Detail from a sculpture at the exhibit. (Photo: Dave Bender)
Holocaust Remembrance Day: The 'Virtues of Memory'(An edited version of this story appears in China's People's Daily Online)
By Dave Bender
On April 12, Holocaust Remembrance Day, a new exhibition, “Virtues of Memory: Six Decades of Holocaust Survivors’ Creativity” will open at Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
The exhibition, “tries to explore for the first time how survivors actually remember a place we too-often said was indescribable,” according to Yehudit Shendar, who directs the center's art department and is senior art curator of Yad Vashem's Museums Division.
Virtues of Memory, “is an opportunity for all of us to try and understand what the survivors have experienced – this time, not with our ears, or with our word capacity, but rather with our eyes,” Shendar told reporters at a pre-opening exhibition.
“In my opinion, the Holocaust is one of the major characteristics of Jewishness today,” said Raul-Israel Teitelbaum, 80, a former Israeli journalist and painter. One of his paintings, a dark oil-on-canvas, “Boy at Bergen-Belsen,” is hosted at the exhibition.
“Other elements are sometimes disputed, but the Holocaust is one thing that actually crystallized the identity of Jews today. It's a part of the history, and a very hard history of the Jewish people,” Teitelbaum told reporters, standing alongside the painting.
Shen-Dar and Teitelbaum, stand beneath his painting, "Boy at Bergen-Belsen (Photo: Dave Bender)
“When I was very young, I was very busy with my daily life … with age, the memories come back,” Teitelbaum said, describing a pattern familiar to survivors, of painful memories they often tried to suppress over the intervening decades of rebuilding lives and families.
One of his horrific experiences is captured in the 67.2 x 42 cm. portrait of a gaunt young man, clad in torn blue rags and sitting on a stone in a muddy, stockaded courtyard in the camp. In the agonizing scene, his back is turned away from the viewer and his face is unseen.
“I think about an intimate moment in Bergen-Belsen. It was when we got our daily ration of bread, and all of us would try to hide it from the others there, and I was trying to show this moment,” said Teitelbaum, who now lives as a retiree in Jerusalem.
Teitelbaum was born in Kosovo, Yugoslavia in 1931, and was an only child. He was imprisoned in the hellish death camp when he was 13-years-old, along with his mother and father.
He and his mother managed to survive there until the Nazi surrendered to Allied forces. Their father did not.
Teitelbaum remained in Yugoslavia after the war, in order to finish his schooling. He then made his way to pre-state Israel, where he settled and worked as a journalist for the next 30 years at the Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
“...and now I am very active to tell my story to my granddaughter and her friends,” the now silver-haired and robust Teitelbaum said, in recognition of a sobering, unavoidable fact: When he and his generation are gone, there will no longer be anyone left alive to pass the memory of the horror, and the vision of the hope, on to the next generation.
Teitelbaum's memories and artistic vision are an integral theme of this year’s Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day events in Israel.
The artwork of 300 survivors, including paintings, wood and metal sculpture and mixed-media are the first time such a show has ever been attempted.
(Photo: Dave Bender)
“We are so accustomed to think about the Holocaust in black-and-white,” Shen-Dar told reporters viewing the vivid images and sculpture arrayed throughout the expansive hall, “but the 'black-and-white' was the camera of the perpetrator – not what the victims have seen.”
But, “colors don't mean that something is happy,” Shen-Dar cautions.
“It just means that it was real. It was not on another planet, it was right here on our planet with greens and reds and blues, that we all know well.” That awful reality is something Shen-Dar and her colleagues at Yad Vashem are struggling hard to memorialize, and tell the world. They are in a race against age, and in the face of Holocaust denial, and renewed outbreaks of antisemitism worldwide.
Shen-Dar and her team assembled the hundreds of artifacts out of the collection of thousands of object d' art stored at Yad Vashem in the six decades since World War II.
“No, no. They were certainly human beings. Uniforms, boots,” writes Israeli poet, Dan Pagis, in one of many vivid quotes about the Holocaust experience inscribed over the sections of the exhibition.
Shen-Dar says that quote is prophetic, since many of the images feature the same Nazi uniform elements again and again.
“That is to tell us that the perpetrators were not some outside creatures. They were real people,” Shen-Dar reminds the reporters.
“Unfortunately, too many times we say that they don't belong to the human race,” she says of the Nazis. That the death and labor camp tormentors, “are not part of what we call, 'humanity.' But they were.”
“They were human beings, some of them very well educated,” Shen-Dar said. “And they did what they did with a clear mind and an ideology, and thus, we should not spare them by saying 'they were beasts.'”
Finally, according to Shen-Dar, the exhibit does not detract from the visceral experience the survivors went through, or allow an gauzy artistic aesthetic to lessen the elemental impact of the images:
“I would say the reality of these works of art is quite blunt, and they spare nothing” she says of the works of art. “This tells you that they believed that the reality needs to be seen as is. Not beautified, not adorned, and not spared from us.”
“I believe that part of the power of this exhibition,” Shen-Dar concludes, “is to allow this voice to take the stage.”
Since Israel officially follows the Hebrew lunar-based calendar, the opening ceremony for Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day begins Sunday evening, and concludes Monday evening.
Israel's President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are scheduled to address the ceremony, and Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Chairman of the Yad Vashem Council and himself a survivor will kindle the Memorial Torch.
The exhibition will be on display for a year.