After escape from the Third Reich, local artist lets her artwork bloom

MIDDLEBURY — Some of the most beautiful flowers can bloom in the darkness.
Klara Calitri will show you.
Just give her some paint and a brush and her fragile, diminutive, 93-year-old hands will send water lilies floating across the canvass and help some scarlet geraniums stretching toward the sky. She’ll give them friends, such as a contemplative cat or some determined dragonflies.
Calitri dives into her own soul for the rainbow of colors she imagines on her tableau. And the reservoir remains plentiful and diverse in spite of her early years living in the shadows of the Third Reich. Calitri and her family were among those who suffered during the Nazi occupation of their native Austria before escaping to the United States in 1939.
“I think seeing all the horrendous things makes me appreciate the little things in life,” Calitri said during an interview at the Town Hall Theater’s Jackson Gallery, where many of her paintings, monotypes and ceramics are now on exhibit through Aug. 6.
“I think my (advice) would be to try to have a joie de vivre,” she added. “And I would like to leave some of that behind with my art.”
Calitri was born in Vienna in 1922. She and her parents lived 10 minutes away from Schonbrunn, a former imperial palace and one of Austria’s most important cultural and architectural assets. Schonbrunn translates to “beautiful fountain,” and Calitri developed a deep appreciation for great art through her many visits to the iconic site.
“It was my childhood playground,” she recalled with a gentle laugh. “I think I climbed half the fountains and sculptures there.”
As a young girl, Calitri dreamed of becoming a professional artist. She’d regularly sketch the art-deco buildings and other eye candy on her walk to and from kindergarten.
But her parents thought the vocation a bit too frivolous. The younger generations had taken a tremendous hit during the devastation of World War I, and Klara’s parents wanted to nudge her — their only child — toward a more “serious” vocation that could lead to self-sufficiency.
“My parents never sent me to art school, which I wanted to do,” Calitri said. “They said, ‘No, we want you to be independent.’”
As a result, Klara prepared herself for a career in teaching — until world events placed her plans and her family’s safety in jeopardy.
Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, ushering in a cruel, totalitarian regime bent on world conquest. Germany annexed Austria on March 12, 1938. The Nazi Party immediately targeted Jewish families for persecution. Klara’s dad was Jewish and her mom was Catholic.
The family sent Klara to Czechoslovakia to live with her mom’s family and go to school in what they thought would be a more peaceful setting. The Third Reich considered Klara a “Mischling” — someone with both Aryan and Jewish ancestry, and thus still at risk of persecution. 
She ended up having a very short stay in her adopted country.
“As soon as I got settled in, Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia,” Calitri said with a sigh.
She recalled how her father, a banker, would at times travel home for lunch holding a white flag to demonstrate he was not a combatant. But alas, the Nazi regime targeted him for simply being Jewish. The Gestapo threw him in jail along with other Jewish citizens destined for deportation, long-term imprisonment or concentration camps.
“This was a desperate time,” Calitri recalled. “My mother was in pieces because she thought, ‘This was the end.’”
Using equal parts guile and bravery, Klara and a dear friend — whose Jewish dad had also imprisoned — tricked their way into the office of the Nazis’ “district manager for youth” in Vienna and convinced him to release the two men.
“We made a big fuss,” she said.
Klara was relieved to get her father back, but noted he emerged a changed man.
“He was never the same after that,” she lamented. “I don’t know what they did to him.”
Once again reunited, the family looked to escape from Austria and Nazism. The rules were clear: They needed a family to sponsor them in a different country. And they didn’t have any prospects.
“We didn’t have much hope, and time was running out,” Klara recalled.
But fate and good fortune intervened during the family’s darkest hour.
Calitri recounted a spellbinding tale of how her family’s past kindness to a little boy led to their survival.
“People were making bread out of hay and grass,” she said, setting the stage. “There was very little to eat.”
But Klara’s grandfather, Ignatz Feiner, and great uncle operated a country store around 50 kilometers outside of Vienna. They were fortunate enough to have eggs, milk and produce.
Meanwhile, Feiner’s brother and 10 children lived in Hungary
“They were starving,” Calitri recalled.
So every six months, Klara’s grandpa and great uncle would host one of those starving children from Hungary and “fatten” him or her up before sending the child back.
It was a charitable act that was never forgotten.
“We get a letter from the United States, and this man asks if we are relatives of Ignatz Feiner,” Calitri said. “My father replied, ‘Yes, that was my father.’”
The distant relative responds with another letter stating, “Well, your father saved my life and many of my brothers and sisters, because he took us in and fed us. We want to return the favor,” Calitri said, clearly emotional about the memory.
So Klara’s family had their sponsor, which led to their immigration to the U.S. and a new lease on life. They traveled across the Atlantic from Le Havre, France, to New York on a ship called the Mauretania that maintains a place of honor in Calitri’s exhibit. She explained she bought a big wooden wardrobe from the ship when it was decommissioned. That piece started to deteriorate in the Calitris’ barn. So Klara decided to salvage a panel from the wardrobe, on which she carved some wild animals, inspired by the Paleolithic drawings she had seen on the walls of the Lascaux caves in southwestern France.
But artwork would take a backseat to teaching, as Klara integrated into her new surroundings.
She continued her studies at Trinity College in Vermont and earned a bachelor of arts degree at the University of Vermont. She earned her master of arts in Comparative Literature at Cornell University, then completed her doctoral studies at Columbia University. She would go on to teach German at both Columbia and the College of the City of New York, then spent many years teaching German, French, Spanish and history to junior high school students in Putnam Valley, N.Y.
Along the way she met Junius Calitri, who would also have a long career as an educator and school administrator. They were married for 69 years when he died three-and-a-half years ago.
She recalled meeting her “Juni” in 1940, soon after her arrival from Austria, while seeking her Red Cross certification to get a summer job as a lifeguard in New York. Junius, a top lifeguard on Orchard Beach, agreed to teach her the course.
“He had this wavy brown hair and broad shoulders,” she said with a grin.
Juni spent the whole summer teaching Klara, so she didn’t get the job.
Instead, she got a husband. They would go on to have three children and a wonderful life together, finally retiring to Cornwall in 1980. That’s when Klara immersed herself in creating art, a passion once reserved for summer vacations and weekends. Calitri set up her own workspace and a kiln for her ceramics. There she is able to work, at her convenience, on multiple pieces at the same time as the mood and energy strike her.
“If I had gone to art school, I probably would have been told to pick one medium and stick to it,” Calitri said.
“Since I have my own freedom, I don’t stick to the rules.”
One of her few rules in making art is that there is no rule about finishing one piece before you start another.
“I have limited energy at this point, but I still have the willpower,” she said of her recent productivity.
“I’m a squirrel; I start a painting, and then something else comes along.”
Calitri wants her artwork to convey a sense of happiness and serenity through vibrant displays of natural beauty.
“As you live a long life and are reaching an age where it’s not so pleasant, you look back at all the good things that you had,” she said. “I can close my eyes and see the pond where I was sitting, where the bass was jumping and the water lilies were sitting and the dragonflies were flitting by me. It’s water, flowers and such a peaceful, good feeling.”
Still, she allows a few of her monotypes to convey sad sentiments about pre-war Austria and concerns about the future of the world. Darker colors and more rigid strokes tend to characterize these monotypes. But even in these more somber pieces, Calitri will provide a metaphorical escape in the form of a door or window.
“A door closes, but a window opens,” she said.
Calitri doesn’t do portraits, but took great joy in creating flower representations of herself and her children, Ron, Lisa and Thea. These paintings are also part of the exhibit.
Her ceramics gleam with images of fish, birds and flowers. The exhibit includes a birdbath, platters, display plates and cups.
“The ceramics can take forever,” she said, noting the multiple firings. They are also very delicate — so much so that Calitri makes duplicates of everything.
“It’s very labor intensive,” she said — but also rewarding to be able to make something beautiful out of a “blob of earth.”
It’s not often that Calitri’s design for a painting or ceramic piece ends up exactly how she designed it.
“There is a metamorphosis; the thing has an idea of its own about what it wants to be,” she said.
Asked if she has a favorite piece of artwork in her expansive portfolio, Calitri was diplomatic.
“They are all my children; I’ve got to be fair to them all,” she said. 
Calitri has no plans to put down her paintbrush or retire her kiln.
Artwork has become a way of life for her, filling some of the hours on things her body can no longer allow her to do.
“As you age, there are a lot of things that you lose,” Calitri said. “ I used to be a skier, a skater, a tennis player. And I was pretty good at all of them, and enjoyed them tremendously. I lost Juni. I have my art left. And it is good that if you lose various things, you can still have something that you can take with you.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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