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The Herald of Everett, Washington
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Published: Monday, December 12, 2011, 12:01 a.m.

Family covets sketch of hero

Private Joe Russell helped liberate World War II prisoners held at Buchenwald

  • Bettie Russell (seated) and her daughter, B.J. Kays, treasure a pencil sketch of Joe D. Russell drawn by Walter Spitzer in 1945 in Rosenheim, Germany.

    Kristi O'Harran / The Herald

    Bettie Russell (seated) and her daughter, B.J. Kays, treasure a pencil sketch of Joe D. Russell drawn by Walter Spitzer in 1945 in Rosenheim, Germany.

  • According to Joe Russell, Polish artist Walter Spitzer paid special attention to his subject's eyes, as they "represented the soul."

    submitted photo

    According to Joe Russell, Polish artist Walter Spitzer paid special attention to his subject's eyes, as they "represented the soul."

Holding such a precious portrait was a once-in-a-lifetime honor.
The pencil sketch of Private Joe D. Russell is his perfect image, said his wife, Bettie Russell. It was sketched by a Polish-born Jewish teenager held prisoner at Buchenwald Concentration Camp during World War II.
Hero Joe Russell, whose family lives in Granite Falls, helped liberate the Nazi camp.
For more than half a century, the Russell family knew very little about the sketch that was signed, "Walter Spitzer, Rosenheim, Germany," and dated June 9, 1945.
The story they pieced together after 50 years is heartwarming, said B.J. Kays, the couple's daughter.
"It's a treasured family possession," she said.
Her father was born Oct. 31, 1921, in Nebraska. He joined the National Guard in 1940. His wife, Bettie, met him on a blind date when Joe Russell was stationed at Camp Murray in Tacoma. They met in August, were engaged in September and married in November 1942.
Joe Russell served in the Signal Corps of Gen. George Patton's 3rd Army.
When the concentration camp was liberated, soldiers found two teenagers who appeared healthier than the emaciated prisonerss in camp. One of the teens, Spitzer, explained that in the prison camp, he was known for making portraits with charcoal on discarded cement bags. According to Spitzer's autobiography, he was summoned to appear before the German political prisoner who was in charge of his Buchenwald barracks. Spitzer's name was on a list of inmates to be sent off the next day to a work camp, a move which would mean certain death.
He was told his name could be removed from the transport list if he made a promise: If he survived, he was to "tell with your pencils all you have seen here."
The Nazis provided the teen confiscated art supplies so Spitzer could paint and sketch for them. He used oils for portraits of officers, pencils for others. Spitzer kept himself and his friend alive.
One portrait earned him something priceless in the camp -- a pair of boots.
After Buchenwald was evacuated of all the prisoners, the young boy went with the Signal Corps into Rosenheim. He worked as an interpreter for the Americans.
"The boy then proceeded to paint or sketch portraits of each of the men in the company," Bettie Russell, 87, said. "One day I received a package in the mail containing my husband's portrait."
Before the soldiers returned to the United States, Joe Russell and his buddies pooled their money and gave it to the artist. The G.I.s told the teenager they wanted him to go to art school.
And so he did.
Spitzer studied at the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts in Paris. The young man grew into his reputation as a fine artist. He lives in France and is world famous for paintings and etchings. His work is shown in collections, has won prizes and his sculptures can be seen in France.
Bettie Russell said the sketch of her husband arrived at her house carefully rolled into a tube.
"My husband told me later that Walter did the large portraits in about an hour, spending the majority of the time on the eyes for just the right expression," she said. "The eyes represented the soul."
Kays, who taught at Mountlake Terrace Elementary School, said it's a wonderful likeness of her daddy. After the war, her father owned a laundry business and worked for a delivery company. His passion was riding motorcycles with the Seattle Cossacks Motorcycle Stunt and Drill Team.
He was the top of the pyramid the riders formed in parades.
Bettie and Joe Russell traveled the county in an RV. Joe Russell died in 1991 of emphysema.
Bettie Russell traveled for 10 more years and gave seminars about being a single woman on the road. She said about 10 years ago, her family decided to try to find the artist who so accurately captured the image of Joe Russell.
"Chances were nil we would find him, but why not try?" Bettie Russell said.
Walter Spitzer was and is easy to find online. Bettie Russell's son, Jim D. Russell, contacted the man through a friend in New York who owned paintings by Spitzer.
The sculptor contacted the family and said he would be delighted to meet them, should they come to Paris.
Friends of the Russells did go to France and were photographed with the artist.
"Daddy never knew the story," his daughter said. "We found all this out after he died."
She said she looks at the portrait, then in the mirror, and sees lips shaped just like those of her father.
"You would have loved my dad," Kays said.
Kristi O'Harran: 425-339-3451,

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