work, visit www.silewen.org/.