It was a sunny March day in Washington D.C., busy, promising and energetic. My husband Michael and I were at the office of the legendary organisation in the down-town. NCSEJ, National Council for Soviet Jewry has earned its name by standing for the Soviet refuseniks during the decades, doing it publicly, bravely and efficiently. Their role in the change of the Soviet policy towards ‘the Prisoners of Zion’ was irreplaceable. We loved those people a priori. Now the organisation is known as National Coalition for Supporting Eurasian Jewry, and Lesley is its Deputy Director.
During our discussion, the conversation turned to something else.
“ Inna, I understood that you are involved into Pat Mercer’s work, aren’t you?” – Lesley Weiss, the NCSEJ Senior Vice-President, and the Chair of the US Federal Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad at the time, asked suggestively. – “Yes, I am, very much so” , – I responded being glad that our joint effort with regard to Pat’s very special project had been noticed.
PAT & The ALBUM
At the time, in Spring 2013, I was busy with it day and night, for quite a while by then. I did curate the recent exhibition of those particular works, the first of its sort, still unique to the day, in Ukraine, and a year before that, I was involved in bringing that collection to Poland, and not just Poland, but to Oswiecim. You know the place.
Because of those two big projects, I was immersed into the Pat’s collection, as any curator – and friend – would be: I was studying it, writing about it, lecturing about it. I was thinking about it day and night – because on the works in question, one either does it this way, or does not get involved.
Pat Mercer Hutchens, prominent American artist, wholehearted friend of Israel and Jewish people, was re-visiting The Auschwitz Album.
The Album is at Yad Vashem since 1980. Today, the story of the album is quite well-known, but it was not always like that.
People who belonged to the circle of Holocaust studies and art professionally, and those who were active in the work on assuring the memory of the Shoah were fully aware with this unique document.Wide public was not necessarily so. Every time and in every country where I was telling about Pat’s project called Re-Visiting the Auschwitz Album yet several years back, I needed to tell the story of this chilling evidence of the Shoah, would it be Ukraine, London, or New York . It has become a routine for me in the 2010s.
LESLEY & IRENE
So, moving on a known to me path while talking with Lesley in her office on Pat’s collection, I started as usual: “Do you know what the Auschwitz Album is?” – “I do”, – Lesley replied in her , but clearly knowing way. Michael and I were nicely surprised. “Well, then…-” I was about to switch on Pat’s ideas and her work with regard to her ongoing project when Lesley’s voice said something that made us speechless: “ I do indeed, – she said quietly. – My Mother is ( pictured) there”. I felt goose-bumps all over myself. – “And she is alive”, – concluded Lesley while Michael and I were sitting in her small office dumbfounded. The coffee has become hopelessly cold.
“ What? How? Can you tell us more, please?” – we were addressing Lesley in unison.
“ Yes, of course I will. But we would need a time for that ( we spent a day with Lesley eventually while I wrote down her mother Irene Fogel’s story). But now, I have a request to you, please”.
“ Of course, absolutely, anything” – we were continuing in that choir-for- two motto.
Lesley wanted Pat to paint one of the photos from that haunting Auschwitz Album. She wanted the painting for her mom, survivor Irene Fogel-Weiss. She wanted it because on that particular photo, Irene’s mother and two of her brothers were pictured, just moments, literally, before being gassed upon their arrival to Auschwitz. Apart of that picture from horrible collection of photographs taken by Nazi officer ( for still unknown to us reason), Irene who lived – and still does, Boruch H-shem- long and distinguished life, had nothing portraying her beloved mother and two small brothers she lost on that awful morning on the day when they were brought to Auschwitz from Hungary in 1944.
Lesley sent me the picture in question momentarily. That image has integrated into my mind for good from that very moment.
As it happened, Lesley’s Mom Irene Fogel-Weiss was well-known person due to her tireless commitment to keep awareness of the Shoah. She is one of the most active survivor volunteer at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. What is more, she is the Girl with a White Scarf on a giant photo at the Museum’s wall.
Irene was just 13 when her family was taken to Auschwitz from Hungary. Before the deportation, while in the ghetto, Irene’s beautiful braids were hastily cut off by Nazi order. She was crying bitterly over it, not aware that by dramatic irony it would help, in part, to save her life. As it happened in many cases, when they arrived at Auschwitz, Irene’s mother told her children to put on several layers of clothes, just in case. Irene also had that white scarf on her head. When the sorting of this transport was taken place, Irene looked older than she really was, and it meant that in the Nazis’ eyes she was fit for work. Irene with her sister Serena were sent to the right.
Her mother, two young brothers and small sister were directed to the left. They were waiting for their turn to be murdered in that forest in Auschwitz. When the picture of them was taken by that sadist Nazi, there were just minutes left for all of them to live.
CALL TO PAT
I do not remember how we ran back to our Washington apartment. We were running all the way, that I remember. I did not want to speak with Pat on this from a street.
Without taking off the coats, we called to Pat and Jim Hutches, dear and close friends, both lions among the people. General Hutchens, former Deputy Chaplain of the US Army, is a legendary hero of American people.
When I started to tell on what had just happened, Pat got silent, then she said being very nervous: “Wait a minute, my dear”, and she screamed as I never heard her screaming: “Jiiiim!..” Jim went closer to her, and we spoke all together.
‘Spoke’ it is a serious exaggeration. We all were exclaiming something not quite coherent, still understanding each other: “There is a woman, the survivor, a mother of our friend, she and her family are in the Album – Oh, really?! My Goodness! – She is alive. – Total silence, then in drastically different voice: Oh my God! Where is she? Can we meet her? Where? How? When? – Her daughter wants you to paint the particular painting – Of course, absolutely – of that woman, Irene’s mother and her two brothers sitting in the forest, just minutes before… I have the picture from the Album. – I know the picture!!! I’ll do it at once!”
PAT AND HER WORKS
Pesach would be coming soon, and in 2013, it was in early April, beautiful days, gentle sun, prayers in the air. And the prayers were much needed for our dear friends: Pat was fighting cancer for the third year by now. She did it artistically, as she lived: she would dress impeccably going out to concerts with friends, she would attend important events looking stunning, and nobody would know that she would collect all her strengths for that.
Nobody would know what a demanding treatment she went through, and how exhausted she was. She was very bright, and she knew that her time in this world is very limited. But the Creator kept his faithful servant Yael ( Pat and Jim went through conversion to Judaism in the end of 1970s) as long as the main project of her life was in progress.
Pat was painting Shoah. She did it in her own way recreating for us, for generations to come, the faces and figures from The Auschwitz Album, one by one. Rabbis, children, women. Women, children and rabbis were her focus in her artistic and humanistic re-reading of that horrific album of cruel photos of poor people overwhelmed by anguish.
Pat was going through 193 photographs in the Album( with Yad Vashem doing remarkable work in identifying more and more people in this only existing photographic evidence from Auschwitz, with publishing four updated and annotated editions of it by now), selecting those that spoke to her the most, and creating oil paintings of them in her own narrative – with passion, empathy, sympathy, understanding and unlimited love.
She also invented her own artistic way to convey her message: she added to her portraits some details which were not present on the original grim photographs taken by sadist Nazi, something that connected those people with life where sun was shining: a pink bow in the little girl’s hair, a doll in the hand of another girl, enlarged Yellow Star on the coat of a rabbi in a power metaphor of a tragedy. In every work in her collection, Pat brought this powerful coloured eye-catching symbol that was screaming to us: “Look on this face!” – and the rest of the viewers’ analogies and thoughts followed. This was her method to cry about the Shoah in her paintings.
And cry she did. Pat was working on that unique project, her Auschwitz Album Re-Visited during three last years of her life, from 2010 until her passing on April 1st, 2014. She managed to paint 40 images from the collection of 193 photos from the Album. “ I was sitting in my studio ( which was in the basement of her and Jim’s home in Virginia) days on, crying and painting, painting and crying, all day long” – my brave friend told me.
The work depicting the Irene Fogel’s mother with her two sons, Irene’s brothers, was one of the last works of Pat, as she was getting weaker speedily due to harsh treatment. But we did not know it yet then, in the gentle days of Pesach in 2013.
Pat graciously agreed to paint the work for Irene immediately although Lesley’s request has come all of the sudden and Pat had plans to create some other works from the Album. Lesley did ask us to ask Pat specifically to try to do it as soon as possible. Lesley, an exemplary daughter, was trying very hard to ensure the possibility for her beloved mother to have the painting of her murdered family on the first opportunity.
I explained her request to Pat, and Pat, being mortally ill and struggling with exhausting treatment and accelerated periods of excruciating pain, took the request of the caring daughter of the survivor to her heart without hesitation.
When during our memorable telephone conversation Pat and Jim were able to speak, after a long pause learning that the survivor is living in proximity to them, their first reaction was to invite Irene and her daughter to visit them, along with us. We all decided that some day during the Pesach week, some Chol HaMoed would be a great opportunity for all of us to come together. And so we did.
It was another sunny spring day in Virginia when the six of us gathered at Pat and Jim’s home towards the end of the Pesach week. Michael and I came first, and we were chatting with Jim and Pat waiting for Irene and Lesley. When they both arrived shortly, Pat disappeared for a moment returning back with a package, seemingly painting , in her hands. The work was covered. We knew nothing about it in advance, and could not imagine that in such a short time of two-three weeks Pat would be able to complete the work that Lesley asked about. Michael and I both thought that it should be something else.
Then Pat took the covering textile off, and we all saw what it was. It was that work, of Irene’s mother and her two brothers in the forest in Auschwitz. Irene, petite elegant woman bearing herself with impeccable dignity, was silent. She just took the work that Pat has handed to her, with both of her hands, so tightly that her knuckles has became stark white. Simultaneously, Irene’s face has become so intense red that I was wondering on should we call an ambulance, just in case. No word was uttered by any of us, six people in the spacious sun-lit Hutchens’ dining room, still.
“Thank You”, – whispered Irene in a failed voice after good several minutes. When we started to talk again, slowly and in a low voice, all of us, Irene’s hands were still keeping her treasure as firmly as it was from the first moment when Pat handed the work to her. She just could not get it off her hands. And I will never forget her face when she was looking on that portraits of her mother and two brothers returned to life by Pat Mercer now, 69 years after all three of them were murdered.
“You know, I never have had their faces in any of my apartments or home, – Irene said to Pat in a quiet voice and with beautiful smile when she finally broke her long and very emotional silence. – The only photo available was this one, from the ( Auschwitz) Album, but it was taken by a Nazi, and there just minutes before they all were murdered. How could I frame and put on my wall something like that? But now, you have painted them with love, you’ve made them alive and breathing. This is my biggest treasure”, – she said to Pat very simply, with unspeakable gratitude which one just cannot formulate in words.
IN THE BASEMENT
Later that sunny afternoon, we all went to Pat’s studio. Entering, we were astounded: Pat and Jim did create a full-scale exhibition there with all 40 of her original works from the Auschwitz Album Re-Visited, with printed out her comments to each of the works placed next to them. All for Irene and the rest of us to go through the whole project, the dramatic fruit of three last years of Pat’s life.
With all the original works on the walls, the drama of the artist’s appeal to everyone who would ever seeing those paintings was screaming out. It was truly powerful, concentrated and so very honest scream of pain over the destiny of Jews in the Shoah.
More, and very tangibly, on that afternoon, the collection was observed by a petite woman with a quiet voice and special eyes, the person who when being a teenager was physically present in the Hell on earth called Auschwitz. The person who lost 19 members of her family to the Shoah. We all were trembling, literally too.
Irene was approaching the paintings on the wall slowly, her devoted daughter Lesley being close to her mother, just behind her. Irene’s eyes were moving from one image to another with no rush. Nobody talked. What we all, each of us could tell to her?
Pat started to comment only when Irene was started to talk, very little, after some while, asking something, or pointing on some detail of the landscape so devastatingly familiar to her.
Several times during that hour in the Pat’s basement studio my heart went down. There were times when Irene recalled things which she saw on the Pat’s paintings. Especially, when Irene was saying quietly regarding some of the details: “ I do remember it”. We all were transferred into the other dimension in no time.
We came back to the hospitable and warm Pat and Jim’s dining room for coffee after that unforgettable viewing of the collection, but the thoughts of all six of us were still there, in the basement, and in the place where those pictures took us to.
None of us was able to think much about taking photos during the whole afternoon. We were absorbed by totally different thoughts. When some days after that incredible meeting, I asked Jim about any pictures from our meeting, as I saw him with a camera during our tour in Pat’s studio, he just sighed. “Sorry, Inna, not a single good one. My hands were trembling too much, seemingly” – said our brave General. But I managed to get at least a few good shots, for the history, literally so.
SEVEN YEARS LATER
Since that meeting in April 2013, Irene, Lesley and Pat had maintained a good and close relations for a year to come, until Pat’s death in April 2014. And not only that – together, they run an important commemorative project at the George Mason University. I was and still being in awe of Pat’s incredible dedication to the cause of the commemoration of the Shoah that infused her with strength to take an active part in the events against under the circumstances when her health was deteriorating so significantly.
The strength of this generation is remarkable, indeed: in 2018, being 87, Irene Fogel-Weiss did travel to Germany, to participate in person as a witness at the trial of Oscar Goering known as ‘the Auschwitz Book-keeper’. It is not an easy task to carry on in any age, but she did in bravely, in extremely dignified way.
These very days, in January 2020, she is in Poland, taking part, along with her daughter Lesley, in the events commemorating the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz liberation there. In continuation of her so very demanding dialogue with the past, I saw Irene staying in the POLIN museum next to the very same photo which Pat did paint for her in her artistic interpretation seven years ago.
Pat had a profound impact on people. With her knowledge, her two doctorates, her strong mind, her faith and courageous heart, she was a shining example of active love. The one of her very close pupils is a well-known writer and historian Dr Shelley R. Neese, who is also Chair of The JerUSAlem Connection in Washington DC, the organisation that had been established by General James M. Hutchens and his wife in the 1990s.
When we set up the Pat’s exhibition in Ukraine just a couple of months before her passing away, in January 2014, it was Shelley who flew in there, all the way from Arizona, to present the artist and to be there for Pat and for the cause.
After Pat’s passing away, all these years Shelley is involved in keeping her legacy by working with the Auschwitz Album Re-Visited collection in various ways, while I am doing the same presenting Pat’s works and messages at the Holocaust Centres and Museums in London, Riga, Budapest, and many other places. Together, we are thinking on putting the Pat’s project in a form of an art history book.
And now it passed on to the next generation. Seven years after our meeting in Washington, in November 2019, Shelley’s 13-year old son, the one of her and her husband Brian’s four children, started to be involved into the Holocaust history studies project in his school in Washington DC. When Shelley learned about it, she has proposed to her son’s teacher to invite Irene Fogel-Weiss to speak with the students.
The teacher warmly supported the idea, and the school did organise a special event in their school theatre, with as many as 400 students presented to hear Irene Fogel-Weiss and to ask her various questions.
I was and was not amazed on that. I was because of the amazing continuation the thread, with the same people keeping it in their hands and hearts so firmly and devotedly. And I was not because I know that the efforts of the kind undertaken by the people as Irene Fogel-Weiss and Pat Mercer Hutchens are not disappearing nowhere even if one of them physically is not with us any longer. The keeping of that thread went from Pat to Shelley who keeps it very firmly, too. And now, in front of our eyes, it went to her son and his friends in the school, the third generation to keep it alive.
It is exactly as Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau has said publicly recently, at the Holocaust Forum hold in Jerusalem on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the Auschwitz liberation: “ We are here to keep the thread unbroken!”. He was understandably emotional while stating the most important for him -and us – essence of survival and essence of being.
I can assure my dear friend and mentor Rabbi Yisrael that we and the next generation will make sure that the thread, our Jewish thread of life, tradition, memory, and love to our lost ones will be kept unbroken. Always.
The story of one painting, the painting of Fogel family in the harrowing forest of Auschwitz , and everything that came out of it and what is continuing to happen today, is proof of it .
Our dear and generous friend Pat did present us with many of the rare, signed by her, original archival prints of her works from The Auschwitz Album Re-Visited. During the years, we have donated some of them to the various worthy institutions around the globe, and those organisations who would benefit from it meaningfully. At many of those events and encounters, we saw what effect the Pat’s works have on people, both young and old, but importantly, young, in particular. I saw in Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Latvia, in the UK, Finland, Canada.
In many of those countries, it does matter tremendously, as we all know. It was not easy for us personally to depart with the works signed by our dear late friend. We have got close and familiar with those faces on the Pat’s works. They become as if personally known to us, they have become a part of our millieu, those Rabbis, children, women and men from the Hungarian town where from Lilly Jacob was; the young girl survived in Auschwitz who did find the original Auschwitz Album in the pocket of the left behind military coat of the SS officer who run away just hours before the liberation of Auschwitz. Those people , who had been returned back to our memory by Pat Mercer Hutchens, has become the part of our lives, with the bits of their stories restored by Yad Vashem historians with such scrupulous efforts during all the years from the 1980s onward.
But there is one work of my dear friend Pat which I just can not let away. This girl in her Mother’s arms, little Emma, looks from the Pat’s warm and emotional painting straight to our hearts. No, she does not look from the Pat’s painting, actually. Emma looks on us straight from there. From the dimension of the Shoah. This is what a good, intellectually honest and soulful piece of art can do.
To paint Emma in her mother’s arms, Pat took a fragment of the photo portraying more than 70 people who just left the cattle car upon their arrival to the Auschwitz rail-track. Pat selected one little girl in her mother’s arms from the group. She called her work “ Why I, little Emma?..”
I look at Emma every day, many times a day, and every time, I look to her anew. Nobody sane cannot explain the Shoah, as Elie Wiesel said. Nobody sane cannot comprehend Auschwitz which Elie called ‘another planet’. Nobody normal can ever accept it, forget it, neither forgive it. As 83-year old Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau said at the recent commemoration at Yad Vashem in January 2020, ‘my parents did not tell me to forgive. They did not give me the right to forgive”. He lived with it all his long, outstanding life. And so many others, myriads of the Shoah survivors. Irene Fogel-Weiss did it too, Irene who is facing the place of the horrific murder of her entire family today, 75 years later, being 88. I do not know how she does it.
I just know that as long as I live, I will be seeing little Emma on our wall. Because I cannot imagine my life without looking at her several times a day, thinking on them all. Every single one. All six millions, and more, those who were not counted for a number of reasons. All of them – and every single one.