Thomas P. Muhl
|In the recent film
The Pianist, a
Jewish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman lived in hiding for two and a half years
during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Author, painter, and creative adman
Thomas P. Muhl shared a similar experience in Budapest, Hungary and both
survived to enrich the world with the power of their art. In his powerful
memoir, Retouching Stalin's Moustache, Muhl writes about his life
spanning a period of almost sixty years, during which time he successfully
overcame the Nazis, the Communists, the system, and ultimately himself.
The book spans the course of his life from his days in the Budapest ghetto
as a scared nine-year old to his emigration to the United States and a
successful career in advertising. Muhl provides indelible insight into
his life and the scars that never seem to go away, drawing us in with searing
emotional honesty and acerbic wit. Being propelled from chapter to chapter
by skilfully organized episodes and unobtrusive flashbacks, reading this
book is like watching a diligently edited movie, grabbing your attention
from the beginning and never letting go
Retouching Stalin's Moustache begins when Mr. Muhl joins the Hungarian Army and is recruited to work in their Art Studio. Assigned to paint a large poster of Stalin for a May Day parade, Muhl humorously relates the wrath of rigid Communist officials when he mistakenly copied Stalin's moustache from an old photo when the dictator was in his twenties. He then flashes back to his experiences in the Budapest ghetto during World War II. Muhl describes "the hiding in abandoned apartments and being spooked by objects the people had left behind like unfinished cups of coffee, scarves, and toys. Looking out the windows of these places, feeling trapped and seeing the poor people being hauled away from across the street, wondering when my turn will come. Sneaking around at nights in other apartments during an air raid, looking for food and being afraid that one of the neighbours would rat on me. The sense of total devastation around me, ruins and corpses." That he and both of his parents managed to survive is a story that borders on the miraculous.
The early chapters also deal with the time of the unsuccessful revolution in October 1956. During the first six days, Tom and his girlfriend Andrea believed that the revolution was successful but when the Russian troops brutally restored order, both had to escape for their lives. He recounts their narrow escape through the swamps to reach the Austrian border, "My wife and I risked our lives to escape the Russian-occupied military regime by sneaking across the heavily guarded, treacherous and zigzagging Austrian border in 1956. We waded through fields and swamps, slipping and falling on the frozen ground', he states. "We were looking for the elusive shallow canal and edge of a swampy field we had been told would signal no-man's land next to the Austrian border. Finally, we just moved ahead mechanically…feeling abandoned and alone."
After a year in England, Tom and Andrea immigrated to the United States, living in Michigan, Florida, New York and the California Bay Area and Central Valley. The remainder of the book describes the sadness of Muhl's marital breakup and subsequent depression, his struggle with the demands of the capitalist system, and his ultimate success as a Creative Director for some of the world's leading advertising agencies.
Transcending the dark images of the
past, Muhl is now back in Florida, concentrating on his first love - painting.
In Retouching Stalin's Moustache, he has looked at the ups and downs
of his event-filled life with a forthrightness that most would never dare.
In giving himself permission to be open and vulnerable, he has retouched
his own life and, in more ways than he can know, touched ours as well.