It’s a Saturday afternoon April 25th, going into week number six of quarantine situated in my apartment, alone, in the East Village – East 6th to be exact. Having decided that today is laundry day, I gear up in a mask and gloves and make way to the basement floor along with my detergent and laundry card. My protected finger presses the elevator button and it appears with a woman inside. I take a step back and yell into my mask “I’ll wait for the next one.” Her face bare, she smiles giving me a sign of gratitude and relief.
After setting up the loads, I browse the communal bookshelf placed outside the laundry room. I find them irrelevant and even spot a book of short poems that I had placed there over a month ago. Mysteriously hidden in the corner, I find a pile of three unfamiliar Russian art books. One of them is vacuum sealed – “Boris Lurie” is the title. I grab it, as the chances of it being contaminated are unlikely. I go upstairs, remove my gloves, proceed with hand washing and sanitizing rituals and tear the book open.
The first words that strike me are – “Leningrad,” “Riga,” “Nazi,” “concentration camp” –
I keep turning the pages to find sketch illustrations of men in striped pajamas, barbed wires, and soldiers. Next, I identify a collage with the famous photo image of the young boy in the Warsaw ghetto surrendering with arms up. Another of a collage covered suitcase with yellow Stars of David on it. This of course reminded me of the piles of confiscated possessions I witnessed in Auschwitz on my high school senior trip. I then stumble across other pictures of a different nature- provocative ones of half-naked women with the word “NO” all over the place.
The next morning, I give my mother, a creative in her own right, a long-distance call to Israel. In full speed and enthusiasm, I catch her up on Lurie and snap some pictures of selected works and hit send, explaining her how he connected sexism and the Holocaust. I send over a picture of a corset with Stars of David as a specimen. My mother on the other end is silent.
My mom a second-generation Holocaust survivor had her days. On occasion she would express the importance of retelling the stories to never forget. When people would preach to her for never stepping foot at Yad Vashem (the world renowned Holocaust museum in Jerusalem), she would ardently respond that she didn’t feel the need to go to a museum to learn about the Holocaust when she experienced the aftermath first-hand. She shares stories about how her father would force her to eat breakfast (even if she was not hungry) and never let food go to waste. I myself have witnessed the amount of times he can use a teabag before trashing it. His presence is protective and soothing, but it always leaves me with questions.
Shortly after the call, I google Lurie, thirsty for more information. Browsing through the different links, I click the Boris Lurie Art Foundation and find a live event scheduled for that very evening – “Zoom Lecture: Dr. Eve Fogelman speaks on Boris Lurie: The art of a survivor.” An email is provided for me to RSVP – 4/26 8 p.m. The discussion is a closing for his exhibit titled “He had the courage to say no” in the center for contemporary political art in DC.
After multiple attempts to join, around 8:20, I’m finally in. I enter the meeting on mute with video disabled and find a group of strangers, mostly in their 60s and 70s. I hear exhales and gasps expressing disappointment due to the technical malfunctions. Two women bothered by the tardiness inform that they have prior arrangements scheduled for 9. Another lady knitting away on yarn seemed to be impatient. There was a dynamic that hinted that some of them knew each other or perhaps it was a senior unity that I was unfamiliar with. I had entered the realm of an elderly Zoom chat.
Dr. Fogelman starts off by addressing the current COVID-19 circumstances and their alignment with the emotional states during the Holocaust – the isolation from society, the survival instincts and living in the unknown. She mentions the long lines outside of stores, linking them to the lines for bread in the ghettos. Naturally, I thought – toilet paper. She also emphasizes that tomorrow is the Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers of Israel and victims of terror attacks (Yom Hazikaron), that Lurie was a Zionist buried in Haifa — a city in northern Israel. The discussion continues — Lurie’s haunting camp experiences are mentioned and how his art was his form of independent expression and freedom.
At one point one of the men doses off, his head placed between two fists he dives headfirst into the camera, another sips his wine calmly throughout. The curator expresses with sorrow that whoever was supposed to help with hosting and putting up the presentation did not make it into the Zoom chat. Voluntarily, I perform one of my newest skills – screen sharing – and start googling the different pieces she discusses. With thrill and appreciation, she requests I pull up “The Railroad Collage.”
America was not ready for the inappropriate juxtaposition of Nazi hell along with voluptuous pinup girls; Fogelman explains. It was evident that Lurie was not looking to please anybody. She then requests I present the “The shit sculptures.” I freeze with discomfort, then unmute “say that again” I ask. “The shit sculptures google the shit sculptures”, she repeated. Something about the elderly audience had me typing hesitantly leaving out the bad word and truth be told, they appeared.
The curator explains that these sculptures had meaning beyond the grotesque surface – shit becomes fertilizer and that creates new life – it symbolized a cycle, the circle of life. I found it all fascinating, genius – he lived and breathed provocations. Lurie made it his mission to get an important point across – Nazism destroys spirit and body while consumerism puts the body up for sale and strips you from your soul. We discuss a few more pieces, each one unique and important. The words come to an end and I am thanked for my assistance.
A man raises an open book, sharing that he was familiar with Lurie in a more political light. He presents a photo of Malcolm X with Boris Lurie on 125th Street, Harlem – explaining their dynamic during the civil rights movement. Reminiscing about old times spent together, he casually mentions that Lurie had a small gallery on East 6th. I immediately unmute, “East 6th you said? Where?” I ask – “Between B & C I believe, he even had a secretary.” My neighbor, I thought to myself with a wide smile. A meaningful connection was emerging in the midst of isolation; excitement filled my heart. Boris Lurie was the bohemian I aspire to be rebelling against abstract expressionism, in my case mainstream.
One of the women asks him if he or any of his family members were Holocaust survivors. Suddenly he silenced a silence that I was all too familiar with and his gaze lowers into the keyboard. Yes – (pause) my wife’s parents, his voice is a bit softer and his speech less clear. The lady asks again “And what about you?” in that pressing tone a Jewish grandmother uses when cornering you at a wedding to ask why you’re still single. His gaze still low, he responds – “No, but my first wife was” and explains that he had a relationship with her parents as well. My chest gets heavy, not a single part of me worried that it might be Corona. In fact, this intimate circle completely distracted me from its potentially lasting consequences for human society. Within a mere hour, I found solace and a new friend. The man ends his segment with Lurie’s “Mort Aux Juif – Israel Imperialiste” creation, which translates “Death to Jews – Israel Imperialist”, with some talk on Cuba, Fidel Castro, Jews and Israel.
Lurie’s associate spontaneously constructed a personal tail in the way that Jews are genetically programmed to tell all narratives – from slavery to freedom, from weakness to strength, from fragile to unbreakable. The common concluding motif of the light at the end of the tunnel that is now needed more than ever – from exposure to protection. Just when I thought my grandfather had seen it all, I wondered if his past had him ready for the present, if the vulnerability that he had worked so hard to repress upon arrival to Israel was surfacing , and if the coronavirus signified the modern day Eichmann trail, unveiling to the world what leaders are capable of doing and getting away with.
The Zoom meeting ends, and my laptop is smacked shut. Recalling my reclusive reality, I put on my mask and gloves and head down to snatch the other two books. I pour a drink and continue to build a relationship with my old neighbor Boris Lurie, the man who shat in the face of the Nazis.