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Holocaust art exhibit coming to towns with few or no Jews

Chicago Jewish News
CHICAGO, March 6 (JTA) — When the city officials of Aurora learned that their town could be the only venue in Illinois for a traveling contemporary art exhibit about the Holocaust, there was immediate and virtually unqualified support. Many of the few hundred Jewish families in this area, 45 miles west of Chicago, lined up to volunteer. Since the exhibit opened at the end of January, hundreds of visitors — many of them school children — have come to see “Witness and Legacy: Contemporary Art About the Holocaust.” The aim of the exhibit is “to bring the Holocaust into our cultural dialogue,” Paul Spencer of the Minnesota Museum of American Art, who is one of the exhibit’s curators, wrote in the exhibition catalog. The exhibit is booked across the country through the year 2001, mostly in towns that have small or no Jewish communities. “As the 20th century closes, there is more and more of a burden and an increasing urgency to tell the story,” writes co-curator Stephen Feinstein. “Throughout history, art has been a means of such telling. Within the realm of art, the Holocaust era may just be emerging.” Installed in a 5,000-square-foot space at the Aurora Public Art Commission, the show includes 84 works by 22 artists, many nationally known. Some of the artists are survivors and some are children of survivors. Others are not necessarily Jewish but see in the horror of the Holocaust metaphors for violence, racism and fanaticism that exist in society. If art has the power to transform, can art inspired by the Holocaust diminish intolerance in society? Can there be poetry and art after Auschwitz? The exhibit attempts a response to both those questions. “This subject wants to be remembered and understood by the next generation. That’s one of the reasons people make art about it,” said Gabrielle Rossmer, whose haunting installation, “In Search of the Lost Object,” includes images of family members and enigmatic, shroudlike cloth sculptures. Rossmer left Germany as a child, but her grandparents stayed behind and were killed. “Understanding the epoch of Nazism, economically, politically and socially, is part of the unfinished business of our era,” said Arnold Trachtman, who was born in the United States. His brightly colored acrylic paintings feature the major industrialists who fueled the Nazi war machine. “I really wanted to understand that period and the demonization of that period. I’ve always used my art to try to understand the world,” Trachtman writes in the catalog. Rena Church, director of Aurora’s art commission, sees in the show an opportunity to educate people not only about the Holocaust, but about the terrible price paid by all victims of violence and intolerance. “We’re a multicultural community,” said Church. This exhibit “addresses itself to everyone.” The exhibit was widely supported by leaders of the African American and Hispanic communities in Aurora, Church said, as well as by public officials. As one of the curators, Spencer writes, “All of us, the artists and the audience, must do the work of understanding how the Holocaust happened and what it has done to our humanity.” It is in the five installation pieces that viewers come closest to experiencing the dislocation and fear that haunted Jewish experience during the Holocaust. In Pearl Hirshfield’s “Shadows of Auschwitz, 1989,” viewers walk through a narrow, black space, looking at themselves in mirrors that reflect back concentration camp inmate numbers. Hay covers the floor in the box-car like space of Gerda Meyer-Bernstein’s “Shrine, 1991.” Black polyester kippot cover the entry way, opposite a photograph of a death-camp oven. Two giant swastikas are flanked by panels of swastikas in Edith Altman’s “Reclaiming the Symbol/The Art of Memory, 1988-1992.” In Pier Marton’s “Jew 1985,” which includes a video, viewers become participants by adding their thoughts in chalk to the blackened walls. Paintings, photographs and collages are no less powerful in their impact on viewers. The oversized photographs of Debbie Teicholz, daughter of survivors, recall through natural objects — harrowed fields, piles of bleached tree branches — the mechanized killing and destruction. Jerome Witkin’s painting, “The Beating Station, Berlin, 1933,” graphically depicts the violence. Susan Leader, a volunteer docent and a member of Aurora’s Temple B’nai Israel, has gained a different perspective from taking school groups through the exhibit. “It is interesting,” she said, “to see the Holocaust through non-Jewish eyes.”