Holocaust survivor Trudy Strauss draws on life experiences for her art

After decades of struggles, hard work and loss, Denver ceramicist and Holocaust survivor Trudy Strauss celebrated her 107th birthday on March 25.

Looking back, she proudly acknowledges that “despite what happened to those I knew and to me, I not only survived, unlike the Third Reich, but also lived long enough to have a good life and to bring three Jewish children, eight Jewish grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren into this world.”

Two dozen of her ceramic pieces are on display in DU’s Anderson Academic Commons alongside a newly completed portrait of Strauss by artist and professor Deborah Howard. The exhibit continues through June 3.

After nearly five decades of work, Strauss is donating her ceramics to DU’s Ira M. and Peryle Hayutin Beck Memorial Archives, which is dedicated to the preservation, appreciation and future research into Jewish history and heritage in the Rocky Mountain region. Howard’s portrait is also being donated.

Born in Rastatt, a small city in southern Germany, Strauss experienced antisemitism from a young age. In 10th grade, increasing hostility pushed her out of school and into the Conservatory for Music in Karlsruhe, where she learned to play piano.

The family business, started by her mother and run by her father after he returned from World War I, struggled under the Nazis’ persecution of Jews. After their mother insisted, Strauss’ oldest sister moved to France and then to Palestine—which later gave the rest of her family a way out of Germany.

In 1935, Strauss made her way to Paris, where her uncle paid for her passage to America. Her aunt and uncle did not leave France and were killed in Auschwitz, the Nazis’ biggest concentration camp, where 1.1 million people—mostly Jews—were murdered.

Upon her arrival in New York at age 21, she did housework and worked in restaurants and factories to provide for herself and her family back in Germany. Strauss met her future husband, Alfred, in a Jewish German social club in the city. They moved to Pittsburgh in search of work but struggled to find any. 

The couple settled on a farm in Calvary, Pennsylvania, where they lived on a tightly packed first floor with their first daughter, Miriam, and Alfred’s parents. The house had no running water or electricity.

After six years and four attempts, Trudy Strauss became a naturalized citizen. Her family moved to Denver in 1949, and her husband was offered a job at Hilb and Co., a Western wear and toy wholesaler. In 1952, she started work as a piano teacher. She bought a used Steinway and refurbished it piece by piece between lessons.

On the advice of the mother of one of her piano students, Strauss took up ceramics in the early 1960s, initially taking classes at the Emily Griffith Opportunity School and then joining the Colorado Potters Guild in 1968. She taught piano lessons every morning, then headed to the guild and returned home at night to teach more lessons.

From casserole dishes and cups to decorative vases and ceremonial religious items, Strauss’ ceramics reflect a wide array of materials and methods, but all share the mark of her hands. The pieces on display in the Anderson Academic Commons offer a sample of the numerous styles Strauss explored over her five decades in ceramics.

Eighty-seven years after she left Germany, the suffering and persecution of Jews under the Nazis remains on her mind.

“There is not a day that goes by when I do not think of those who perished; my aunt and uncle who could not leave because, despite his being a professor, no country would accept him due to his clubfoot; my other uncle who believed his wealth would insulate and allow him to outlive this regime; and my Parisian friend who was shot by a Nazi when the Germans invaded Paris,” she says. “I think of my pre-Holocaust life and what was lost. I think of the dismantling of my family and my own anguish when I was treated like a pariah, forced to leave behind everything I knew and to fearfully immigrate to a new country all alone.”

In the face of challenges and losses, Strauss pushed on. Her determination created opportunities for work, family and artistic expression. A mother of three, piano teacher, ceramicist, hiker and swimmer, she kept herself busy long beyond retirement. On March 25, the Denver community and Strauss’ family celebrated her 107th birthday in the Anderson Academic Commons.

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