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The Ciesla Foundation

Helen Ciesla Covensky, 82, abstract expressionist artist, died on Tuesday, November 20 of heart failure.

Helen Covensky paints

Born Hanka Ciesla in Kielce, Poland in 1925, as a young child the artist moved with her family to Sosnowiec. Known as the prettiest girl in town, she enjoyed an idyllic childhood until World War II broke out in Europe, putting her Polish Jewish family in peril. Realizing that her green eyes, blond hair, and fluency in Polish and German would allow her to pass as a Polish Catholic, her father obtained false papers for his daughter. She and two other Jewish girls, also with false papers, made their way to Germany. They worked in a labor camp near Stuttgart. Every morning Hanka lived the ruse by pretending to recite Catholic prayers. She also passed food clandestinely to inmates in a nearby Jewish concentration camp.

She was very proud to be liberated by the US Army and rode victoriously into Berlin on a tank. Good at languages, Hanka started working for the United Nations Relief Administration in Berlin. Her parents and sister died at Auschwitz, but she was reunited in Berlin with her brother David, who survived Auschwitz. At their tearful reunion a US Army soldier, Chaim Kempner, wrote their moving story for the Army newspaper. In 1946 she married the Lithuanian born soldier, in a wedding dress made from a parachute. Her daughter, filmmaker Aviva Kempner, was born in Berlin. In 1949 the family moved to Detroit. Their son Jonathan, now President and CEO of the Mortgage Bankers Association, was born in 1951.

In Detroit, Helen Covensky received an art degree from Wayne State University. Divorced in 1959, she married professor of history, Dr. Milton Covensky. Helen Covensky built an outstanding career as an artist in Michigan, culminating in a one-woman show at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1983. Her work was shown in art galleries in New York City, Michigan, and Tel Aviv, Israel. Inspired by European and American Abstract Expressionism, her “action” paintings were noted for their lush texture and strong, vibrant colors. The paintings can be seen both in collections around the world and locally, including at the Kreeger Museum in Washington DC. Helen claimed that her paintings were “an affirmation of life, as each stroke of my paintings is in honor of the six million.”

“My mother’s devotion to her painting for 40 years inspired my filmmaking and art collecting. Even with the great tragedy of her youth, she focused on teaching us lessons about creating beauty,” observed her daughter Aviva. Her son Jonathan added: “My Mother had the uncanny ability to make you feel good about yourself. All whose life she touched came away convinced they were the most intelligent, the most insightful, the most attractive person in the world. She told you so with such conviction that you really believed you could do anything.”

With her husband, Milton Covensky, Helen moved to Bethesda in 1983 to be close to her daughter and son. Helen is also survived by her daughter-in-law Dr. Lise Van Susteren, beloved granddaughters Aliza, Delaney, and Piera Kempner, and brother David Chase of Hartford, CT.