Bill Salamon (1927-2011): Artist, Holocaust Survivor & Inspirational Figure
Many artists claim it is their art that sustains them through hard times, Bill Salamon’s artistic talents literally kept him alive. If not for the work created to please his captors, he likely would have died at the hands of the Nazis. At the age of 16, Salamon was sent from his home in Czechoslovakia (now Ukraine) to the Auschwitz concentration camp.
While more than 20 members of his family died in the Holocaust, including both parents, Salamon survived by painting on the orders of the Nazi SS officers. As other prisoners were enduring torture and hard labor, Salamon was decorating drinking mugs and painting murals and signs. Yet when it came to the bitter end of his captivity, Salamon almost didn’t make it. Sent on a final death march he was never supposed to survive, he was victorious against all odds.
Salamon was born in 1927 in Khust, a town in the Carpathian Mountains, the youngest of four children of Hajnal and Martin Salamon, a seamstress and a carpenter. He was a gifted artist who took up drawing and painting at an early age.
Salamon and his family were marched to the local railroad station and shipped to Auschwitz in cattle cars. Amid the prisoners’ screams and the terrible stench in the smoky air, Salamon’s family members were separated into lines indicating who would live and who would die. Many of his young cousins, his grandparents, and his aunts and uncles were instantly selected for death by the infamous Dr. Mengele, known as the “Angel of Death”. Each prisoner was pointed to his fate, either to the gas chamber or to the barracks. On that day, more than half of Salamon’s extended family was murdered. Their own lives spared, Salamon, his father, uncle and one cousin were transferred to the Warsaw Ghetto a few weeks later.
Bill Salamon Oil Painting of Children Selling Drinks, Late 20th Century
Bill Salamon Oil Painting of Band, 20th Century
Bill Salamon Oil Painting of Coastal Scene at Sunset with Figures
Bill Salamon Acrylic Painting of Row Boats on Shore, Late 20th Century
During his captivity Salamon would survive many brushes with death, barely surviving grueling marches, crammed cattle cars, disease, torture and starvation. Salamon would spend the majority of his imprisonment at Landsberg concentration camp where he would paint signs, murals and gift items for the Nazi guards and their families. While others were dying outside in the snow and freezing temperatures, Salamon was indoors, painting for the SS officers. It was here that his father ultimately succumbed to typhoid fever.
After a string of hellish marches, as the Allied Forces dropped bombs across the region, Salamon was at the brink of giving up when the German guards abandoned the prisoners in the Bavarian forest. Salamon was revived by a rush of adrenaline and a feeling of hope, “It was indescribable,” he would later say. They made their way to a nearby town where white flags waved and American soldiers began ensuring that the liberated prisoners were cared for. After recovering in a displaced-persons camp, Salamon would miraculously reunite with his sister, Adlele, at a busy train station in Pilson, Germany.
Chicago’s Jewish community sponsored Salamon’s relocation to the US in 1949 where he immediately enrolled in a class to learn English and took lessons at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In an ironic turn of events, ten months after arriving in the US, Salamon was drafted into the Army as part of the Korean War efforts. His artistic talent would keep him out of harm’s way once again, he was stationed in Washington D.C. where he designed and illustrated manuals for military intelligence.
After his service Salamon moved to Los Angeles and began working in commercial art with the May Company. Leveraging the GI Bill, he attended the highly regarded Chouinard Art Institute to refine his painting skills. Soon after, he met his wife, Carol and while continuing his career with the May Company began a happy family including two children, Lisa and Mark.
Throughout his lifetime, Salamon painted more than 700 paintings, and his work was featured in several galleries in Los Alamitos, Newport Beach, and Laguna Beach, California. Until he passed away in 2011 at the age of 84, Salamon painted almost every day at his home in Rossmoor, California, where he converted his garage into an art studio. Neighbors and passersby were mesmerized to watch him in the process of creating his work.
Salamon painted with freedom and flourish, using quick, sure and expressive strokes. As the paint would fly around him, observers stood back in fascination to see him create vivid landscapes, seascapes, florals, nature scenes and portraits emanating love and light. Salamon’s bold, vibrant, brilliant colors beckoned viewers to enter his joyful world.
Just as Salamon practiced throughout his life, he always spoke of treating others with kindness and forgiveness. He believed creating art was the ideal release from difficulty, a way of celebrating life, and a means of expressing gratitude.
In his later years, Salamon volunteered, donating his time, money and paintings to charities. He would bring cookies, juice and an uplifting presence to hospitalized war veterans. Wherever he went, Salamon’s positive attitude and sense of humor brightened the day of all he encountered.
During his lifetime, Salamon won hundreds of awards, from Grumbacher to Windsor Newton to City Purchases, as well as many Bests of Show and county fair awards. He was featured in numerous newspapers and on radio and television, telling the inspirational story of his life. This was also documented for posterity by Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Bill Salamon continues to influence those who see his work, know his story, or were fortunate to have met this well-admired man who nearly didn’t survive, but instead prevailed to be a beacon of light to others. He endures as a shining example of the power of love, forgiveness and healing through art.
Discover an important selection of his works in this extensive collection of portraits and landscapes from the artist’s estate.