Survivor who found catharsis in painting dies at 98

Years ago, Ben Altman stumbled upon an art class at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The retired tailor was in search of a cathartic way to depict the terrifying experiences he and his family endured during the Holocaust.  

Altman found what he was looking for: Once he picked up a paintbrush, he couldn’t put it down.

The Holocaust survivor, whose artwork of both Jewish and scenic imagery was highlighted in local exhibits, died Nov. 8 in San Francisco. He was 98.

Upon retirement, Altman devoted himself to painting. He painted for self-expression, to reflect the world around him and his inner visions.

Born in 1912 in Czestochowa, Poland, Altman served as apprentice to his father, a tailor. By age 8, he discovered a love for art.

“I went to the buttonhole-maker on an errand,” Altman told j. in 2002. “I saw a painting on the wall and stood before it a long time. The owner said, ‘That’s the prophet Jeremiah.’ While looking at it, I decided if I become a painter, I would paint Jeremiah.”

In 1938, Altman married and settled in Soznoweicza. He and his wife, Madzia, had a son, Marek, and lived happily until war swept across Poland, carrying them off along with countless other Jews to ghettos and concentration camps.

Five years later, while Madzia and Marek stayed behind in the ghetto, the Nazis shipped Altman to a series of labor camps, including Marksztat, Faulbreck and Graditz.

His wife and son perished in Auschwitz. But Altman hung on. “I wasn’t frightened,” he said during the 2002 interview. “I just kept out of trouble. Sometimes I felt sorry for the guards. They did the job, but they hated it. I’d repair their slacks, and they’d give me a piece of bread. And we survived.”

While in Faulbreck, Altman met Erma, whom he would eventually marry. The couple moved to Munich after the war and had a son, David. In 1949, they immigrated to San Francisco, where Altman established a successful business as a tailor, counting the San Francisco Opera among his customers.

After 65 years in business, Altman retired. In his free time, he traveled, painted and frequented Café by the Bay, a weekly Holocaust survivor group sponsored by Jewish Family and Children’s Services. 

But most of all, he enjoyed time with his family, including his two great-grandchildren, who were born shortly before he died.

Altman was preceded in death by his wife of 42 years, Erma. He is survived by his son, David Altman, two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.