Any trip to Israel isn't complete without a visit to Yad Vashem, the country's official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust in Jerusalem. But since I visited it a little over a year ago and cried my way through exhibit after exhibit, this time I wanted to explore other sections of the complex.
Since I gravitate to expressions of creativity when I'm traveling, I spent my entire visit at the center's two art museums.
These present the Holocaust in a whole new light, emphasizing the creativity of survivors as well as those who painted, drew or sculpted while in hiding or who were living in the ghettos and who ultimately didn't survive.
"Virtues of Memories: Six Decades of Holocaust Survivor Art" is a temporary exhibit with 300 works by an equal number of survivors who created their art after the war.
Some later became professional artists while many others relied on art as a means to express an oftentimes indescribable experience. The images are divided into sections based on theme (for example, fires, the exodus, deportation, the camps, prison scenes, women and children) and visual presentation (such as black and white scenes done with pen and ink, linoleum or graphite; sculptural works; and abstract art).
The exhibit is fascinating because of the myriad ways -- whether through symbol, a vivid palette or the artistic style -- each artist remembers his or her cruel experience. One painting displays chimneys spewing billowing clouds with the letter "J' inserted in each. A sculpture of an outstretched striped prison shirt is constructed of mixed media. An aluminum tree grows leaves of hands reaching for the sky, while a bold abstract piece appears to depict a web of wires amid splashes of chaotic color.
I spent an hour taking in not only the multitude pieces but also the memorable quotes inscribed on the walls, such as this one: "I remember just one thing: the clatter of the wheels."
Then I meandered to the adjacent Holocaust Art Museum with its permanent collection of works done during the Holocaust. Here I was surprised at the many sun-filled landscapes or brightly painted pieces that had absolutely nothing to do with the many brutal acts of the tragedy itself. Even more surprising is how these dedicated artists who were physically lacking much that we take for granted and who were mentally stressed to the limits of the human capacity were able to create vibrant works while fashioning art supplies out of the bare basic materials at hand. It was fascinating to linger over the works and read the mini biographies of the artists which describe where they studied, painted, whether the Nazis discovered them and their ultimate fate.
I found a section dedicated to Carol Deutsch who painted striking gauche illustrations of the Bible. (Twenty-five of the 99 he created for his daughter are on display.) Though he was murdered in the camp, his daughter ultimately found his oeuvre in a large wooden box elaborately adorned with a menorah and a Star of David.
The wealth of works that young Charlotte Salomon painted while hiding in France is outstanding, including her delicate watercolors that portray images of the villa where she and her family took refuge, the colorful blooming gardens, and the surrounding leafy forest.
Despite being ordered to paint S.S. officer Felix Landau's nursery with fairy tale images, artist and writer Bruno Schulz managed to inject his own style and personality into the works. On display are the remains of the fanciful frescoes all painted under coercion. Schultz's father is the bearded dwarf in the Snow White imagery. The carriage rider representing a scene from Cinderella is Schultz himself. In fact, the carriage and driver motif appear frequently in his works. Even more interesting are the trees that may have been meant to represent Bronica Forest where Landau executed Jews.
Despite the brutality of the Holocaust, creativity somehow manages to continue unabated. And, though these artists may have not all survived, they were able to leave their legacy which provide a window into their state of mind and their reality so that we may never forget.
credits: works by: Rosemarie Koczy, Erwin Wending, Adolf Frankl, Malvina Kaplan and Leon Engelsberg