WITNESS AND LEGACY   continued

 

THE SURVIVOR ARTIST
A document that survives from the art jury committee in the Vilna ghetto from March 16, 1943, indicated approval for exhibiting twenty­seven sketches by "S. Bak (9 years old)."15 Since then, Samuel Bak's entire life has been involved with the difficult memories of the Holocaust. He survived physically, but only barely on an emotional level.

His art began as abstract expressionism, with some similarities to Rothko's altar­like works. By the 1970s, however, Bak was working in surrealistic landscapes with both a Renaissance pallet and Magritte­like irony in most of his works. However, the major focus was not a flippant humor, rather a serious attempt to deal with his survival. His work may be likened to a healing art or reflect the deep tragedy of the powerlessness of ghetto existence. In The Observers, from 1973, his figures appear like concentration camp survivors, cut off at the shoulder. The have no limbs and are juxtaposed to constructive­like paper cutouts and chess pawns. The Ghetto (1976) appears as a destroyed town set within a tomb in the earth in the shape of a Star of David. Variations of this work have integrated Judaic themes of Sabbath or yahrzeit (memorial) candles, expressing a deep grieving process the artist continues to go through. In his still­life scenes, the objects are dysfunctional. In other paintings, angels, often bearers of biblical prophecy and rescue, have leather wings that seem not to work or are themselves in chains. Many of his works refer to the obliteration of the Ten Commandments. That Is the Question, a 1989 still life of broken objects, reminds one of Hamlet's soliloquy and the words that came earlier, "To be or not to be," which was part of daily survival in the ghetto. The layers of destruction that Bak paints are set against beautiful landscape backgrounds and calm skies, references to the isolation of the victims and perhaps the complacency of the world of the onlookers.

Living now near Boston, Bak continues to paint on an even grander scale, and his works have drawn in more symbols of the past and contemporary worlds and their illusions. Pears, wine bottles, broken clocks and clocks, chess pieces and Hebrew letters are symbols that appear in various states of decomposition in Bak's works, conveying in their own way layerings of pain for the viewer. Bak sees an absolute need to use the metaphor of surrealism as a way of confronting the Holocaust. He has written:

My reluctance to deal with these subjects in a direct way must have multiple reasons. Objectively, documents, films and memoirs seem to me more eloquent than a painters creation. And yet they seldom achieve more than a faint echo of the reality that they try to describe. One might possibly solve this by way of a meaningful transfiguration, but the forms or subjective expressionism, brought to their maximal development by the advent of two World Wars, are at present exhausted.16

Viewers will note that Bak's paintings come exceptionally close to creating an entirely new visual vocabulary for interpreting the Holocaust, through both his own suffering and as a metaphor for specific and universalized disturbances.

Judith Goldstein is also a survivor of the Vilna ghetto and Stutthof and Buchenwald concentration camps. Her father was killed, although her mother and brother survived. Most of her relatives perished at Ponar, a massacre site outside Vilna, which, like Babi Yar outside of Kiev, for many years had no commemorative marker. Goldstein's art possesses a certain naive style, which has been used also by Ilex Beller in France, Pearl Hessing in England and the American­Jewish artist Harry Lieberman, who was not a survivor but painted some interesting Holocaust paintings. This style, when related to the theme of the Holocaust, is sometimes disarming to the viewer, as the power of the subject is in some conflict with the apparent lightness of the medium. Goldstein's collages are her memories and hopes as she constantly reflects back on her period of captivity. In Crematory, the oven and smokestack appear as a modern icon, with visions of human heads in the smoke. Vilno Ghetto was based on symbols in a ring Goldstein's father made in the ghetto from a silver coin. She managed to keep it, despite searches that necessitated giving up every other possession as she went through Stutthof and Buchenwald. The collage utilizes the Hebrew letters vov and gimmel, the abbreviation for the Vilna ghetto, as a title for a triangle that incorporates symbols of oppression and dehumanization with a few elements of hope. Vilno Ghetto also contains references to the musical life of the ghetto and to Goldstein's memories of the choir conductor, Dumashkin, who was later killed. Goldstein herself has also explored musical approaches to the Holocaust, having written several songs about her experiences.

Netty Schwartz Vanderpol was born in Amsterdam and was thirteen years old when Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands. She was a classmate of Anne Frank, whose diary is one of the most celebrated works of modern literature. In 1943, Vanderpol and her family were deported to Westerbork concentration camp and then Terezin, north of Prague. Vanderpol was placed on several deportation trains for Auschwitz, only to be removed at the last minute. In February 1945, she and a group of fellow inmates from Terezin were sent to Switzerland in exchange for German prisoners of war, the only such exchange of the war.

Vanderpol started doing needlepoint in 1984, and it became a vehicle for dealing with her emotions and "guilt of survival," a form of therapy. Her work represents an abstract type of art, with a collective title for her work, Every Stitch a Memory. Each work deals with various "textures of grief," as she describes it, and is both art for viewing and therapy for the artist. Some works contain direct Holocaust imagery, such as the Star of David with the Dutch word Jood, barbed wire, concentration camp numbers, vignettes of flowers that grew near the perimeter fence at Terezin and train tracks. One work, All the King's Horses and All the King's Men, is a needlepoint design that includes a broken mirror, a testimony to the broken life of her mother, who later was a victim of Alzheimer's disease but still remembered the camps. The broken mirror is also a metaphor for her own broken life.

Vanderpol's medium, needlepoint, is unique and is often difficult for the art critic to approach. Her focus within the medium is abstraction, and her works have been compared to some of the chromaticists of the abstract expressionist movement of the post­1945 period. Each work contains very quiet and controlled symbols and perhaps an inner rage. Powerful textures of the yarn itself are woven into evocative designs. One cannot go away from Vanderpol's work without the feeling of having witnessed a vast disturbance, which may be Holocaust­specific in most works, but is also a universal expression of grief. As a medium, needlepoint is also specifically feminine, and in this case it is raised to the level of a higher contemporary art form.

During the Holocaust, Kitty Klaidman was a hidden child. She was protected at first by a Christian neighbor, Jan Velicky, who then found refuge for her family with the Drinas family, who were farmers. The Klaidmans lived for two years in an attic space of the farmhouse. Klaidman's visual memory of her youth, therefore, is heavily involved in recalling horrible and long periods of anxiety. Hidden Memories is a series of paintings that focus on these attic spaces. They carry with them some ominous overtones, but also a sense of abstraction that can produce a non­Holocaust interpretation emphasizing painterly aspects of the works. Ghost Games is a series that juxtaposes the view down circular staircases with old family photographs. Childhood Revisited is a mixed­media series that peers at the past as if through shaded and aged photographs. One might detect in these works some similarity of landscape with that of Joyce Lyon's work, and the use of photographs evokes some comparisons with Christian Boltanski's utilization of photographs in installations.

Gabrielle Rossmer did not have memories of attic hiding. However, her evading the Holocaust by coming to America just before the outbreak of World War II did not have a totally happy ending. While she and her immediate family escaped from Bamberg, Germany, her grandparents did not. After a long struggle to obtain visas, they were "transferred to an old age home in the East," where they perished. Rossmer was invited to return to Germany at the end of 1991 to install a sculptural ensemble that recalled her own family's emigration from Germany and the horrors of her grandparents' deportation and extermination. The exhibition took the title of In Search of the Lost Object and was installed in the Bamberg Municipal Museum that formerly had been the Judenhaus, the very place of the grandparents' house arrest.

Rossmer's installation uses artifacts that the viewer can feel, touch and read. There are photocopies of German passports and identification papers marked with a "J" (Jude), documents on Aryanization of the family's business and property and papers detailing the road from Germany to America, including tickets and menus from the voyage on the SS President Harding. Ghost­like apparitions appear amid the documents and family photographs. There are many objects, but the lost object is the one most dear that cannot be retrieved. Objects appear in a sense only as ghosts moving throughout the environment, alongside the viewer. Rossmer's individual loss becomes a tragic episode through the power of the installation, but also a metaphor for all displacement and similar suffering. What is most frightening is the conclusion that must be sensed-that this is the story of a "normal" middle­class family that suddenly found itself torn apart. Edith Altman's father was arrested in Altenburg, Germany, and detained in Buchenwald in the days after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Eventually he was released and the family emigrated, after many desperate encounters, to Chicago. After an evolution through an academically based art, Altman became a political artist, using installations as her form of fighting racism and prejudice. Altman's chief interest is in symbols and words, which she regards as having strong positive and negative attributes. An analysis of such words and symbols and their transformation from positive to negative and back again in an alchemical manner provides a way of understanding her art and aspects of contemporary history. The Nazis, for example, used all sorts of euphemisms to describe the killing of the Jews, the ultimate one being Endosslung or "final solution." Other phrases and words, such as "Arbeit Macht Frei," created negative connotations to otherwise innocent words.

Altman sees her role as a priestess or shaman, with artistic powers to "reclaim" inverted symbols and words. The study of the Kabbala, with its focus on positive and negative attributes, white and black, forces of light and darkness, produces in her installation works a dialectic of words that cannot but impel the viewer to question his own values and prejudices. The Holocaust emerges as the greatest negative force. In the installation show It was Beyond Human Imagination, Altman asks questions about the working of the human mind and our learning processes, especially regarding definition of "the other" and victimization. The power of words is inescapable in Altman's works, as well as an understanding of how Hitler manipulated similar words as a language for genocide. Altman's healing power through art aims at deconstructing ominous symbols, like the black swastika. She changes it back to a positive force by introducing powders and earth that neutralize its negative attributes and transform it into spiritual gold. Reclaiming the Symbol/The Art of Memory is a powerful statement of the artist's ability to mend the world in the post­Holocaust era. Implicitly, it is the obligation of victims, like Altman herself, to take the leadership in this rebuilding process.

Gerda Meyer­Bernstein came from Hagen, Germany, to England in the 1939 children's special emigration at the age of fifteen. Later she came to Chicago. Meyer­Bernstein has been involved with the creation of politically charged installations. According to the artist, her work "is political because political events have shaped my life." Art for the artist, however, is not merely political commentary or mourning. Installation art for Meyer­Bernstein has become a way to effect nonviolent change. She has done many works on the Holocaust, as this is a direct reflection on her own life and fate, as well as that of her father, who was also an artist. However, she has also created powerful statements about other forms of violence in the twentieth century. Antiwar themes are woven into her works such as Vietnam Memorial (1983), Procession (1981) and Garden of Eden (1981­82). Other issues addressed in her installations include apartheid in South Africa, civil wars around the world, destruction of human lives, boat people, nuclear war and, most recently, the relationship between blacks and Jews in America. These works, when placed alongside her Holocaust installations such as Block 11 (1989), Volcano, (1993) Aus der Asch (198586), Requiem (1983) and Hommage of Raoul Wallenberg (1972), suggest a redemptive role for art by opening wounds and allowing for a healing process. Meyer­Bernstein makes an important point of utilizing the Holocaust as a personal springboard for comprehending all later acts of violence. These events, however tragic they may be, are not a "Holocaust."

Meyer­Bernstein's installation for Witness and Legacy is Shrine. As an artwork, Shrine is an extended meditation on the meaning of Auschwitz and the people who ran it. The installation, set in a darkened room with hay strewn on the floor, evokes the bleakness of the Auschwitz environment. Barbed wires line the walls, with photographs of the crematoria and appelplatz (roll­call square) behind the wire. This is the world that Elie Wiesel has called "the kingdom of night," and the sense of that darkness is well understood in the darkness and silence of the installation.

The other side juxtaposes scenes of the crematoria with individual photos of Rudolph Hoss, commandant at Auschwitz, who helped build the camp and run it during its first three years. Hoss, who was tried in Poland after the war, came to represent the relative "normal" or banal background of perpetrators. His father wanted him to be a priest, but he often complained of the endlessness of religious ritual. Below a larger center photograph of a crematoria are three memorial candles, lit with bulbs. The overriding sense of death and hopelessness is barely relieved, except in the few photographic scenes of the outdoors. These do not necessarily suggest hope, but the other reality of deception, where the phrase "Arbeit Macht Frei" greeted inmates at the gates.

 

THE SECOND GENERATION ARTISTS
Witness and Legacy contains the work of five artists who represent the second generation. Debbie Teicholz's medium is photography and photo reliefs, highly affected by use of destructive techniques of annulled images, charred wood and color tinting. Her main series, A Prayer by the Wall, contains strong points of reference to the Holocaust, but not in a literal manner. The evocation of images of train tracks, plowed earth, cut trees, targets and a sensitive reflection on decaying landscapes was inspired by the memory of the Holocaust on one hand and experiences in Israel. In Teicholz's photographic triptychs, the landscape of Israel and the Western Wall, the most holy site in Judaism, creates a sense of redemption, transforming the dead landscape of tracks and barren land. Teicholz's identity is strongly influenced by the memory of displacement and, being of the second generation, "My identity was greatly influenced by a past from which I am once removed. My art bears witness to this feeling of displacement, of living in a time warp, where a flashback to the Holocaust takes place simultaneously with events of today.17 The nonspecific aspects of place suggest the difficulty of memory in identifying places of mass murder. Is this perhaps an allusion to the ethical question about how to commemorate memory in the concentration camps? Should they be left to rot and return to the earth, or should they be preserved in a fashion that might become miniamusement parks?

Conceptually similar to the photographs of Teicholz is the work of Joyce Lyon, a Minneapolis artist whose father is a Holocaust survivor from Rzeszow, Poland. Most of his family was killed at Belzec death camp. Lyon's situation as a member of the second generation led her to inquiry about relatives who disappeared, about literature and testimony about the Holocaust and ultimately to her own expression, Conversations with Rzeszow: A Dialogue Exploring Different Kinds of Knowing. Conversations is based on a series of paintings that were also transformed into a book of the same title. It is, as Lyon points out, "a dialogue between what is familiar to me...and experiences that I do not­and cannot­know first hand."18 The artistic aspect of Conversations juxtaposes paintings around Rzeszow, including scenes of mass graves in the Glogow Woods, with remarkably similar landscapes from Minnesota and New York. The message is clear and suggestive of the terrible burden that memory imposes: The similarity of landscape between Poland and parts of North America indicates that memory about genocide can be induced particularly from nonpolitical sources. A bird sanctuary, woods near Tofte, Minnesota, or the remains of a razed hotel from a New York resort have a magical potency of evoking images of isolation and death in Poland's camps and forests. Just as Teicholz's enigmatic photographs of railroad tracks convey a powerful sense of tragedy, so too do Lyon's paintings suggest that the Holocaust's landscape was very much like places we know and enjoy.

Pier Marton is a second­generation artist who has wrestled with problems of his parents' survival and the impact of contemporary anti­Semitism. This led him to merge the video interview of children of survivors, called Say I'm a Jew, with an installation entitled Jew, set in a cattle car. Being a member of the second generation and experiencing European anti­Semitism in France in the 1950s and 1960s led Marton to the inability to openly express his Jewishness. Drawing from his own experience, Marton was obsessed with the question of how children of the second generation have coped with growing up in Europe after World War II. While attending a convention of second­generation survivors, Marton advertised for individuals willing to tell the story of their European and Jewish identity experiences on camera. Many volunteered. Marton edited bits and pieces of the video together to form an engaging artistic and psychological work.

The American­European painter R. J. Kitaj has represented what he terms "diasporism" as a major component in contemporary artistic life. This is a useful concept to explain the works of many artists in this show, who constantly have to deal with a Jewish identity problem in a world that is potentially enticing and supportive and also contains anti­Semitism, denial and insult. Marton's space was made to represent a blend of cattle car, barracks and a mausoleum. As Marton has written, "Memory can fuse separate locations in an inextricable blend.''19 Within the installation area were seats where the video played continuously. Those attending the show were encouraged to write their responses on the walls of the entrance and boxcar itself, recalling the memory of how deportees did the same on their way to death camps.

Mindy Weisel, a Washington­based, second generation painter, has moved her work in the direction of an abstraction involving intensive color washes and infusion of small signs of the ever­presence of the past. This is suggestive of varying levels of emotional coping with events that were connected with her parents. Born in the Bergen­Belsen displaced persons (DP) camp in 1947, Weisel has noted that she struggled for recognition from her parents, who seemed to have established a psychic and real distance from her during childhood, a function of their own problems of survival and loss. Art for Weisel has become a method of coping with the emotions she inherited from her parents' survival. She began showing her art in 1977, and a 1980 exhibit was entitled Paintings of the Holocaust, a series of works done in pastel, oil paint, crayon and pencil on paper.20 Her father's Auschwitz number figures prominently in some of the works, and most of them have a sense of brooding, although some optimism may be detected. Weisel's works have a spiritual feel to them, especially with color choice: Strong blacks, blues and aquamarine colors prevail in most of her works, often with yellowish tan backgrounds or intrusions. Symbols abound, be they concentration camp numbers, Hebrew words, or visual references. Above all, Weisel's art can be appreciated on a purely aesthetic level as abstraction, and the Holocaust­related symbols may evade the inattentive viewer.

Art Spiegelman's use of the comic book is both an innovative and problematic form of art and literary conveyance. Many survivors found Maus something that came close to blasphemy. The depiction of Jews as mice and Germans as cats seemed to be a somewhat unfitting reminder of German propaganda through films such as Hippler's The Eternal Jew (1940).

Spiegelman was the product of a thoroughly American environment of the late 1950s and 1960s, dominated by his interest in comic books and the untold story of his parents' survival. His mother, Anja, committed suicide in 1968. Subsequently, Spiegelman's father, Vladek, burned Anja's diaries. The loss of his mother as well as Anja's story was the stimulus for researching the true story of his parents' involvement in the Holocaust. The result was Art Spiegelman's more than forty hours of audio taping with Vladek Spiegelman, substantial technical and artistic research and the translating of that story into Maus.

Is Maus art? The art critic Adam Gopnik has tried to answer this interesting question:

If you ask educated people to tell you everything they know about the history and psychology of cartooning, they will probably offer something like this: cartoons (taking caricature, political cartooning, and comic strips all together as a single form) are a relic of the infancy of art, one of the earliest forms of visual communication (and therefore, by implication, especially well­suited to children); they are naturally funny and popular; and their gift is above all for the diminutive.21

Gopnik goes on to suggest the truth is actually the opposite and that cartoons represent "a relatively novel offspring of an extremely sophisticated visual culture."22

Previous exhibitions of Spiegelman's drawings have made it clear that he first utilized the format of Maus in Prisoner on the Hell Planet in 1972. His first idea for the mouse metaphor was to apply it to the history of African Americans, but he soon applied it to the Jews. As Spiegelman progressed into the drawing of Maus, he became concerned with various aesthetic aspects that were important from the point of view of the visual artist. "He was becoming increasingly concerned with deconstructing the basic narrative and visual elements of the comic strip: How does one panel on a page relate to others? How do a strip's artificial cropping and use of pictorial illusion manipulate reality?...How do words and pictures combine in the human brain."23 In this quest, the artist rejected photo­realism, elaborate detailing and shading, and ultimately developed a particular reduction process in which text was reduced to fit the artistic space.

Witness and Legacy marks a beginning of the process of investigating the subject of the Holocaust. In addition, the exhibition raises the greater question of whether or not it is possible to enter into the subject without trivializing the event and developing visual forms that are distortions. Just as Greek and Roman art developed their own symbols based on mythology and Christian art symbols relate to the Passion of Jesus and the biblical stories, so too is a common visual language emerging to describe the Holocaust. In this Holocaust imagery, there is a spectrum that runs from the realistic scenes of barbed wire, gas chambers, crematoria, children, mounds of bodies and relics to more abstract, metaphorical and allusive gestures.

From the perspective of the Torah, the Holocaust demands some reinvestigation of old stories and their current meaning: the presence of God, original sin, the sacrifice of Isaac, the story of Job. Beyond this is the story of man himself, with both the potential for good and evil. Christian and Jewish theologians have both asked the questions: "Where was man?" and " Where was God?"

As the twentieth century closes, there is more and more of a burden and an increasing urgency to tell the story. The generation of witnesses is passing. All that will be left is the legacy. Throughout history, art has been a means of such telling. Within the realm of art, the Holocaust era may just be emerging.

Stephen C. Feinstein

Co-curator of Witness and Legacy
University of Wisconsin at River Falls

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NOTES

15. "Minutes of the Exhibition Jury, March 16, 1943, Vilna Ghetto." Translation of YIVO Document #466 by Dina Abramowicz. (New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research).   GO BACK

16. Samuel Bak as quoted in Bak: Oils, Watercotors, Drawings, 1972&SHY;1974 (New York: Aberbach Fine Art, October&SHY;November 1974), 3.   GO BACK

17. Paul Kresh, "Photograph Exhibit Evokes Memories of the Holocaust," Jewish Weeks, Inc., May 10&SHY;16, 1991, 38.  GO BACK

18. Joyce Lyon, Conversations with Rzezsow (Minneapolis: Wallace Carlson Co., 1993).  GO BACK

19. Pier Marton, letter to Stephen Feinstein, 11 April 1994.   GO BACK

20. For an extended discussion of Weisel's background with longer personal statements, see Vivian Alpert Thompson, A Mission in Art (Macon, Gal: Mercer University Press, 1988), 94&SHY;95. Weisel's mother died in 1994.   GO BACK

21. Adam Gopnik, "Comics and Catastrophe," New Republic, 22 June 1987.GO BACK

22. Ibid.   GO BACK

23. Galerie St. Etienne, Art Spiegelman: The Road to Maus (New York: Galerie St. Etienne, 1992). Exhibition brochure.   GO BACK


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