Breathing life into Holocaust memory

Despite the impossible conditions, Jewish artists remained committed to creating; we have now salvaged their artworks

The dwindling number of living Holocaust survivors presents several dilemmas for the countless scholars, advocates, communities, and individuals whose life and work are so intimately shaped by one of history’s most well-known genocides.

We are rapidly approaching an age after testimony, moving from lived to historical memory. Without first-hand testimony, how will the next generation be educated? How will the memories of the Holocaust be preserved? What can serve to bridge the past, present, and future? As an art historian who has devoted a significant portion of my career to studying and researching the Holocaust, I regularly ask all of these questions.

The Nazis waged a war against memory. They not only killed Jews, but sought to eradicate any trace of them. This emboldens the contemporary quest to preserve Holocaust memory as accurately and vividly as possible — including through the study of art. Not only were artists murdered, but their studios were looted, and their personal papers, archives, memorabilia and photo albums dispersed and destroyed. Most of their work disappeared without a trace.

Preserving visual artifacts carries more than symbolic importance. It has practical value. A fascinating case study in this realm is the Oscar Ghez Collection, whose artworks have been displayed at the University of Haifa’s Hecht Museum in Israel in “Arrivals, Departures: The Oscar Ghez Collection,” an exhibition that I curated.

Launched earlier this year, “Arrivals, Departures” reexamines a collection of 138 artworks by 18 Jewish artists of the École de Paris that were donated to the university in 1978 by Dr. Oscar Ghez. Narrowly escaping Nazi occupied Europe himself, Ghez returned after the war and began collecting works of art by Jewish artists who had been persecuted, in order to preserve these “precious relics from dispersion or destruction.” Featuring some of the artists’ only remaining work, “Arrivals, Departures” follows his initiative to conceive of art as a form of commemoration. The result of a two-year-long project I conducted with my students in the University’s Weiss-Livnat International Graduate Program in Holocaust Studies, this exhibition brings the artists personal histories and work back into focus.

Unfolding chronologically, the works on view are divided into two broad chapters. The exhibition begins with the artists’ “arrivals” in Paris in the first decades of the 20th century as they left their homelands in Czechoslovakia, Russia, and Poland to move to Paris in search of political, religious and artistic freedom. It concludes with their forced “departures” during the occupation as they were racially targeted by the Nazi regime and their French collaborators. It moves from the large, colorful canvases of the 1910s and 1920s inspired by Fauvism, Expressionism, and Cubism, and culminates in works created under duress and in extremis as artists responded to conditions of persecution during the Holocaust. Yet, even when rounded-up and interned, artists continued to paint and draw in the camps and ghettos, in hiding and in exile. Despite the lack of materials and difficult conditions, they remained committed to the act of making.

“Arrivals, Departures” pioneers a paradigm for a new, more interactive form of Holocaust education. Before we began, we knew next to nothing about the artists. Working our way backwards from the deportation pages, we tried to collect as many traces of the artists’ lives as possible in order to fill in the blanks. We approached this project as a search and rescue mission. The students each “adopted” one of the 18 persecuted artists in the collection, making the process highly personalized, emotional and dynamic. We found photographs of all of the artists except one; we found the names of their spouses and children, where they lived, how they were arrested and when and where they died. The students were involved in every aspect of the exhibition’s curation: its design, installation and content. We combed through archives and databases. We translated primary source texts from Yiddish, Russian, French and Polish. We visited museums to view collections holding works by the artists. We corresponded with auction houses, galleries and researchers around the globe. We tracked down the artists’ descendants and even travelled to Paris to interview them, visit memorials and museums, and conduct research in the archives, thanks to the support of Professor Arieh Kochavi, head of the Strochlitz Institute for Holocaust Research, and donor Dr. Doron Livnat.

The exhibition itself, meanwhile, provides a blueprint for interdisciplinary Holocaust education through collaboration between museums and university departments.

If Holocaust memory is most commonly preserved through written or oral testimony, graphs, charts, and statistics, art can breathe life into what Jean Améry called “the cold storage of history.” To see and handle works of art up close prompts us to wonder about the lives of those who made them. Examining the details of a drawing, print, painting, or sculpture connects viewers in the present with a material trace of the past. In so doing, it reminds us of our ethical responsibility to the dead and the lives they lived.

One of the most unassuming works in the Ghez Collection is a small watercolor of a bridge by the artist and poet Max Jacob. It does not flex its muscles or cry for attention. In fact, it is barely there on the page, rendered out of soft, translucent pastel washes with the faintest of outlines. Jacob’s watercolor not only points to the tenuousness of all art-making, it also serves as a reminder that sometimes the most overlooked objects open fresh avenues of thinking, and new connections. Like Jacob’s bridge, all art can be a bridge-builder, connecting audiences in the present with material traces of the past. The Holocaust is more than 70 years in the past, but the war against memory continues. Faced with the salvaged works of art showcased in this exhibition, I hope that people come away with a palpable sense of what was lost – but also what has been, and still remains to be, found.

About the Author
Dr. Rachel Perry earned her Ph.D. at Harvard University. She teaches courses on visual culture, art history and the Holocaust at the University of Haifa, and is the curator of 'Arrivals, Departures: The Oscar Ghez Collection,' which has been displayed at the University of Haifa’s Hecht Museum.
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