It’s a story that spans one century, three continents and one life. The story of Malli Rembacz begins on April 4, 1916 in Cologne, Germany. The latest chapter takes place on April 4, 2017 in apartment 4L of Cabrini Terrace. Here, in Hudson Heights, Malli shared cake and memories with her neighbors in celebration of her one hundredth birthday. Here’s to you, Malli Rembacz: centenarian, fantastic potter, wonderful neighbor and fabulous New York woman.
The view from apartment 4L overlooks the schoolyard of PS/IS 187. It’s the perfect view for Malli, who trained as a kindergarten teacher in her native Germany. The term, meaning “garden for children” was coined by German Friedrich Fröbel. He envisioned kindergarten as a place for playing, singing, practical activities such as drawing, and social interaction as part of the transition for children from home to school. Hitler’s Germany was not the place where Malli could teach and children could enjoy this education. Malli, who describes herself as “an idealist” dreamt of a place where she could live in safety and practice her profession.
Malli booked passage aboard a boat to take her to Palestine. Just as she sailed from Germany, war broke out. Her ship took her to England where she was given refuge and work as a kindergarten teacher in Birmingham, an industrial city in the north of England. Explains Malli: “England was at war and the women had to work. The government opened schools to care for the children, and I was given a job for the next four years.” While working as a teacher, Malli perfected her English and began to save money for a new ticket to Palestine. At the end of the war, she boarded a ship from England to the Holy Land.
Malli chose to live in a kibbutz, a collective community. Located in the Judean Hills between Jerusalem and Hebron, Kibbutz Kfar Etzion was surrounded by Arab villages and in a vulnerable position. Palestine was under British rule, and the Jews had no ammunition with which to defend themselves. It was decided that the mothers of the children and Malli, the kibbutz kindergarten teacher, would take the youngsters to Jerusalem where they would be safe.
When the kibbutz was attacked by Arab forces on May 14, 1949, the inhabitants had no choice but to raise the white flag of surrender. In the Kfar Etzion massacre, 157 Jewish inhabitants of of the kibbutz, men and women, young and old, were murdered. Malli’s action had saved the lives of the children of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion.
Malli continued to work as a kindergarten teacher in Tel Aviv before deciding to join her brother in the United States. In New York, she quickly found work as a kindergarten teacher in a Jewish school in Queens. “I spoke both English and Hebrew,” she explains. “They wanted the children to learn both languages. I taught kindergarten in Queens for many years.”
Malli moved to Washington Heights, enjoying the area and its parks. Most of all, she loved making pottery, which she counted as her true vocation. “I really have been involved emotionally with clay. It’s the most wonderful medium.” explains the centenarian.
Asked to elaborate, Malli offers: “I fell in love with clay. You really can impress your own feeling with clay. Clay has got something which goes into emotions,” she says, gesturing towards her heart.
After studying at Alfred University, a leading New York Design College, Malli devoted her time to pottery. “I worked 24 hours a day at my pottery,” say Malli. She bought a wheel and installed it in her apartment in Cabrini Terrace. “I had a wheel in my bedroom; it got so messy that I had to give it up.” But word had spread, and neighbors were quick to purchase the beautifully glazed pottery Malli made by throwing on the wheel and by handbuilding.
Malli’s skill and dedication became legendary. She became known as “The Pottery Lady.” In 1990, she made an appearance on the David Letterman Show. She was introduced as a lady who could “turn a lowly lump of clay into a work of art.” Malli and David both centered clay on matching pottery wheels and she instructed him on how to throw a pot. She also managed to engage in a spirited water fight with the TV host. She won.
Says Malli: “I love the wheel. But you can’t really separate throwing and handbuilding. You have to do both to get what you want.” As for her beautiful glazes, Malli explains that she first had to learn the chemistry behind the colors. “When you have something nice, you can make it nicer with glazing.”
Asked to show examples of her favorite pieces, she admits: “I have nothing left. I gave it all away.” This reporter suggests the absence of pottery in the home of a potter known as The Pottery Lady, is the sign of a generous heart, a creative spirit, a lifetime of working with clay and a fabulous New York woman. Congratulations to you on your 100th birthday, Malli Rembacz, The Pottery Lady.