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THE BLOGS - Tania Shalom Michaelian

New Heritage Museum Celebrates Copper Relief Artist Arieh Merzer

פורסם: 13.3.2023


The importance of Merzer’s contribution to Jewish folk art, his tribute to the memory of communities wiped out in the Shoah and to the revival of the ancient copper hammering method is celebrated in the new museum opened JNF-USA affiliate, Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS)

The artist’s colony in the ancient city of Tsfat (Safed) is one of the highlights of any trip to Israel’s northern region. Its quaint alleyways, picturesque houses, and cavernous stores serve as inspiration for the many artists who live and make a living in this famous quarter

One of the first artists who settled in the colony was Arieh Merzer, best known for his repoussé reliefs made from copper and silver.  Merzer revived the ancient Jewish technique of hammered metal, which can be found in many forms of Jewish creative art such as ceremonial objects

Recently, Jewish National Fund-USA’s affiliate, the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites (SPIHS) opened a special little museum in Tsfat, the Copper House, which once served as the home and studio of Arieh Merzer

Merzer was born in 1905 in a tiny shtetl near Warsaw, Poland. From an early age, he was interested in the art of hammered metal and showed great talent in the field. He drew his inspiration from Jewish motifs from the ghettos and cheiders of his childhood in Eastern Europe.  By his early 20s, he was already exhibiting his art

In 1930, Merzer left behind the secluded town of his youth and moved to Paris, where he took to the art scene like a fish to water. His works reflected scenes from the Bible, Jewish folklore, and his people’s history

But the Jews of France watched in horror as the icy grip of the Nazis tightened around the necks of vulnerable communities across Europe, until it reached Paris in 1940.  Merzer felt the need to fight the evil of the occupying forces and joined the Macquis which was a rural band of French guerilla fighters. After living in hiding for several years, Merzer escaped to neutral Switzerland in 1943. At first, he was forced to work in a Swiss labor camp but eventually, Merzer was allowed to settle in Geneva, where he made his living selling sketches

But while Aryeh Merzer managed to come out of the war alive, he suffered a personal tragedy like so many millions of other European Jews, when he learned that his entire family had been wiped out in the Holocaust. From that moment, he vowed to commemorate the lost Jewish communities of Europe through his art

After years of persecution, Merzer came to the conclusion that the only safe place for a Jew in this world was Eretz Yisrael. He sought out a ship carrying clandestine immigrants (ma’apilim) to Israel during British Mandate period and boarded the Lima in Portugal. Like many other ships who tried to reach the homeland during those years, the ship was captured by the British navy and its passengers imprisoned in the Atlit Detention Camp for trying to get into Eretz Israel without documents. Once more, Merzer found himself behind barbed wire and guarded by armed soldiers. Thankfully, he only spent a relatively short time in the detention camp before being freed, and he made his way to Tsfat

Merzer was one of the first artists in the fledgling state to settle permanently inf Tsfat’s old city in the area which came to be known as the Artist’s Colony. He opened his first permanent exhibition in his new home soon after the Declaration of Independence, and for many decades, his home served as a gathering point for other Jewish artists from Israel and around the world. Philosophers, writers and even politicians flocked to the Copper House to breath in the energy and marvel at Merzer’s unique works of art.  Israel’s second Present, Isaac Ben Zvi was presented with the copper work “Synagogue in Tsfat” on his visit to Merzer’s house, and the piece is still displayed in the official presidential residence in Jerusalem today

Tsfat provided Merzer with inspiration for his works and he managed to capture the traditions and garb of the inhabitants of his newly adopted city in many of his works. But, until the day he died from a fateful heart attack at the age of 62, Merzer kept his promise to remember a way of life that disappeared after the Shoah. As the only copper artist who survived the Holocaust, Merzer continued to create pieces that commemorated scenes from the shtetls, of religious ceremonies, and images from stories written by great Yiddish writers

The importance of Arieh Merzer’s contribution to Jewish folk art, to the revival of the copper hammering method and to the contemporary Israeli art scene is now preserved in the new Copper House Museum in Tsfat, thanks to the incredible work done by JNF-USA affiliate SPIHS, the Tsfat municipality and others

This is one place you don’t want to miss on your next visit North


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