Virtues of Memory: six decades of creativity from Holocaust survivors
"And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name (a "yad vashem")... that shall not be cut off."
(Isaiah, chapter 56, verse 5)
In 1945, at the end of the WWII, the Jewish survivors of exterminations camps, who then found themselves in DP (displaced persons) camps in Europe, began to draw and paint almost frenetically, wanting to put down on paper not just words, but also images of what they had witnessed. Fearing that their stories about the nightmare landscape they had just left would not be believed, they were compelled to depict in visual form what they had seen.
One of those was Yehouda Bacon, who later became my teacher at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. At age 13 he was sent with his family to the Terezin Ghetto near Prague and then to Auschwitz, where he was charged with transferring corpses and ashes in the creamatoria. He was liberated on May 6, 1945, after the death March to Mauthousen. He immediately began drawing sketches of the crematoria in Auschwitz, later submitted as evidence in the Eichmann Trial in Jerusalem. He went to the Land of Israel in 1946 (before the State of Israel was declared) with the Youth Aliyah (Youth Immigration), studied at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem and later taught there. We, his students, knew vaguely about his past, but he never spoke of it and we never asked.
His work in the large scope exhibition ‘Virtues of Memory: Six Decades of Holocaust Survivors Creativity,’ which opened at the Yad Vashem Museum on April 12, 2010, Holocaust Remembrance Day, is dated 1948 and depicts a ‘Muselmann’, as the emaciated inmates of the camps were called. This work is included in the section entitled 'Granting the body an Image – Gaunt of bone, with glassy eyes.'
Another one of my teachers, Jacob Pins, who taught me woodblock prints, is also included in the exhibition. He belongs to the group that managed to leave Europe before the war, but his parents, who stayed behind in Germany, were murdered by the Nazis in Riga Ghetto. Jacob Pins gave me the knowledge that made possible many of the woodblock prints I produced as an artist, some of which are now in collections of Public Galleries and Museums in Canada. He was awarded the Israel Prize for the Arts. His woodblock print in the exhibition is dated 1946.
I am honoured and deeply moved to have my painting ‘Out of the Flames’ included in this exhibition along with my teachers.
The echoes of the Holocaust still reverberate across the decades as seen in the works in 'Virtues of Memory,' stretching over a time span from the end of the war in 1945 and continuing until 2008. Many of the artists have passed away and the others are not young anymore. In the not too distant future none will be left to relate their experiences, but their art will continue to speak loud and clear.
This is the reason that makes "Virtues of Memory" an important and timely exhibition.
Established in 1953 as the world center for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust, Yad Vashem safeguards the memory of the past and imparts its meaning for future generations. ‘Virtues of Memory,’ showing the works of three hundred artists, each represented by one piece, is the first exhibition of its kind. All the works are drawn from the Museum’s massive permanent collection of over ten thousand works of art.
My inclusion in ‘Virtues of Memory’ was the most emotionally fulfilling and important highlight of my career as an artist. I had to be there, to see the works of the other artists and to take part in celebrating this important event, for there is nothing closer to fulfilling the commandment "and thou shall tell it to your children," written in the Passover Haggadah, than this exhibition of artists who survived the Nazi inferno and whose personal testimony in graphic form will last forever.
And so it was with great trepidation and emotion that I arrived at the Museum. I was welcomed with great warmth and met Curator Yehudit Shendar and Orly Nachmani, the assistant curator with whom I had been corresponding and who made sure I received one of the exhibition catalogues, an impressive, well - researched heavy book of 660 pages, curatorial statements and two pages for each of the 300 artists.
As we came in, I was stunned to see that my work, ‘Out of the Flames’, included in the section titled ‘the need to Document’, was almost the first painting one encountered when entering the spacious exhibition hall. I soon found myself surrounded by my cousins who came all the way from Haifa and by friends from Tel Aviv and other parts of Israel, some of whom I had not seen for as many as 20 or even 50 years! I was moved to tears to see them all there, having come from afar to celebrate with me.
Here I would like to mention a meaningful detail about my painting. The last panel of the triptych is centered on a transfer photograph of my cousin, Gabi, three friends and myself, all of us who came ‘out of the flames’ of war to Israel. And now Gabi was there, at my side, gazing at her image as a young, 15 years old, embedded in my painting.
As people began to arrive, I noticed that many were looking for the artists and asking questions, sharing their own experiences and having conversations about the works. By the reactions of the visitors one could sense a general feeling of personal involvement made real through the art on the walls.
After a while, of course, there were speeches, photographers, television crews and journalists. People approached me asking questions and someone even interviewed me for some TV show that I shall probably never see. There was a feeling in the air that this exhibition was special, that it had a deep meaning for the artists and the viewers alike.
In the introduction to the catalogue, Avner Shalev, Chairman of the Directorate of Yad Vashem, writes:
“The compelling intellectual issue, which has been the impetus for numerous deliberations regarding the ostensible absence of the moral right to create artwork after Auschwitz, is ineffective for these artists…For these survivors-artists, driven by the need to create, repression and silence are impossible. Creation is their means to exist.’"
According to the rigid curatorial rules of today, ‘Virtues of Memory’ might be considered an 'uneven' exhibition. However, it exudes elements that are rarely seen now: a baring of the soul, deep emotion and a raw, honest and direct truth of life experience, and, as Avner Shalev points out, "a moral right to create." Not all the artists in the exhibition experienced the horror of the camps. But they all fit the Yad Vashem definition of ‘Survivor’: any Jew who came out alive from Europe is a survivor.
In Curator Yehudit Shendar’s words:
“…'Virtues of Memory' opens up this collection of artistic expression, enabling those who were not there to touch upon a reality from its visual aspects. It presents a powerful language of signs and symbols stemming from the necessity that pushes those who seek to remember to delve into the depths of memory, unvarnished and unadorned. It is not an effort to recreate reality; rather, it is reality itself, both external and internal, daubed in the hues of personal experience.”
It was time to leave. I realized that I had not really been able to see everything, since I had been too busy talking with all the friends and relatives who came to share in the experience.
We returned to Yad Vashem the next day and spent a long time in the exhibition space. After that we went into the amazing building designed by Moshe Safdie that houses the historical Museum of the Holocaust, one of the most difficult, overwhelming and horrific documentation of the Shoah.
But now, having seen again the Holocaust documents and photographs in the Yad Vashem Museum, I understood much better the importance and lasting value of an art exhibition based on the visual memory of the survivors. The power of 'Virtues of Memory' bears testimony and reinforces the terrible history of the Shoah by its very truth.
The exhibition continues at the Art Museum of Yad Vashem until April 2011.