Bar-Mitzvah in front of the Auschwitz entrance
The scale of the Shoah prevents us from perceiving it in a whole. Human psyche’s self-defence mechanism is evoked, often blocking us from absorbing it in its enitre shocking volume. We know its methodic plan and idea. We also know the incomprehensible outcome of it. It comes as facts of history. But what connects us with our brethren perished in that unspeakable crime is the way of personal identification with real people from those six – and in all likeness, more – million murdered Jews. That’s why many of us randomly adopt one Jewish person from the Yad Vashem data-base every January 27th, to identify with that Polish girl, or that Hungarian boy, or that Lithuanian woman. My husband and I are doing it annually, and we treasure that somber but also warm and personal moment when a face and a name appears on our screens and we are able to commemorate the taken lives of more than six million souls while identifying with just two of them, each for one of us.
Another day, I saw some photos of a nice American Jewish boy whose family has chosen for his bar-Mitzvah a very moving Yad Vashem program in which Jewish boys can conduct their bar-Mitzvah with adopting a Jewish boy murdered in a Shoah who had no chance for that. There is one thing when a Jewish boy chooses to put his tefilin for the first time in front of the Auschwitz entrance. It is a symbolic and conscious gesture.
It gets disarmingly different when the same boy is doing it in the name of a 2-year old Hungarian Jewish boy with a name and surname, knowing the circumstances of his annihilation. I cannot imagine more formatting experience in upbringing of the kids whose families had the heart and thoughtfulness of choosing this kind of bar-Mitzvah for them.
When the Shoah gets personal, it gets under our skin for good.
Presence of Little Emma
A year ago, on previous annual commemoration of the International Holocaust Day in January 2020, I penned the story about such a personal journey into the depths of the Shoah by several people in different generations. The story can be read here.
I wrote there about dear friend, late American artist Dr Pat Mercer Hutchens who, after learning on contracting cancer at the age of 74, have decided to dedicate the last three years of her life to scrupulous research and the artistic visualisation of the images on terrible photographs from The Auschwitz Album, well-known document. As a matter of fact, the Album which is preserved at Yad Vashem from 1980 onward, is the only existing photographic evidence from inside the largest Nazi factory of death.
I also wrote in that essay a year ago about several types of interconnections, between the Shoah witnesses and its victims and their families and those passionate souls as Pat’s who were as if translating the emotional trauma of the Shoah for us today; and also about generational interconnections in between the Pat’s students and their children, the way through which the compassion is preserved and alive, thus assuring the memory of the innocent souls murdered, and also strengthening the personal qualities of all, especially young generations, involved.
A month after publishing that essay, in early March 2020, I went to the USA in what happened to be my last trip before the pandemic that has grounded us all. Many things during that memorable visit were connected with Pat’s memory, her legacy and how to transfer it to the next generations. We have had a special ceremony of our The Rogatchi Foundation Humanist of the Year 2019 Award in memory of Pat Mercer Hutches for her husband, legendary American hero, Brig. General ( Ret) Jim Hutchens, meetings of the educational committee on Pat’s artistic and historical legacy, collegial encounters at the US National Holocaust Museum and Memorial in Washington D.C., among the other things.
I was encouraged to see the eyes of young generation, from 10 to 20 year old ones, during the ceremony near Washington D.C. where they were listening to speeches and our re-collections on how the active, creative, spiritual, passionate memorialising of unknown to her victims of the Shoah has marked the last years of Pat’s life, how she , while battling the cancer, bravery immersed herself into sharing the destinies, actually, the very last hours and minutes of the boys and girls, women and elderly, Rabbis and mothers from the Brehow ghetto in Hungary, which was a collecting point from several towns in the region. How this established American artist, sixty seven years after the collapse of the Hungarian Jewry, decided and carried on re-living the terrible end of their lives with those people.
It was very quiet in the audience during our ceremony at the speeches part of it when we were recollecting what Pat and Jim did and why. And I would remember the eyes of a few youngsters present there with a hopeful feeling of preservation not only of memory, but the interest towards it. All his life, Elie Wiesel was deeply troubled by the indifference he witnessed first-hand before, during and after the Shoah. Many other survivors would share both publicly and privately the same never answered question and piercing pain on that paralysing, incomprehensible indifference surrounded Shoah and emboldened it in the most desperate way.
The eyes of those youngsters at our ceremony near Washington D.C. in early March 2020 when we were discussing, remembering and reflecting on the Hutchens family attitude and their life-long efforts to share the tragedy of Jewish victims of the Holocaust in their post-life, were telling to me that these very people would not be indifferent. I do think that it is a vital outcome of the efforts of the people like General Hutchens and his wife artist Pat Mercer Hutchens, their living and growing up legacy.
Thanks to a generosity and great hearts at the right place of Amy and Bill Zewe who were hosting our ceremony near Washington D.C., it has become a wonderful, warm, meaningful, loving and memorable event.
There was one spot in Amy and Bill’s house which was a kind of a magnet to every single person who entered it prior to the ceremony. When I saw it once and again, I decided to get closer there to find out what makes the place attractive to everyone to stop there, and groups of guests to stay there for a while. When I got close, I was overwhelmed. My favourite artwork of Pat, which is also on our wall as I’ve described it in my previous essay on the topic, Little Emma was there. People were as if being pulled next to that wonderful, and so very special work.
I said: “ It is on mine wall as well”, and was about to continue with “It makes two of us”, meaning Amy and myself, while people staying next to Little Emma started to respond: “ It is on my wall as well” – said Shelley Neese, historian and writer, President of The JerUSAlem Connection, – “ and on the wall of my in-laws, too”. – “It is on my wall, too” , -‘ and mine’ – said both daughters of Pat and Jim Hutchens. – “ It is on my wall, as well”, – said two more guests of the ceremony. ‘So we have a Little Emma club here” – I concluded, being deeply impressed by the choice of all those people, their solidarity, their sentiments which I would never know about unless we all happened to be at the same time at the same place next to that so special for each of us work of our all dear friend.
I still remember that episode as vividly as it happened right now. And I remember the eyes of all those smiling women around Pat’s Little Emma, these eyes transmitting deep, non-declarative compassion that little Emma and all of those little Emmas were devoid of in the awful end of their brutally abrupt lives.
I also thought of what one artistic work made by a wise heart is capable of, in generations.
Blue Hills of Virginia
During my last trip before the pandemic, we were travelling through extraordinarily beautiful blue hills of Virginia, a magic place with special people living there, so rich in history from the beginning of the American story 244 years back till today. We approached a huge campus of Liberty University and were greeted into its giant Faculty of Arts. We have had an important working meeting there, to discuss the further development of the Pat Mercer Hutchens artistic legacy.
After doing a lot of research and thinking, Pat has decided to donate all 40 originals of her oil on canvas works of her Re-Visiting The Auschwitz Album collection to the Faculty of Arts of Liberty University. She has told me shortly before her passing that it was not her immediate and first decision, neither was it spontaneous one. She realised that those 40 originals are a central part of her legacy, and she wanted to make sure that it will go to the right address, she said.
With over 70 thousands students attending Liberty University, and many of them taking also different art courses there, with their facilities, and the attention of the Art Faculty’s head, known sculptor, professor Todd Smith, Pat’s decision seemed to be the right one.
Pat’s works were presented at the special exhibition at the University Gallery, all forty of them, in a spacious, professionally lit inviting space. While we were there, students and visitors were coming in constantly, chatting and smiling when entering and being completely silent and crying, staying for a long time next to every single of those 40 tragedies on canvas. Pat’s canvases from this collection are not too big, but they are extremely intense, and one needs an extra strength to meet with them, with all those children and women, and elderly, for the first time. Also, there is one thing to see separate prints, and it is totally different to have that mass of human suffering reflected in deep oil, alive, all around you. Such immersion results in a long-lasting impression, staying with the artist’s message in her dramatic, even desperate canvases, with you for a long time. And yes, nothing can replace a physical seeing the art works, all other experiences are different stories, providing different impressions.
During our many-hours meeting at and around Pat’s exhibition, the first one after her passing away in 2014, six years on, we were discussing with Shelley R. Neese and professor Todd Smith how to develop her artistic and historical legacy, how to make it ‘work’ in different ways and forms.
Since the first moment when I saw the Pat’s works from that heart-rendering collection for the first time back a decade ago, in 2011, I was of an opinion that this kind of art , with the artist’s personal comments, is the one of the best possible ways to teach Holocaust in schools, to bring that element of colours, the accents on humanistic details as adequate and natural for children’s attention. I saw that collection-in-making as the right way to start a conversation on the Shoah with children between 10 and 15, to introduce it to them in the terms of simple, organic compassion, to make the beginning of the explanation of inexplicable. I did what I could in that direction, with our Foundation working on several programs and projects of Pat’s The Auschwitz Album Re-Visited in several European countries.
Now, when our Educational Committee was working on further tasks regarding Pat’s legacy, we thought on the most appropriate way of presenting her works and thoughts to the next level, the university students. I remembered that in many of my lectures on Pat and her re-reading of the Shoah in pictures, I combined her works with corresponding black-and-white originals from the album at Yad Vashem. It always worked, at any audience. I did it in Finland, the UK, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Ukraine. Especially poignant was my experience in Budapest, at my presentation at the Holocaust Remembrance Centre, during the international conference on Raoul Wallenberg. There, a big gallery is dedicated to the tragedy of the Brehow Ghetto, with all material from The Auschwitz Album and more available is presented in graphic and extremely saddening detail. The light in that gallery only makes it harder to see all those faces, their homes, their streets, that open wound stilled in time.
And even there, Pat’s works which I presented, were perceived by the people who know every detail of what has happened to the inhabitants of Brehow Ghetto, with deep emotions. Because when someone , 70 years later, re-lives a tragedy on the level of a certain child, a certain mother, a certain boy, with such a passion, asking loudly all those questions which had been answered never, it reverberates in people’s hearts powerfully.
Comparison of Pat’s coloured oil works and prints made in 2011-2014 with black-and-white photos from the original album works in a stricken way. Pat’s art is metaphorical – photos are documental. Pat’s works are picking up some one-two-three people from the photos – photos fixes groups as they were. Pat’s works manifesting hyperbolised details, such as a children doll, a girl bow, oversized yellow star on the Rabbi’s coat – photos are not magnifying anything like that, they show us a cold view of a butcher before his methodically applied butchery would start any minute from the stills taken. The contrast is colossal. It shows the very essence of the Nazi butchery of human beings in uniquely magnifying glass of compassion which becomes conviction.
Our committee has decided to start to work with good colleagues at Yad Vashem and go on for the publication of a special brochure, publishing all forty Pat’s art works next to their prototypes from the original The Auschwitz Album, with her – and ours – commentaries.
Eight months later, in Nomver 20202, the first brochure in this format has been ready, thanks to focused and devoted work of Dr Shelley R.Neese who took upon herself to implement our ideas, in memory of her great teacher, Pat Mercer Hutchens. In the end of the past, so difficult because of the pandemic year, 2020, 500 catalogues comparing Pat’s artistic interpretation with chilly black-and-white photos from the Auschwitz Album went to the Faculty of Arts at Liberty University for our pilot educational Art & Holocaust course there. We are having plans for expanding the program world-wide.
Forty Personal Stories
I knew Pat well. I felt her as a family member. She was a close friend. She was a fighter, and a straightforward strong American girl from Louisiana, that type of made of steel ( outwardly) Southern American girl with strongest and noble convictions, immense will, and mighty spiritual drive. She was sharp and fair. Inwardly, she was very subtle, finely feeling and subduedly expressing herself as a gentle soul who knew what a nuance was about in an organic way of implementing it.
I also knew, being helping her in her last project as its curator, in what hurry she was. The Auschwitz Album has 56 pages with 193 photos on them. Originally there were more, but Lilly Jacobs who found the album in the pocket of the left SS-coat on very chilling day of January 27th, 1945, in one of the Auschwitz barracks, and who kept it in her attic in the US until 1980s , gave some photos to the people who did recognise their family members in that terrifying document of the Shoah.
Pat has told me several times how hurried she is. “You see, my dear, there are about 200 photos in the album. I did just a bit of them. I know that I would not be able to do them all, but I am trying to work hard, to do as many as I could”. She was hoping to make seventy of her artistic interpretation out of 193 in the album. She managed to do 40 of them.
In the recently published art brochure, the catalogue of her last art and humanist project, there is a quote from Pat’s thoughts with regard on that ordeal which she willingly adopted as her last mission in life: “Horrifying as they are, these group photos revealing mass tactics of de-humanisation make it harder to see each person as a suffering individual. My purpose is to zoom in, take two, three or four, and search for a more personal story. It is my prayer that observers will think about each man, woman, and child pictured in the album separately. That was my goal in the heart-wrenching process of painting. Often, I dreamt of trying to bring one of the children back to life. My heart tells me that if I had gone through such an appalling, de-humanising experience, it might bring some small shred of hope to know that perhaps someday, somewhere, someone would know—and let the world know what happened. That is the goal of my life work as an artist; to create monuments of remembrance through art. I am grateful to God for giving me the honour, strength and compassion to paint each precious person”.
It was written by a mortally-ill over 70-year old woman artist who knew that her days are numbered and who went through an exhausting chemotherapy process at the same time while working on her last project which has been also emotionally powerfully drenching out.
Seven years on Pat’s passing, I am thinking of my elder friend ( Pat and Jim are the generation of my parents), on her selflessness, and her focusing on the tragedy of Jewish children, women, elderly, Rabbis, anyone who has perished in the Shoah. I am thinking of her vision, her approach to see individuals in all those six-plus million victims of the Shoah, with one and a half million children among them. She tried to see and recognise every single person in those 193 photos from the only photographic evidence we have of what was happening inside Auschwitz.
Because only if one would be seeing them individually, they would be recognised and remembered. If we will be looking not on an unidentified child or elderly, but on Little Emma, Ben-Aron, Rabbi Weiss, we would start to comprehend the horror and enormity of that unspeakable crime which has been committed against them and our people. Each of them. Six million and more, individually. With the name. With the place. With the face, if possible. And this is exactly what Pat Mercer Hutchens has done in her last art project which goes far beyond art and gets into the orbit on applied universal humanism, being positioned high there.
It is very encouraging to me, who was named after my young aunt Minna Chigrinsky who was murdered in the Shoah in October 1941 along with her aunt and uncle being just 18, that many kids in schools in several countries and many students in several American and European Universities would be studying and understanding the Shoah as a personal stories having in front of them the catalogue of the Re-Visiting Auschwitz Album by my dear friend Pat Mercer Hutchens and being able to compare it with the original photos from that horrendous document which is kept at Yad Vashem. I know that this way, people’s understanding of the Shoah will get personal. As it should be.
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The booklet can be ordered here. All funds from it goes to the Holocaust Educational Fund.