The old joke goes that for every two Jews there are three opinions – if not more. That well describes the state of Holocaust observance. There are no less than three different days in the calendar that are devoted to ceremonies and events marking the Nazi extermination plans to murder the Jews.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed this year on January 27. This marks the day that Soviet troops entered Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and liberated the inmates. Though my mother had been interred there in April 1944, by the time Soviet troops arrived she had already been sent to Theresienstadt in German-occupied Czechoslovakia and was liberated there.
In Israel, the day selected by the Israeli government for observing and commemorating the victims of the Nazis is connected to a different event. Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust and Hero Remembrance Day as it came to be known, was intended to fall on the day marking the bitterly courageous, quixotic, and ultimately futile Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The actual date of that event was too close to the 8-day Passover holiday, so its observance was held till close thereafter, this year falling on April 23-4.
To complicate matters further, there is no consensus within the Jewish population of Israel that this is the appropriate day for observing these events. The larger secular and national religious populations observe Yom Ha Shoah, while a smaller segment of more devoutly observant (and often corresponding with those who pass on army service) choose to maintain their commemorations on the traditional day that marks the loss of the Temples in Jerusalem. Tisha B’Av, a day of fasting and reading of Lamentations, falls in the heat of the summer, this year on July 31- August 1, and has been a date associated with calamity and persecution throughout Jewish history.
Each of these days affords opportunities to reflect, to recall the non-aging faces that remain as if they are frozen in amber, to connect with the losses, and to honor those caught in the Nazi trap of evil. As mentioned here last year, there are many ways to recall and remember.
The Jerusalem Print Workshop recently mounted an exhibit, Under the Press of History, which culminated an art project of looking into days gone by. The word press in the Hebrew incorporates a double enténdre referring to pressure as well, a clever reference to the act of heavy pressure that is used to create etchings.
Six artists incorporating the past into their artwork were invited to work with the master printers of the Workshop. Illit Azoulay, Maya Zack, Merav Solomon, Gil Yefman, Moshe Roas and Ruth Schreiber created prints dealing with their understanding of “courses of history and memory processes.”
Curator Irena Gordon, in her catalogue essay, groups their work as “exploring the manner in which the past destabilizes the present.”
The exhibit stretched over the lower level gallery space and continued to the original low-ceilinged top floor, allowing observers a glimpse of the printmaking equipment and etching station along the way. The deep velvet black of printing inks are seductive in themselves, and the separate sets pulled the viewer into the very different approaches.
Illit Azoulay explored the history of the location of the Print Workshop itself through randomly distributed printing tools and detritus found on site, In her exhibit called Veritas, she searches for the truth underlying the technical aspects of printmaking. Moshe Roas created 2 sets of prints: one concentrating on the elements of an antique piano and its separate parts, and one focusing on organic plants, including dying date palm trees near Ein Gedi, resulting from sinkholes in the area. He observed that the entire history of the palm tree is incorporated in its stubbed protrusions.
Four of the six artists chose subject matter dealing with World War II and the Holocaust, they were of three different generations, with four approaches to confronting the past.
Maya Zack turned her formidable drawing skills to explore Jewish-German poet Paul Celan’s post-WWII ruminations on loss and death as being something that cannot be resolved through words, but only though acts, posing a question that has no answer. Her installation of prints was exhibited in a circular layout to allude to a detective’s crime-scene investigation. She searched the breaking down of words, writing, technical aspects of writing as being an act of drawing, elements of the poet’s past, and the build-up of compiled details. Gordon notes that Zack dives into the “memories and traces of memories. . . into the obscurity of the collective history of Europe’s Jews, and into Celan’s personal family history, which tells the story of his mother and father who had been sent away to concentration camps where they were murdered.”
Notable among the works was a triptych etching, Groundwater Traces, of a high-heeled bleeding woman (Celan’s mother?) laid flat on a low-to-the-floor elevated stage etching herself over and over. Seen in profile from above, the etching leads off the stage, connected to a desk, where an etching of a hand writing, returning to the word and completed the crime scene.
Ruth Schreiber, daughter of Holocaust survivors, is an artist whose works are often autobiographical. Both parents narrowly escaped the grim fate of Europe’s Jews, one having been sent as a child on the Kindertransport to England, the other sent to London by boat some time later. Both grew into adulthood parentless and the artist grandparent-less.
Letters from my Grandparents is an artist’s book comprised of 8 screenprints, each containing fragments of handwritten letters, elements of memory, and child-like icons such as the postman who connected the far-away parent with the anxious child waiting,
These postcards go beyond the cheery postcards sent when on an adventure abroad, they are a child’s eye-view of an adult world entered too soon, some printed in somber tones, some in candy colors but laced with raised death masks, ominous train tracks, mixed in with double-decker buses, photos of faces never to be kissed again, and last words. Schreiber traverses a high wire, balancing a rod of innocence and optimism over the abyss of senseless loss. Her reconstructions of a lost childhood are set against a backdrop of the rhythmic marks of her grandparents’ handwriting, unifying both the works and the invisible binding of the broken family. Together they describe a world gone wrong.
Illustrator Merav Solomon also invokes a child’s view in her artist’s book relating to natural catastrophe. Pompei serves as the story which combines the telling of a macabre tale told in a theater-style elongated format replete with drawn curtains, but the images shown, both real and imagined, belie the innocent setting.
Solomon also shows a second series of very simple illustrations documenting a family mystery solved through serendipitous coincidence. The Archive of the Hand of Chance series chronicles stations along a path leading Solomon’s mother to learn the fate of her own mother, Solomon’s grandmother, in a saga spanning war, time. and countries. The key to the mystery was a tube of hidden lipstick, which leads to the family’s confirmation of the grandmother’s demise and their own closure.
Eerily, I could relate Solomon’s family story to my own mother’s survival, who spoke little of her experiences, but would never leave the house without lipstick, including when being hospitalized with fatal cancer. Bluntly, she would say “If you look dead, they will treat you like dead.” I can only surmise that perhaps Solomon’s grandmother, Regina Koren, and her lipstick may have also helped my own mother survive line-ups in Auschwitz.
The youngest of the artists, Gil Yefman, created some of the most difficult images of the exhibit. While an artist-in-residence in Germany, Yefman did extensive research in the archives and concentration camps, giving him the material which aided him in creating these works.
The autobiographic aspect was also a motivator, Yefman says, “…as a transgender person, I identified with the need to examine and oppose the ‘social fall between the cracks…”
Among the works shown is an annual calendar with a twist on the pinup girl image, each screenprint includes the photo of real female German concentration and extermination camp guards, as well as the three ‘first ladies’ of the Third Reich: Klara Hitler, Eva Braun, and Magda Goebbels.
The process of printmaking is one of layering image and technique over the one before, often entailing careful planning. Here the layering is metaphorical too, the images Yefman presents are unflinching in their honest depiction of the context of the camps, the piled corpses as backdrop, the twists of grotesque victims, the contorted positions, the un-romanticized aspects of sex and voyeurism. Pasties of the Mercedes-Benz symbol points to the collaboration of the big corporations who benefited from slave labor, others confront the brothels operated to reward Nazi soldiers, a perk which brought terror and further suffering to the hundreds of women who serviced them and were voiceless.
The strong imagery and the harsh colors make this artwork defiant and confrontational. It dares the viewer to look away. The unbearableness is still a shock, no matter how much we’ve read or seen or heard.
From the catalog notes for this last image, includes that Miss October was Irma Grese, known as “The Beautiful Beast”,”The Blonde Angel of Auschwitz”, and “The Hyena of Auschwitz”. She is presented along with Liselotte Meier, known for her hunting and killing Jews for sport in the Belarus area. Yefman shows Grese and Dr. Mengele as conjoined twins, Irma was known for her sadistic sexual tendencies and Mengele was one of her lovers. She was convicted of crimes against humanity at the age of 22 and 67 days. Her last comment to the executor/hangman: “Schnell.”
Paul Celan wrote in his 1959 poem quoted in the catalogue: “Do not read any more – look! Do not look any more – go! (“The Straightening”) If he was right, by extension these artists seem to say: Do not wait any more – make! create! These artists’ works are on the right path to commemorate the traumas of the past and the preservation of personal memory as part of history.
Pressure released, pressings revealed.
Unfortunately, this exhibit has closed, but the catalogue is available for purchase. Link to the exhibit page here.
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