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February winds: The story of one painting

A tale of Nazis, Solzenitsyn, Gulag, the unspeakable horror of China’s Laogai camp, and the needed redemption of humanity

Unique Painting for Unique Museum

It was a cold and windy February day in a downtown Washington, DC a few years back. Only we did not feel it that way. On our way to the place of the event, we were stunned to see an impressive image of Michael’s painting on a big banner facing the street. It was too much, we thought, but we knew that the hosts of the event meant well.

Michael Rogatchi on the way to the donation ceremony of his special painting to The Laogai Museum, Washington DC, Fenruary 2013.(C) The Rogatchi Foundation.

The event was a special ceremony on unveiling a painting, a single painting that my husband decided to donate to a special museum in the USA’s capital, the unique museum in the world. The painting was unique too, with a story of its conceiving and its life. “An unique painting for an unique painting,” I thought to myself. What wind matters when life brings you to the combination like that?

Those Winds

On the painting, there also was a wind, a lot of it. The wind occupied the most of the art work. It was a very complex wind bearing in itself the whole lives of the people who were also painted on that canvas, in a smaller proportion: their various past, very much of their crushed present, and their future, which was practically none. The wind on my husband’s painting had a face.

The face melted into heavy, stone-like clouds, which one can see on the far east of our planet primarily. Or was the face coming out of those clouds as the best part of it? Probably that was the case. Was the face referring to the Michael’s father Henrich, who had paid with his health, and ultimately with his life, at quite early age, being the one among those people in another corner of the painting? Or was it a general image of a person, the one of the millions, like every one of those millions who had become helpless victims of huge and ruthless machine? Or was it an Angel of Compassion coming out from those low steel-like clouds to bring a bit of that almost white sun over those poor people? The pale frozen sun was on the painting, as well. I have decided for myself that it was the Angel.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Year 1953. Oil on canvas. 1993. The estate of The Laogai Museum and The Laogai Foundation, Washington DC. USA.

Michael and I did not talk about this work. Not many words were needed. The work had been in his studio all the years after he had created it in 1993, hung there in the place just in front of the Michael’s main easel, in the way that his eyes were always coming to the painting first, during his breaks and thinking.

Painting Memory

In the early 1990s, Michael painted this work, his single narrative on the Gulag. He was 40 at the time. The work has very simple title, Year 1953. Michael was very lucky to be born just two months prior to the death of Stalin. Otherwise, nobody knows what might have happened to him and his family, and if they ever would have been able to get out of that “Valley of Death,” bordering Japan from the Soviet side, where my husband was born.

After some time, my husband’s father, who was arrested, being 19, on completely false pretext that he was a member of a “bourgeois conspiracy group” consisting of his few co-students in the first year of university. He was sent to Gulag, was released, and the family exiled to Kazakhstan. Alexander Solzenitsyn was released from his Gulag camp and was also sent to exile at the same time and to the same place. Henrich Rogatchi, Michael’s father, died shortly thereafter from the tuberculosis he had contracted at the Valley of Death. He was just 39. 

The Valley of Death in the country where Gulag constituted its huge mindeset, was not only a geographical term, but metaphorical too. Or rather, it was the existence in which a metaphor was a reality, and visa versa.

The cold winds reached people mercilessly — from the Valley of Death to Kazakhstan, and prevail there still. In mid-1950 ( and yet before) and until end of 1970s, Kazakhstan was a vast Gulag empire. The camps there were endless.

Being released from the Gulag camps in the Far East, millions of people who were exiled to Kazakhstan, my husband’s family included, were still living under extreme and constant pressure: no passports, meaning no possibility to move anywhere; and weekly check-ups at the special penitentiary offices called “Kommendatura.” The clouds of fear and ongoing pressure were real in that life of the millions of people who were guilty of nothing.

Michael waited 40 years to express the quintessence of life under the steel-like clouds.

At the time, in the early 1990s, we were friendly with outstanding people, former Soviet dissidents, like Vladimir Bukovsky, and heroic couple, Arina and late Alexander Ginsbourg, who was a custodian of the Solzenitsyn archive and his closest colleague, and who paid for it dearly, with many years of imprisonment in Gulag. Via them, we got to know Solzenitsyn who was quite appreciative of both our works — my writings and Michael’s art — and published some of it in his almanacs, as well. The author of GULAG Archipelago was thrilled and moved by this very painting of Michael’s, Year 1953, and he was interested in obtaining the work.

It was at the time of Solzenitsyn’s return to Russia in May 1994, a critical event for many people in Russia and all those abroad for whom Gulag mattered. Although Michael did create his only depiction of Gulag’s impact on a human being for himself, he did not mind presenting it to Solzenitsyn, especially as he, who was such a special figure, did like it so much. We tried to arrange the transfer and learned soon enough that it was practically mission impossible, due to the quite stiff regulations of Russian customs, with regard to the import of oil paintings. The situation has hardly changed today.

Everybody felt disappointed, but then we opted for a very close-to-the-original copy of the work to be sent to Solzenitsyn in Moscow, which we managed without problem, and that is how the situation was resolved.

First, Michael was disappointed that the author of GULAG Archipelago had to do with a copy of his work, but then it was just as well, as soon after his return, Solzenitsyn went public with clearly anti-Semitic overtones. It was then that we cut relations with him. I criticized him publicly for that.

For the next 19 years, the painting was in its special place in the Michael’s studio. Until the day in early summer  of 2012 when I had quite a shocking excursion to the small museum in Washington, DC.

But They Have Killed Me Already”

The excursion was personal. My dear friend Harry Wu, a quiet man with a lion’s heart and a steel will, a tireless fighter against the Chinese GULAG called Laogai, was showing me his museum just before it was to be opened to the public. Harry conducted the detailed tour with pride in being able to achieve it: a building, funding, all kinds of permissions, the rest of the giant effort required to set up, open, and run the museum, not to mention the museum’s location, which did figure in the Harry’s tireless effort to make the suffering of the people in Laogai heard by those at the top of the world’s power. I saw and felt his pride, I knew all the details of the incredible story behind the museum, I was very happy for my friend, the tireless, selfless, real human rights fighter. And I was terrified of what I saw.

I know the Soviet camps; we lived with the knowledge of it in our blood. My grandfather Abram Elovitch, an advanced engineer and very brave man, was a prisoner there in the early 1950s. He did not tell us much about it, to put it mildly, but we knew, anyway. My husband’s entire family was in exile in the Gulag-spread Kazakhstan, and he was born inside Gulag in a place designed not for survival, but for the opposite. He lost his father to Gulag and the regime that had been built on it. Many of our close friends had a full portion of Gulag, too, and I had processed this horrific knowledge, inside myself, some of it as recent as the mid-1980s, in all its chilling detail.

I know enough about the Nazi camps, I saw many and films of them too. I study it still, non-stop and without break, feeling it my duty to many, but first of all to my aunt, whose name I had to bear, Mina Chirginsky, who was murdered by the Ukrainian enthusiastic Nazi-collaborators in Ukraine in October 1941. Mina was 18 at the time. She was murdered with the family of my grandma’s aunt, all of them. I know the Nazi camps and the cursed places of all their collaborators activities in Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Czech Republic, Austria, and Germany.

I know the Japanese camps in Singapore. I have examined them in detail too. They are exceedingly awful, both in intention and practice.

I have heard, in first-hand detail, about the totally inhuman prisons and camps in Cuba. With the Latin-American power of imagination and intensity of character, the cruelty there goes beyond bearable.

I know well, and filmed and researched the sadism-at-large applied in the DDR penitentiary  system. Those were faithful pupils, and sometimes colleagues of the Nazis, as well as animalistic in their sadistic Romanian colleagues from Securitate.  

With all this knowledge and personal experience, I might have thought I would be ready for Laogai, the Chinese Gulag. I would have been mistaken. The degree of cruelty in Laogai is absolute. The negation of humanity is mechanically total. The depth of abyss of inhumanity is bottomless.

The point of talking about it today is that it all happened after Gulag, after Holocaust, after all the major tragedies of the 20th century, excepting Cuba and North Korea. Despite the precedent of all these atrocities, and also the precedent of the international legal condemnation of it. It just should not be happening, should not be repeated. But it was happening and it is still going on.

Jewish Connection

Released from Laogai, Wu Hongda, who had to Westernize his name to “Harry Wu,” felt a dire need to understand it: why? What for? How? He was thinking about that non-stop. He spoke about it for long hours with the best of the Soviet dissidents, like the great Vladimir Bukovsky. He read everything he could on the Nazi camps.

And then he read Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal, our dear friend and mentor. Harry was a very special man, extremely focused. The next thing he did after reading Sunflower was to buy a ticket to Vienna, to meet Wiesenthal in person. Simon, who with his shrewd eye and his vast experience, saw through people in a second, spoke with Harry for hours, explaining the Nazi system, the psychology of the applied Nazism, and how and for what it all worked.

Another great survival, late Senator Tom Lantos was instrumental in Harry’s establishing himself in the US and telling his first-hand details of the huge and merciless totalitarian system of China, making his voice heard at the highest level of the American power. Harry also spoke for long hours with Michael about my husband’s personal experience and knowledge of Gulag and Kazakhstan. They could never stop. In his effort to document the atrocities of Laogai, Harry went to Kazakhstan a couple of times, and operated from there.

The connection of the great human rights fighter of Chinese origin to the Jewish people is unique. It has provided him with a great knowledge, first-hand experience, special understanding, and experience with that paramount Jewish character and sense of humanity that is our winning force under any circumstances.

That is why Harry Wu decided to have in his small museum on Laogai the special sections dedicated to the Nazi camps and to Gulag. He was examining and showing in detail the very origins of the evil.

Twins in Tragedy

So, back in early June 2012, I was following Harry who was showing me his soon-would-be-open museum in the heart of the world power, with no more than a few, occasional fact-checking questions on some exhibits. As for him, Harry went back in his thoughts to his 19 years of imprisonment there for no crime at all, except for belonging to “the wrong” family of a bourgeois class — he was put in the Chinese GULAG for the same fictional reason as Michael’s father, and was exactly the same age at the time, 19.

He was also telling me, laughing, about his four returns to the area of Laogai. He is the only dissident in the world history who did come back to the place of his tortures when it was still dangerous, to document the reality there, to expose it to the world. He was arrested all four times, and each time, a high-level US intervention and very loud international campaign was needed to release the then-US citizen, that incurable Harry Wu, from yet another arrest and imprisonment in the system of sheer horror that he knew so well and about which he was telling the world in his books, films, and appeals, so bravely and so persistently.

And then” — my friend was laughing again telling about his third arrest by the Chinese security in the proximity of another huge Laogai camp — “they who knew me very well, they were wondering: “Wu, are you out of your mind? Weren’t you afraid?” — ‘”Afraid of what?” I have asked them in turn,” Harry said to me. I noted: “Harry, but they could have easily killed you and cited any accident as the reason.” — “But they have killed me already,” said my dear friend quietly, his smile waning. I could not breathe.

We were walking through the exposition when I had to stop. In front of me, above, was an enlarged photograph of prisoners in Laogai taken in 1991. I held my breath. It was so very similar to the picture of that human column of prisoners that Michael painted on his Year 1953 painting, 20 years back.

Photo of the prisoners of Laogai taken by Harry Wu with concealed camera in China in August 1991. (C) Harry Wu, with permission of the author.

Harry dear, sorry to interrupt you” — I had to intervene in the course of the Harry’s calm explanations of the one of the most screaming-out exhibits of the museum, the exact copy of his own cell, of the size intentionally made as suitable for a small animal, not for a human being. “ This photo is so much like the painting of Michael, the one that shows the events there in 1950s, not in 1990s, as here on the photo, and in China. Would you like to have that painting in your museum?” I asked. After a pause, Harry replied: “Would I like? This is the wrong question. Of course, I would love to. But the right question is: would Michael be willing to give it to the museum? Would he be able to part with the work like that?” Harry knew precisely what he was talking about. He and Michael were like brothers. They understood each other without words.

Michael Rogatchi and Harry Wu at the donating ceremony, The Laogai Museum, Washington DC. Feburary 2013. (C) The Rogatchi Foundation.

Let’s ask him,” I suggested, and called my husband, who was in Finland, on the spot, under the photograph that mesmerised me. “Absolutely.” Michael’s reaction was instantaneous. “Perfect idea. We’ll do it. We’ll donate it to the Laogai Museum.” Harry was shaking his head in disbelief. He took my phone: “Michael,” he said. “Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure? How could you part with something like that?” I do not know what Michael told our friend, but Harry gave me the phone smiling with his child-like, fantastic, broader-than-life smile.

On the Ground

A bit more than half a year later, we were in Washington, DC, heading for the ceremony of unveiling Year 1953, the painting donated to the Laogai Museum and The Laogai Foundation. The weather was nasty, and we wondered whether it might prevent the guests from attending the ceremony. It did not. We were warmed to see so many in the audience, everyone is a legend of its own: one of the special advisers to President Reagan, Professor John Lenczowski; Rear Admiral, former commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command David Rogers; long-time Times bureau chief in Japan and many other countries and the veteran of the top level of the Carter administration, Jerrold Schecter and his wife, writer Leona; a legend of the US Army, its real brave-heart hero Brigadier General and Deputy Chaplain of the US Army James  Hutchens, and his now late wife, artist Pat; the representatives of the Finnish Embassy in Washington; our dear friend and colleague, the member of the International Advisory Board of our Foundation, MEP Sari Essayah, currently the leader of the Finnish Christian-Democratic party, who did come specifically to participate in the ceremony.

Michael Rogatchi’s Year 1953 painting with a dedication plaque at the Laogai Museum. Washington, DC. (courtesy)

We were surrounded by students, media, experts, intellectuals, freedom fighters, and many people who all came to participate in the event. Speeches by each of our friends were acts of devotion, understanding and compassion, not only towards the victims of Laogai, but also towards the victims of Gulag, as was implied by the art work, and also the victims of the Nazis’ camps, following that incredible link that connected the Chinese human rights fighter and the artist who was born in Gulag, as well as both of their friends, mentors, and the families, including the leading Nazi hunter and the former brave Jewish partisan who had become a leading US senator. That incredible human thread demonstrated to all of us the core of our existence, the humanity, without any extra word.

From DC to LA, Six Years On

Six years later to the day, the story re-emerged in my memory — as if of its own accord, although there is nothing in this world that appears of its own — when I was discussing with a good friend and understanding colleague the ways for an artist to depict the horror of methodic dehumanization, and how my husband had covered both Gulag and the Nazi camps.

I promised my colleague that I would write an essay on the subject, and started to write down this story. Then I glanced at the calendar — for another reason — and saw that it was February 7th. Exactly the day of our ceremony of the donating the Michael’s Year 1953 to Harry Wu’s Laogai Museum and The Laogai Foundation, in downtown Washington, DC, six years ago. Six is a lucky number in the Chinese culture. I am glad that this wave of memories rolled over me on the sixth anniversary of our donation to Harry. Perhaps, it means something positive to his soul, for in April, it will be three years since Harry has not been among us. But we both, Michael and I, do feel that he is. Such people just cannot disappear.  

From that day on, February 7th, and in anticipation of the decision of the 61st Grammy Awards this year, which were to be announced on the evening of February 10th, in Los Angeles, Michael and I have been listening the Yiddish Glory records and concerts non-stop. Yiddish Glory is the second case in the entire history of the Grammys when a complete Yiddish-language recording was nominated for an award. This time, it is for the Best World Music Album, one among just five. We are immersed in everything about Yiddish Glory these days, keeping our fingers crossed very tightly for it. And we are listening, listening, and listening — especially and in particular, to both versions of the unique, unbelievable, Kazakhstan song, breathing as if from inside the souls of all the people exiled there during the era of Gulag. Michael said: “It (the song) is exactly how we lived there and then.”

I listen to the Yiddish Glory’s Kazakhstan, I see in my memory the only painting my husband ever painted of Gulag, I remember our dear bravest friend Harry Wu, who was elated to receive this painting as the centerpiece of his so special and so important museum. Six years on. Not a big time for memory. Just a sigh.

February 7-10, 2019

About the Author
Inna Rogatchi is internationally acclaimed writer, scholar and film-maker, the author of widely prized film on Simon Wiesenthal The Lessons of Survival. Her professional trade-mark is inter-weave of history, culture and mentality. She is the author of the concept of the Outreach to Humanity cultural and educational projects conducted internationally by The Rogatchi Foundation of which Inna is the co-founder and President. She is the wife of the world renowned artist Michael Rogatchi. Inna's family is related to the famous Rose-Mahler musical dynasty. Her professional interests are focused on Jewish heritage, Holocaust and post-Holocaust, arts and culture. She is twice laureate of the Italian Il Volo di Pegaso Italian National Art, Literature and Music Award, the Patmos Solidarity Award, and the New York Jewish Children's Museum Award for Outstanding Contribution into the Arts and Culture (together with her husband). Inna Rogatchi is the member of the Board of the Finnish National Holocaust Remembrance Association.
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