The faces of the Holocaust: Artist honors survivors with mask-making project

Holocaust survivor Gloria Hollander Lyon will recount the horror-filled tale of how she escaped seven concentration camps for anyone who will listen.

Yet on Sept. 8, for approximately one hour, she was completely silent. 

Illuminated by a large skylight, Lyon perched on a kitchen chair in her San Francisco home as Scottsdale, Ariz., artist Robert Sutz covered her oiled face and neck with plaster bandages of varied sizes.

He applied strips to Lyon’s chest, nose, mouth, cheeks and forehead, leaving openings for her nostrils and eyes. He soaked a paintbrush in water and dabbed the contours of Lyon’s face to strengthen and capture more detail. 

“That’s a funny kind of makeup,” said Lyon’s husband, Karl, as he passed by the kitchen.

But for 79-year-old Sutz, the process of creating one of his Holocaust survivor masks, similar to busts, for his project, “We Remember,” is serious business.

“This is different from any other Holocaust documentation,” said Sutz, who’s made more than 60 masks paired with portraits and video interviews. “The future generations need to know what these people look like. They are such good-looking people.” 

Robert Sutz (left) uses a paintbrush to add detail to the plaster bandages on Gloria Hollander Lyon’s face. photo/amanda pazornik

Sutz recently was in the Bay Area for speaking engagements at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland and Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. He also sat in on Café by the Bay, sponsored by S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services, where survivors gather to discuss Holocaust issues.

At the presentations, Sutz displayed a few masks and paintings, which made the drive from Arizona to Oakland, where his sister, June Brott, lives. Seeing the finished product — the plaster mask free of bandages and painted with oil colors — prompted requests from

several survivors in his audiences.

“I want their stories,” Sutz said. “Ninety-nine percent of the survivors and people who see these masks and paintings say what I’m doing is incredibly important.”

Upon learning that his paternal grandparents and their immediate relatives who stayed in Poland were killed in Auschwitz, Sutz was determined to preserve the memories of those who had survived.

While living in his native Chicago during the early 1990s, Sutz conducted on-camera interviews for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. Once Sutz completed his work for the project, he wanted to continue telling stories of Holocaust survival using his talents as an artist.

In 1997, Sutz and his wife, Lea, relocated to Scottsdale, where they purchased two residences five miles apart. One serves as their home; the other is Sutz’s studio.

After 22 years of working for a prominent Chicago advertising agency, Sutz turned his focus to painting urban scenes and commissioned portraits, and making life masks. He became a member of the Phoenix Holocaust Survivor Association, which brought Sutz his first subjects. 

Sutz has displayed the masks in more than 15 exhibits, mostly in the Phoenix area. But he has traveled the country to find survivors to pose for the masks, working with subjects in New York, Chicago and elsewhere.

Artist Robert Sutz with some of his Holocaust survivor masks.

Each mask costs around $200 to make. Sutz finances the project, and hopes it one day will become a nonprofit.

Lyon, 79, who’s been the subject of books and documentaries about the Holocaust, heard about Sutz through two Stanford University professors whom she met while speaking to their students. By e-mail, they encouraged her to sit for an interview with Sutz and have him create a mask of her face and shoulders.

Unlike many of Sutz’s subjects, Lyon kept her shoulders covered to avoid revealing the large scars etched into her skin from surgery to correct severe malnutrition she sustained in the camps.

“I must have survived for some reason,” Lyon said, looking down at the A6374 tattooed on her arm. “I owe this to those who perished.”

Many of Sutz’s subjects express similar sentiments, interspersed with their own traumatic experiences from the Holocaust.

Sutz recalled one survivor’s story of standing in front of a firing squad daily. “They would count every 10 men and shoot,” Sutz said. “Then they’d count off every eight and have a dog attack. The man had to watch every day.”

As Holocaust survivors gradually die off, Sutz said he feels the pressure to make the masks in less time than the one month he usually takes to finish a piece.

Though he’s currently working on 10 different life masks, each one has a special significance.

“I know each survivor personally,” Sutz said. “I know each story, and I have a good feeling about that. I like to think all of the masks have a warm, personal touch to them.”