Chava Ben-Amos, Holocaust Survive Becomes World Renowned Graphic Designer – by Christian Cardona.
In a classroom of 10 graduate level students, the atmosphere is filled with a strong admiration of their professor, Holocaust survivor Chava Ben-Amos.
The classroom is quiet as wide-eyed students watch as this graphic design genius teaches them about packaging. At this point in the semester they are already on their second project. This time around they need to design a label for a wine bottle. All of the students sit around a large table in the middle of the classroom working on their individual designs. Ben-Amos’ bright blue eyes oversee the whole thing.
She sits at the head of the table, wearing a green sash for flare, her hair short and blonde, complimented by long, dangling earrings. Ben-Amos talks to her students one by one, advising them on how to improve their labels. She has a dislike for computers and prefers her students to draw their work by hand.
“I always tell them to sketch things out first. When they do there is no room for cut, copy, and paste. What you create is a reflection of the heart,” she said.
Ben-Amos is a successful graphic designer and created the first series of stamps honoring the Holocaust in Israel and many other popular logos in American culture. After confronting struggles and hardships in her youth she ended up living comfortable and is now able to teach what she is passionate about.
Ben-Amos was born on June 9, 1930 in Prague in what is now the Czech Republic. She was born into a wealthy family; her grandparents owned a textile factory. She recalls growing up lonely because her mother was sent to a mental institution in Switzerland and her father traveled around the world for work. She mainly grew up with her governess, Liduska.
When she was nine, the Nazis took over and sent her whole family to Theresienstadt, a ghetto in now Czech Republic. Still, Ben-Amos was optimistic.
“The ghetto was decent,” she said. “We were allowed to have some food and people came to teach us how to sing. The main problem was we couldn’t leave.”
When she was 13 the Nazis sent her and her family to Auschwitz. It was damp; rodent infested and had no toilets. The only food was occasional bread and soup. There was no running water or heat. Men were separated from the woman and children. She was with her parental grandmother but had no access to her father.
“I’ve been through hell,
back and forth many times,
but in the end I turned out fine.”
One day Ben-Amos passed by the fence that separated the men from the woman and children and spotted her father. He was skinny, had a blanket wrapped around him, and had a large, bloated stomach from starvation. She waved and they spoke for a bit.
“I asked him if I should go to Germany for work and he said ‘Go, it is the only way you will survive.’ That was the last time I saw my father,” Ben-Amos said.
After her grandmother had passed she learned they were looking for volunteers to work in Hamburg, Germany. She approached the line to see if she was eligible to work there with a friend, who was around her age and looked the same. The line was next to the line for the gas chambers.
When she reached the Nazi soldiers, they spoke to her in Germany and thought that she and her friend were twins. They informed her that they were conducting test on twins at the time and allowed them to leave the camp and work in Germany.
Ben-Amos, now 15, worked for a couple of months until she came down with a high fever and was unable to walk. She lost consciousness and later woke up in a pile of dead bodies. When passing soldiers realized she was alive, they took her to a hospital. Ben-Amos spent one month in the hospital and then was sent back to the Czech Republic, with nothing but her concentration camp uniform and a blanket.
When she arrived at the train station she was escorted back to her governess, Liduska, who took care of her. No one else from her family had survived. The Red Cross notified her only remaining family, her aunt and uncle who fled to Palestine years prior, and they requested she come live with them. They took her in and put her through high school.
Ben-Amos knew she could draw and she quickly became the teacher’s pet, despite a language barrier she faced while living in Palestine. She was able to make maps for classes and was able to blow up small pictures. This skill helped her finish high school.
When Ben-Amos was 18, the Palestine was for independence started, Israeli officials closed the schools and she was sent to the army. While serving the Palestinian army, Ben-Amos was diagnosed with Polio. It was the only reported case of Polio in Palestine at the time. She was again hospitalized, this time for two years. As a wounded solider the government awarded her a scholarship to Bezalel Academy, an art school where she graduated with a degree in graphic design.
Following her graduation, Ben-Amos traveled to the United States in 1964 for a work opportunity in New York. Famously, it was the same day The Beatles arrived. She had a son, Omri Ben-Amos in 1970 following her marriage to her second husband, Emmanuel Ben-Amos. While in the U.S. she went on to design packaging for Snuggle fabric softener.
“There is a baby on the front and I wanted him to look like my son who was a baby at the time,” she said.
Ben-Amos, now age 83, is currently a professor at the graduate school at Pratt Institute in Manhattan. She has been a professor for 44 years.
“Professor Ben-Amos changed my life,” said student Adriana Geros of Park Slope, Brooklyn. “I am much more precise and dedicated to my work. She is so sweet. Last week she invited me over to her house to help me with my project and lunch.”
Often referred to as a “genius” by her late husband, who passed away in 2007 at the age of 84, Chava Ben-Amos is a prime example of skill, dedication, perseverance and sheer willpower.
“I’ve been through hell, back and forth many times,” she said, “but in the end I turned out fine.”