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La Jolla artist turns her life’s odyssey into a page-turner

The sun’s rays beaming through the window illuminate the beautiful paintings that decorate Hilda Pierce’s La Jolla home. Pierce, a noted artist, is proud of her artistic achievements, but has a new twinkle in her eyes these days. She’s the author of the new book “Hilda,” the story of her turbulent, at times horrifying and, other times, jubilant life. Most interestingly, her book reveals how she ingeniously escaped Hitler’s hold on Vienna in 1938.

Pierce begins her story as a young girl in Austria enjoying the good life. A smart, intuitive only child, she quickly realized when Hitler and his forces marched into Vienna that her family needed to get out. Pierce set about to get a visa to America and was the only one of her family to evacuate to England, a stepping stone to America, on only a moment’s notice.

“I had watched the movies,” Pierce said. “I knew the streets of America were paved with gold, that there was a prince on every corner and that I would marry a handsome actor. It was all I dreamed about - going to America.”

Through an amazing journey that relied on many “miracles,” in Pierce’s words, she arrived on a steamer that sailed into New York harbor in 1939. She would endure many life-changing events, but never gave up on bringing her parents to America.

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“I had many trials, but I was like a Jack-in-the-Box,” Pierce said. “No matter how many times I got knocked down, kicked, spit on, I just popped back up. God’s gift to me was parents who taught me that I was a good person. I always had a strong sense of self, and that helped me survive many ordeals.”

Pierce got married, had a child and began painting. She studied with expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka, and achieved artistic success when she was commissioned to complete 1,400 paintings for two cruise ships, the Fantasy and the Imagination, for Carnival Cruise Lines. Her art is now exhibited both nationally and internationally.

Though she still paints, it’s “Hilda” that Pierce is most eager to talk about today. As the book details, while others were just days from the deportation camps, this young woman made decisions that placed her on a different journey. Her book is poignant, honest, engaging and, at times, has more adventure and turmoil than a Hollywood movie.

Erica Torri, executive director of La Jolla’s Athenaeum Music and Arts Library told Pierce that “Hilda” was completely engrossing.

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“Full of tragic and scary events, then saved by your savvy and the many special people around you, I read it all in one sitting,” Torri said.

Pierce said it was often desperation and pure chutzpah that got her through many of her life’s ordeals.

“But they’re tempered by serendipity,” she said. “David Ben Gurion’s quote in my book - ‘In order to be a realist, you have to believe in miracles’ - says it all for me. You might get a miracle, but you have to be smart enough to recognize it and grab it so it doesn’t leave you behind. I’m an optimist, and at 84 still believe the glass is half full.”

Pierce, a recent guest author at the 13th Annual Jewish Book Fair in La Jolla, will speak and sign books at St Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego on Nov. 18 at 3 p.m. Her art can viewed at www.hildapierce.com.