There lived in Budapest, Hungary, in the years between the world wars, a man who was known within the Orthodox Jewish community as a teacher, a cantor, a ritual slaughterer, and a trade union leader. Above all, he was known as a man of great piety. That man was Aryeh Steinberger.
At the age of sixty-five, Reb Aryeh put down the tools of his trade and picked up the tools of his art. What lay ahead was not a placid retirement but the flowering of his greatest creative gifts as a ceremonial scribe and artist.
Reb Aryeh was commissioned to draft ritual documents for members of the community: ketubot (marriage contracts), mezuzot (door post scrolls), tefillin (phylacteries), gittin (bills of divorce). For his family, he created major works, including a fully illustrated Passover Haggadah , a perpetual calendar, a Purim megillah, and a sefer Torah for each granddaughter, to be sold as her marriage dowry. Many of these objects survive today, in the family’s keeping, on both sides of the Atlantic.
His most ambitious project, however, in both depth and scope, was a sukkah canvas that covered the walls of the Steinberger family sukkah. It is this unique panorama, which he worked on throughout the 1920s and 1930s, that profoundly reflects his love of family, his self-taught artistic technique, and his vision of contemporary as well as spiritual life. It is an exemplary model of the melding of the factual and the fanciful, as Reb Aryeh depicts the details of everyday Hungarian life alongside images of biblical events, the cycle of holidays, and even his idealized view of a city he had never seen—Jerusalem, the beloved home of his heart. With its meticulous calligraphy and ornate tableaux, the sukkah became celebrated within Budapest in its day, and hundreds of people came to view it each year.
With the passage of time, the artist replaced and refined elements of the sukkah cover. Among the animals included is a magnificent lion, which was his signature: his own name, Aryeh, in Hebrew means “lion.”
Of particular interest is his treatment of the human face. In his earlier scenes the faces are not clearly defined, following the belief that it was a violation of the Third Commandment to make an image of God. But as he was increasingly taken with the desire to paint humans into the narrative, he sought, and received, the permission of the rabbis to do so. The canvas then came to include the traditionally honored guests invited into the sukkah—Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Aaron, and David—given clear form and detail.
As remarkable as the sukkah cover itself is the saga of its journey, over two continents and half a century, to become the single largest piece of art displayed at the Museum.
Aryeh had two children, Salomon and Regina. A widower, he had made his home with Regina and her family. At the age of eighty-two, Reb Aryeh put down his pen for the last time. As the winds of war swirled about him, he died peacefully, never to know of the terrible fate that awaited over one-half of Hungarian Jews—never to know that his son-in-law would be shot into the Danube; that a grandson would die of typhus at Mauthausen; that a granddaughter, with her two little girls, would be gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In March 1944, a year and a half after Aryeh’s death, the Nazis marched into Hungary–and nothing was safe. Regina’s teenage son, Andor, was sent with the sukkah cover to the basement of the vast Dohany Street synagogue, to bury it among other religious treasures.
When the Soviet forces liberated Budapest in January 1945 , most of the family, miraculously, had managed to survive the war. Regina’s daughter, Piroska, now married to Jeno Lindenblatt and the mother of three small sons, reclaimed the sukkah cover from its hiding place. Piroska was its appropriate guardian because she was not only the eldest of Aryeh’s grandchildren still in Hungary, but his spiritual descendant as well: in her were melded his compassion and artistic creativity. As a girl, she had helped him mix his paints, and he had taught her painting, needlepoint, crocheting, and embroidery.
The canvas lay in the back of a closet in her home until October 1956, when the hunger and oppression of Communist rule culminated in the Hungarian Revolution—and for a brief time, the borders were penetrable in a few spots. One by one, Piroska’s three oldest children—Jehuda, George, and Robert, now teenagers—escaped into Austria. Last to come were Piroska and Jeno, with ten-year-old Paul (his Hebrew name is Aryeh, after his great-grandfather). Leaving everything else behind, Piroska took the sukkah cover. After the first escape attempt failed, they traveled in the back of a truck, by train, and on foot. By the time the Red Cross rescued them at the Austrian border, Piroska was trudging barefoot in the snow. She had to be carried to their van. Rolled up like a scroll, covered in an old raincoat, the canvas never left her sight. Wrapped in that raincoat was her heritage—the past and the future.
The sukkah cover, accompanied by the Lindenblatts, arrived in the United States on a plane in April 1957. It had been carried by hand all the way. Its new home was a closet in Piroska and Jeno’s apartment, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where it was taken out, unrolled, and pieced together for any interested visitor—always with enormous pride by the family.
With Piroska’s death in 1983, the rolled canvas passed to a closet in the home of Jehuda, her eldest son. Then, in 1990, a scout from the Museum who was conducting research in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn happened upon a pharmacy and struck up a conversation with the pharmacist. His name was Paul Lindenblatt, Piroska’s youngest son. Soon the researcher was sitting in Paul’s living room, watching home movies of wartime Budapest. Paul mentioned that he and his brothers had another item that might interest the Museum—a sukkah canvas painted by their great-grandfather.
The results of that conversation led to a long-term loan to the Museum of the upper panel of the sukkah cover, allowing thousands of visitors over the Museum’s history to have seen the beauty, faith, and love that Aryeh wove into the sukkah decoration. That loan was joined in 2012 by a lower panel of the sukkah decoration, on loan from another branch of the family led by Magda Tewner, granddaughter of Aryeh Steinberger, as well as Irene White, and Richard and Alexander Platschek and Perel Rosenfeld, children of Andor Platschek Weiss.
Speaking of the family’s initial reluctance to share their private possession with the Museum, Robert Lindenblatt says, “It was an extremely difficult decision. But for history, we felt it was our responsibility to show it to the world.”