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Book Highlight: Tom Muhl - "Retouching Stalin's Moustache"

Retouching Stalin’s Moustache is the story of a talented artist, survivor of twentieth century Europe under both fascism and communism, who is coping with survival in America in a life complicated by further twists and turns of fate. The narrative moves from flashback to foreground, describing his early marriage and escape from the Old World. It follows up with more recent adventures, the dissolution of his marriage and newly created layers of memory. This book shows how a “permanently displaced person” must struggle to seek out means of adjusting to the daylight world of today.

Published in paperback and hardcover by Xlibris Publishing, the book is 366 pages, 10 photos and 9 line drawings. It is available at AHF's Amazon.com bookstore and in bookstores. It has also been selected as a textbook for the English department at Florida International University where fellow AHF member, poet-extraordinaire, and author of "Daughter of the Revolution, Peter Hargitai is a professor.

Howard Schumann at www.talkingpix.co.uk writes: "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."

Reader Reviews:

“In the recent film The Pianist, a Jewish pianist Wladislaw Szpilman lived in hiding for two and a half years during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Author, painter Thomas P. Muhl shared a similar experience in Budapest, Hungary and both survived to enrich the world with the power of their art.”

“In Retouching Stalin’s Moustache, the author looks 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, more ways than he can know, touched ours as well.”
The Schumann Review, Vancouver BC

“No refuge for the refugee.” It has been 30 years since Russian tanks crushed the dream of a free Hungary. But it has not been long enough for Tom Muhl to forget. The Miami Herald/Tropic Magazine

"Retouching Stalin's Moustache was one of the most inspirational books I've ever read. Author Thomas P. Muhl really opened up in this book, letting the reader into his life as an artist in the army during World War II. The story is beautifully written, and there are authentic pictures from the war throughout the book, to add to the experience this book provides. Muhl's life has been filled with pain and suffering, but he has proven himself to be a courageous survivor. I give this book five stars for its ability to inspire and motivate whoever may read it." amazon.com review

"The book "Retouching Stalin's Moustache" by Thomas P. Muhl is a mixture of history, art and love story in a "finding-yourself story". "Wladyslaw Szpilman", but much younger along with a love story. Every single detail in the book is very well described, he says in the preface that if he knew that he was going to write a book about his life, he would have takes more chances in his life, but what more than this? It's an inspiring story about his true lasting love, art, how they found each other and managed to stay together after so many obstacles in his life. Throughout the novel, you understand his personal story along with certain historic facts, about leaders and political status. He starts in present but for you to place yourself in his shoes have to go back in forth in time. It's the type of story I would recommend for young people, who don't know what to do with their lives, because, like I said it's inspiring for you to do what you really want to do in life, don't wait because it might be too late. It's the type of story that makes you realize how lucky we are for been born in this time. It's not until you read and visualize this type of story that you can really be grateful for what you are and have." amazon.com review

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How to Order

"Retouching Stalin's Moustache" by Thomas P. Muhl is available on AHF's Amazon bookstore! [Click Here] to order on "Retouching Stalin's Moustache" by Thomas P. Muhl is available on AHF's Amazon bookstore!

Tom Muhl fled the Russian invasion of Hungary, braving minefields and Russian tanks. Today he is a successful artist and writer, living in South Florida, dedicated to depicting the beauty and richness of his tropical environmentAbout Tom Muhl

Fifty years ago the author fled the Russian invasion of Hungary, braving minefields and Russian tanks. Today he is a successful artist and writer, living in South Florida, dedicated to depicting the beauty and richness of his tropical environment. He knows that in the mind of the eternal exile, there is a fine line between courage and cowardice.

Painter, writer, designer, Tomas Muhl was born in Budapest, Hungary. Following the collapse of the 1956 Revolution, he left his native country and emigrated to the United States. There he worked as an award-winning artist and Creative Director for prominent advertising agencies, including Young & Rubicam, J. Walter Thompson, and Bates Saatchi & Saatchi. He also created film scripts for documentaries and television as well as print advertising.

Tom made his debut as an artist in high school by drawing uncomplimentary caricatures of his teachers during class. Inevitably, his "art" was discovered and, if not for the intervention of Art teacher Mr. Pesko, might have resulted in his expulsion from school. Eventually, he was allowed to attend the exclusive Art class that was established only for older and exceptionally gifted students. As a child confined to the Budapest Ghetto with his mother during the Second World War, he witnessed the atrocities committed by the Hungarian Nazis first hand. His father, a classically trained musician, who served in the Hungarian army at that time, used a daring bluff to rescue them only days before the full-scale transports from the Ghetto to the death camps began.

One of Tom's earliest experiences as an artist was serving in the Art Studio maintained by the Hungarian Army prior to the fall of Communism. There, his canvasses had to be laid out in sections all across the floor of the working studio and measured by square meters, not inches. He painted mammoth super-billboard parade portraits of the political heroes of Bolshevik history to be displayed for propaganda purposes and also supplied, on orders from the officers, copies of the Old Masters paintings on view in the Fine Arts Museum of Budapest. These newly created works were used to adorn the private collections of some of the privileged leaders of the occupying Communist government. Noted artists who were still able to function in such surroundings recognized his considerable talent and he received a great deal of guidance and help.

Tom soon realized, however, that he could no longer force himself to abide by the petty cruelties of that regime and learned very early that he would be compelled to struggle to survive as well as to find an artistic balance in a mostly hostile universe. If the times had been different, he could have lived the peaceful and productive life of a serious artist. What actually happened was a picaresque grinding-down process, a series of events that he relates with irony and acute observation in his book, "Retouching Stalin's Moustache."

After a dramatic escape across the border into Austria after the 1956 uprising, Tom spent some months in an Austrian detention camp before finally receiving permission to emigrate to England. There he studied at the Royal Academy of Art and also found work with Halas & Batchelor Ltd., Europe's largest cartoon film studio at the time. After arriving in America, he lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then in New York City, eventually finding his way to California where he studied at the Academy of Arts in San Francisco. He was employed as a designer and art director with a series of art studios and fast-moving advertising agencies. Inspired by the freedom of life in the newly adopted country, his paintings and sketches gradually evolved into a truly individual style, his work beginning now to appear in both galleries and private collections such as: The Derry Hayer Collection, The Marshall Foundation, The Vicson Galleries, Noslopi Collection, The Pelican Gallery and Le Paz Ltd.

As a resident of Miami, Florida since 1974, Thomas Muhl’s style has once again undergone a change, inspired by the colors of Florida’s lush foliage and ever- changing skies, his large canvasses now are almost entirely dedicated to depicting the beauty and richness of the tropical environment. But they are much more than that.

Muhl’s unique vision and novel compositions not only resists what may be fashionable in contemporary art, but they go beyond that. His landscapes are internal and his ars operandi has more in common with music and poetry- with the composer Bela Bartok and the poet William Wordsworth in the way he is able to enchant all that is banal in our world. He does with his brush and his passion for color, what the poet does with his words: To transform “ every common sight in celestial light, the fondness and beauty of a dream.”

In his story about his 1956 experience he writes:

"I was an artist. My job was to paint larger-than-life portraits of Lenin and Stalin. That wasn't so bad. In fact, I was almost content with my lot. But then the Russians came back, and I had to paint sores on my wife's face to keep her from being raped by the soldiers. It was then I decided to leave Hungary. That decision has haunted me ever since."

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