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Esther Lurie was born in Liepaja, Latvia, to a religious Jewish family with five children. Her family were forced to leave during World War I because the city's importance as a military port. In 1917 they shifted to Riga, where Lurie graduated from Ezra Gymnasium (high school). She already showed artistic talent in kindergarten and began to develop professionally from the age of fifteen, studying with various teachers. From 1931-1934 she learned theatrical set design at the Institut des Arts Décoratifs in Brussels, and afterwards studied drawing at the Académie Royal des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp.

In 1934 Lurie migrated to Palestine with most of her family and worked at various artistic activities. She designed sets for the Hebrew Theatre, as well as works for the Adloyada in Tel Aviv, the Bialik exhibition and the Eastern Fair. When events limited theatrical activity in Palestine, she devoted herself to drawing - producing many portraits. Her favorite subjects were dancers and musicians. She also travelled to many kibbutzim, painting the landscapes of Palestine, and her works were exhibited in kibbutzim dining rooms. Her first exhibition took place in Kibbutz Geva in 1937. In 1938 she was accepted as a member of the Painters and Sculptors Association in Palestine. She held solo exhibitions in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. In 1938 she won the Dizengoff Prize for Drawing - the most prestigious prize - for a work entitled "The Palestine Orchestra". This was shown at the general exhibition of Palestine artists in the Tel Aviv Museum.

In 1939 she travelled to Europe to further her studies, visiting France and attending the the Académie Royal des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp. That summer she visited relatives in Latvia and Lithuania, exhibiting work at the Painters' Association Building in Riga and also at Kovno (Kaunas) in Lithuania (both in 1939). The next year she held another exhibition at Kovno's Royal Opera House on the theme of "The Ballet". Her works received great acclaim and some of them were purchased by local Jewish institutions and by the Kovno State Museum. After the Nazi occupation they were confiscated, being defined as "Jewish art".

World War II had begun while she was in Lithuania and during the Nazi occupation (1941-44) she was imprisoned in the Kovno ghetto along with the other Jews. As soon as she entered the ghetto, in mid-1941, Lurie began to sketch views of her new world. She has left behind a detailed written testimony of her life and work during World War II. This combination of literary and visual testimony make up a "living witness" (the name she would later give to one of her books). They enable us to enter deeply into her life as an artist during this period under these difficult conditions. She wrote:

Everything that was happening all around was so strange, so different from all the ideas and practices of our lives hitherto. I felt that I must report on this new existence or at least make sketches. I must depict things as I saw them. Admittedly, it was only during periods of relative calm that I could devote myself to any such activity. But in the course of time I began to regard this work of mine as a duty.[1]
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