HISTORY page 10
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His name was Atilla Aczel.
Ms. Sapir was intrigued.
"I ran to the U-M library to
look at the phone book and I saw,
in Toronto, Aczel's Antiques and
Interiors," she said.
She dialed the number.
Their first conversation was
cordial, but she didn't push.
"I knew I had the right person
because I hadn't volunteered de-
tails about the painting, yet he
knew all about it. He said, 'Are
you talking about the painting of
Hitler with the burning clouds?"'
They continued to speak reg-
ularly. There was a lot of small
talk about the weather, then fi-
nally Ms. Sapir would ask ques-
tions about the Angel of Death
Although he never identified
himself as the artist, Mr. Aczel
told her, "Pm the one you're look-
The two met for the first time
last December, when Ms. Sapir
traveled to Toronto. Slowly, Mr.
Aczel began to reveal his life sto-
Born to an affluent family in a
small Hungarian town, Atilla
Aczel was the son of a Jewish fa-
ther and a Catholic mother. He
was 3 when his father died. Atil-
la's mother, having no money,
placed the boy in a Budapest or-
phanage. He stayed there until
he was drafted into the Hungar-
Mr. Aczel serve as an engineer
on the Russian front during
World War II, then was captured
by American forces while in Ger-
many. After the war he was re-
leased, but he remained in
Germany, where in 1945 he
made the acquaintance of a man
named Ferenc Kecskes.
Mr. Kecskes, also a native of
Hungary, was an artist whose
talent quickly impressed his new
friend. Mr. Aczel helped Mr.
Kecskes secure a studio, where
Mr. Kecskes' career as a painter
flourished. He made portraits —
many of them the wives and girl-
friends of Allied soldiers. Some-
times, he painted the soldiers
themselves. Among his subjects
were two American generals,
Dwight Eisenhower and George
After the war, the two friends
split up. Atilla Aczel went to
Canada, Ferenc Kecskes to the
Mr. Aczel then made a confes-
sion. He was not the man who
had painted the picture Ms. Sapir
But he could tell her the name
of the artist.
It was his friend, he said. Fer-
PARA SAPIR had one hint, just
one, as to how to find the elusive
Mr. Aczel seemed to remem-
ber his friend had settled there,
perhaps near Los Angeles.
Ms. Sapir went back to the li-
brary, to the phone books.
"I found a lot of Kecskeses,"
she said. She called them all.
None was the one she wanted.
"But one did say, 'You know,
we recently went to a gallery in
Ventura and we saw an artist
with our same last name.' "
Ms. Sapir called Ventura in-
formation and found the number
for a Frank Kecskes. In a turn of
almost inexplicably good fortune,
she got the number right away.
It was odd, she said, because days
before she phoned, Frank
Kecskes had requested an un-
listed number. The man who an-
swered realized right away that
the artist for whom Ms. Sapir
was searching was his father,
Ferenc. He himself knew only
scant information about the
painting, but there could be no
question it was the one. Based on
what he had learned from his fa-
ther, Frank described the work
to Ms. Sapir.
The two made plans to meet
in California, where Ms. Sapir fi-
nally learned the whole story.
Ferenc Kecskes was born in
a small village in Hungary.
As a child, he was "always fas-
cinated by mechanical things,"
his son remembered. He de-
Could this be
signed wondrous inventions —
from wind-powered carts to vio-
lins — which he constructed with
odd scraps and parts.
At 16, Ferenc rode his bicycle
72 miles to Budapest, where he
found work in a textile factory.
Evenings he spent walking the
streets, fascinated by the gal-
leries and museums. He began
drawing on his own.
It was clear from the start that
Ferenc Kecskes had talent. He
didn't even have to complete all
the required exams before he was
admitted to the Budapest Acad-
emy of Art.
But one week before classes
were to begin, he was drafted into
the Hungarian army.
Twice, Ferenc was captured by
Allied forces — first by the So-
viets, and-later the British, who
were so impressed by his artistic
skill that he was given food in ex-
change for portraits.
After the war, Ferenc stayed
in Germany, continuing to paint,
but with minimal financial suc-
"My father was a real Renais-
sance man," his son said. "The
one thing he was not was a busi-