Folks of Fairview: Simon Gurdal

Simon Gurdal and Gil

“Never!” the ninety-five (and a half) year old photographer, says when asked about his employment at the Fairview Town Crier. “I was just a volunteer.” He laughs a hearty “Ha! Ha!” and shrugs his shoulders, his hands open as if offering a gift.

Simon Gurdal and his wife, Gilberte (Gil, pronounced “Jill”), found Fairview, NC somewhat by accident. Nearing retirement, they were travelling from their home in New York to visit friends in Florida and decided to take the back roads. Simon remembers reaching Western North Carolina. “’My God, it’s beautiful!’ I said to Gil. ‘Look at these mountains!’” Following that first stopover, they visited multiple times before moving to Joe Jenkins Road in Fairview nearly 30 years ago. Right away, Simon began taking photos and offering them to The Crier for publication. Simon Gurdal and Gil

Simon the photographer

“It has been my hobby since 13 or 14 years old. My father gave me the first camera,” he pauses, then snaps his fingers, remembering. “A Brownie it was called!” Though he hasn’t lived in Belgium, the country of his birth, since 1961 when he emigrated to Canada, Simon’s lovely native accent still highlights his speech.

“Ah, you know, you learn by yourself, you take lots of pictures.” And, according to Simon, you join your local camera club. “When I moved to a new city, I asked, ‘Do they have a camera club?’ If they say yes, then Simon is there!” When he lived in New York, for example, Simon belonged to multiple camera clubs. Members shared tips and advice, helping each other fine tune the craft. They also held contests. “Ah and I won a few prizes myself,” Simon nods, smiling. “It was an honor to win,” he says, a faint blush on his cheeks. “We had some prestigious judges—from the New York Times even.”

These days, camera clubs are hard to find. “You know what killed the camera club?” he asks, then answers his question. “The smart phone! Now everyone is a photographer.” He has a point. But even in this age of 24/7 photo documentation of daily life, few have taken pictures the quality of those Simon has produced.

Simon the boy

Still, as remarkable as his photography is, it is the snapshots of Simon’s full and eventful life that captivate listeners who lean in to hear more. From hiding from the Gestapo, to serving in the Belgian Brigade of the British army during World War II, to meeting his beloved Gil on a cargo ship when they both traveled from Belgium to Montreal, Simon moves seamlessly from one story to the next.

“My mother was fantastic!” he remembers. “She spoke six languages!” Simon’s parents, astute and clever, kept both him and his older sister from being forced to work in German factories. “They sent me to a farm, my godmother’s farm, oh was that some hard work! You better believe it! I’ve never worked so hard.” Simon waves away the thought of it then makes the understatement of the century, “But the Gestapo didn’t find me and that was good.”

Annie–the child they saved

Simon Gurdal with Annie“Do you know who this is?” Simon asks, holding a photo taken in the 1940s. It’s of Simon in military uniform crouching down next to a little girl. “This is Annie,” he says, his voice breaking. He swats at the moisture in his eyes. “I never knew it,” Simon says, “Kids you know, they talk, so my father he never told us about her.” As it turns out, in addition to redirecting the Gestapo’s efforts to find Simon and his sister, his parents also kept them from finding little Annie, a Jewish girl they kept hidden until the end of the war. “Someone showed up at our home with this little girl and asked that the family hide her.” Once the war ended, a relative returned to reclaim Annie. “We never know what happened to her. But she survived the war because my parents, they hid her.”

Simon the soldier

When he was old enough—at least that’s what he told the recruiter—he joined the Belgian Brigade. “That’s when I started smoking. In the army.”  He pulls out a photo of a young soldier with a cigarette. “I quit 40-50 years ago though.”

Simon Gurdal front row seated far right
Simon is on the front row seated, far right, smoking a cigarette.

Pictures of soldiers fan out on the desk. Uniformed battalions, a couple of guys on leave, another staged group shot. “When you come back from war, you have seen many, many bad things,” he says.

Simon’s time in the military included some of the most significant battles of World War II: Operation Market Garden and the Battle of the Bulge, for example. When it was over, Simon traveled with his brigade through several of the devastated areas of Germany. “I know for four years, Germany was really bad. But afterwards when you see people who are trying to say hello—only women and children, no men anywhere—it’s sad. We were forbidden to speak to them. They were the enemy, and we were not allowed.” Simon shakes his head. “Maybe a few weeks before they were saying ‘Heil Hitler,’ but then we saw them starving, every home leveled . . .” his voice trails off then he adds, “We were forbidden, you know, but we were giving our rations to little kids. They were the enemy, yes, but they were hungry.” War. It makes the simplest of choices so confusing.

Simon the engraver

hand printed fabric by Simon Gurdal

After his military service ended, Simon took classes and was trained in the art of hand engraving on copper rolls used for printing on fabric. His skills evolved with the technology, from copper engraving to photo engraving to silk screen printing. Over time, he moved into supervisory roles, retiring as a quality control manager. “But I was always taking pictures,” Simon remarks, “And when I came to Fairview, I took some of them to The Crier and they put them in the paper.” Again the hearty “Ha! Ha!” and self-deprecating shrug. “And that,” Simons says, “was that.”

This piece first appeared in our local paper, The Fairview Town Crier, where I write a monthly column called Folks of Fairview. You can read the Crier online here.

By Aileen MItchell Lawrimore

Aileen Mitchell Lawrimore is a mother x 3, wife x 35 (years not men), minister, speaker, writer, retreat leader, and lover of beagles and books. She has a lot to say.