Beit Theresienstadt exhibit combines art, Holocaust survivor testimony

A stirring exhibition combining artwork and survivor testimony opens at Beit Theresienstadt on International Holocaust Remembrance Day,

 SHAHAR SIVAN’S emotive woodcut triptych catches nonagenarian Holocaust survivor Eva Erben in a variety of expressions. (photo credit: Shahar Sivan)
SHAHAR SIVAN’S emotive woodcut triptych catches nonagenarian Holocaust survivor Eva Erben in a variety of expressions.
(photo credit: Shahar Sivan)

The tales and experiences of Holocaust survivors continue to be told, as the numbers of those still with us dwindle naturally. For the younger generations – the third and fourth since World War II – some of these stories may be too challenging to ingest or may just seem incredible.

How can a teenager in the Western world today, for example, possibly envisage a situation in which men, women and children are hounded, persecuted and killed simply because of their ethnicity or sexual preferences? Yes, sadly, there are horrific evil acts still being perpetrated, but the sheer volume of the Holocaust is difficult to take in.

However, there are ways of imparting the gravitas in a more accessible manner. As late Holocaust survivor Israel Prize winning writer Aharon Appelfeld once succinctly observed: “If you want to convey a heavy subject such as the Holocaust, you have to use intimate things. Intimacy is created through personal stories, but greater, more significant intimacy is made possible through art.”

That sentiment has been adopted, on all counts, by Beit Theresienstadt with its Artist Meets Testimony exhibition. For the occasion, the museum, and research and educational institution which commemorates survivors and victims of the Theresienstadt Ghetto, has joined forces with the Art & About Gallery at the Emek Hefer Industrial Park, to mount a stirring exhibition of works due to open January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The exhibition will run there until February 28 before setting off for other display facilities around the country until September, after which it is hoped it will relocate to various institutions in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

 THE CREATIVE process (R) involved the use of physical strength, but also delicacy. (credit: Gal Rave) THE CREATIVE process (R) involved the use of physical strength, but also delicacy. (credit: Gal Rave)

Artist Meets Testimony is the brainchild of artist couple Maya and Gale Ravé and brings together 12 survivors with established artists from the third generation. The creative upshot covers a range of disciplinary areas and styles, with the older intergenerational tandem partners including some seasoned artists, all of whom related their Holocaust experiences and life philosophies to their younger counterparts.

The professionals on the project roster, in addition to the Ravés, include musician Geva Alon, painter and installation creator Iddo Markus, painter Amir Shefet and multidisciplinary artist Shahar Sivan. The latter teamed up with 91-year-old Eva Erben, an only child born in Czechoslovakia to a wealthy family. She was sent on a transport to the Theresienstadt Ghetto at age 11, together with her parents in December, 1941. In 1944, her father was shipped to Auschwitz concentration camp and then Dachau concentration camp, where he died. Eva and her mother were also sent to Auschwitz in October, 1944, and thereafter to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp before they embarked on a tortuous 500 km. death march, in early 1945. Erben’s mother did not survive the death march, while Eva had a miraculous escape.

The Erben-Sivan synergy involved the artist watching Erben’s videoed Holocaust recollections. That spawned an emotive woodcut triptych which catches the nonagenarian in a variety of emotional expressions, including one of a sunnier nature.

It was a shocking and enriching experience for Sivan. How, indeed, could you not be moved and inspired by the positive spirit of Erben’s tale? “Don’t try to comprehend your strength,” she said in her testimony. “Don’t ask God to put you in situations in which you find the strength inside you, because you think you aren’t able. But you can. As soon as the moment arrives, you can.”

Erben appears to have taken something of a quixotic approach toward the dark days of childhood. “I didn’t speak German for 40 years and I didn’t talk about the Holocaust for 40 years, only with my husband who was also a survivor,” she says. At last, when she recounted her painful backdrop it was not premeditated. “My son was at school in Ashkelon. It was Holocaust Remembrance Day and I was outside the school. The teacher came to me and asked me to come into the class and tell the kids – they were 10 year olds – about the Holocaust.”

EVEN SO, she didn’t exactly bombard the youngsters with stark snapshots of what things were like in the Theresienstadt and Auschwitz concentration camps, and about her close scrape with death. “I used dark humor. I didn’t tell them the facts straight. I told them about picking mushrooms in the woods, and what a lovely life I had as a child.” Still, she wasn’t going to pull the wool over their tender eyes either. There was a lesson to be imparted. “I had a wonderful life then suddenly, in 1938, I was eight years old, life turned upside down. There was no security. Life is so fragile. What you have now can vanish in a split second.” Some of that hard-earned wisdom is laid out in Erben’s short autobiography Ima Sapri Li. At Hayit Shahm (Hebrew for Mommy Tell Me. You Were There).

Erben’s ability to smile through the darkness comes across in Sivan’s work. “I connected well with the way she speaks. She uses joy, emotions, her strength and optimism,” says the artist whose grandparents, on both sides, all made it through the Holocaust in one way or another. “The Holocaust informs a lot of the work I have done in the past two years,” he notes. “I did a series on deconstructing fear.”

True to her sunny outlook on life, Erben talks about her part in Brundibar, the famed children’s production which was one of many performed at Theresienstadt. The ghetto was used by the Nazis to try to dupe the world into thinking that the inmates were being treated well and enjoyed a rich cultural life.

The latter, and only that, was quite accurate. Despite the lack of nutrition, inhuman overcrowded quarters and other life-threatening deprivations, plays, concerts and other creative endeavors were a constant there. For Erben, it was a valuable addendum to her truncated formal schooling. “We learned so much there. I got to know about Shakespeare and Mozart. We [survivors] all say the same thing. We worked in the garden and while we dug the earth we’d talk about Napoleon and Marie Antoinette and all sorts of things.”

Sivan says he fed off that mindset and ran with it. He wanted to make sure he had a good handle on the facts and, more importantly, the feelings behind Erben’s life story. “I wanted to get know Eva as well as I could, so I asked Gal and Maya for the full, unedited, testimony. I took frames of Eva from the video, blew them up to 1.5 m. x 1.5 m. enlargements and I put them up all over the studio. I listened to the testimony over and over while I worked. It was as if she was right there with me.”

The synergy was a roller coaster for all concerned, in both emotional and corporeal terms. “I started working, looking at one or two sketches I’d done of Eva, to get me focused on the work,” says Sivan. “The work is a woodcut or wood etching. There are sketch elements and the magic of print. And there are the more physical parts – using a rotor saw, and a hammer and chisel.” That required not only physical strength, but also delicacy and allowing the creative process to follow its natural course. “You can’t completely control the way a chisel cuts into wood. You can’t possibly know exactly how it will come out. You have to leave some things to chance.”

In the context of Erben’s survival, that sounds spot on. She could hardly have been closer to death. “We slept in a barn on the death march and, somehow, I was left behind in the morning,” she recalls. “I went into some woods and met some children who told me where the nearest village was, but I didn’t notice there was a soldier – he was really a young boy, 18 or 19 years old – in a guard booth. He told me to stop and asked me where I was going. I told him I was lost. I remember hearing him load his rifle and he pointed it at me, ready to shoot.” 

But the Good Lord clearly wanted Erben to stay with us a while longer, actually almost eight decades more and counting. “Suddenly another young soldier appeared and told the first one not to bother shooting me and said I would probably die soon anyway.”

Each of the survivors has made their way through life since then by their own devices, adapting to their post-Holocaust reality and choosing, at least on a conscious level, how much of their traumatic baggage to take with them. For Erben, it has been a matter of getting on with life. “I saw heaps of dead bodies at Auschwitz. I was only 14. But you forget it. You don’t really absorb it. The brain shuts it out.”

As the years went by, and her circumstances improved, Erben relented on that score. “I have had such wonderful things in my life. I have loved and been loved. Today I allow myself to reflect on the most terrible things.”

That sounds like a healing process, albeit a trying one, which is now being augmented and amplified by Sivan’s efforts. “I am so happy Shahar is putting his heart into this work. I am really looking forward to seeing what he came up with,” says Erben, and so are the rest of us.

 MEISELS SAYS she connected powerfully with artist Amir Shefet. (credit: Gal Rave) MEISELS SAYS she connected powerfully with artist Amir Shefet. (credit: Gal Rave)

VERA MEISELS is not one to forget. The 86-year-old Czech-born survivor says she lives with the Holocaust day by day. “I eat the Shoah morning, evening and night,” she declares. “I am obsessive about the Holocaust. As soon as I retired, finished bringing up my kids and found spare time, I got a computer. In the morning I scan the newspaper. I do the three crosswords, to make sure I’m not senile yet,” she laughs. “I check my emails and then I go on YouTube to watch Holocaust testimonies.”

When Amir Shefet watched Maya Ravé’s video of Meisels’s own testimony something clicked. “I felt a strong connection with Amir right away,” says the octogenarian, who likes a strong coffee and a cigarette or two. “I only met him after he finished his painting.”

The sense of chemistry and empathy was evidently mutual as Shefet latched onto the story of how Meisels’ family fled to a forest in 1944, dug a trench, covered it with a tarpaulin and vegetation, and lay there stock-still all day long. They only ventured out at night to gather some berries and other sustenance. “I was a little girl and I remember peering through a hole in the tarpaulin and watching the snowflakes flurry and fall,” Meisels recalls. “I noticed that each flake had a different shape, and there were all sorts of colors, like a kaleidoscope.”

Shefet got that. “He painted little white dots, like flowers or maybe stars or – crucially – like snowflakes,” Meisels observes. “I told Amir that he was influenced by the flakes I saw. That was wonderful.”

Meisels has also documented some of her experiences and emotional baggage, which includes appearing in the Firefly children’s production at Theresienstadt, in an autobiographical tome, and three poetry books. One is called Petitei Zikaron (Hebrew for Memory Flakes). She also studied art for a while at the Avni Institute and has a wooden sculpture, which came out as a Muselmann – a term used by concentration camp inmates to denote the starving who were close to death – in the art collection at Yad Vashem. “I am very proud of that,” she says.

For Beit Theresienstadt general director Tami Kinberg, Artist Meets Testimony proved to be an opportunity to get some more facets of the Holocaust out there, and to make that traumatic period in recent Jewish history more palatable. “Maya Ravé initiated this project, which tells the tale of the Holocaust from a different perspective. The idea is to connect with young people in a way that is not just plain history with facts and statistics.”

Using art as the storytelling medium naturally helps, as well as harnessing the skills of the artists who also have some relevant narrative of their own. “The artists also convey their own stories through their work, which feeds off the testimony,” Kinberg notes, adding that the project was a two-way street on various levels. “The survivor’s testimony took on a timeless life of its own. It has an independent value too.”

While many of the survivors had already related some of their Holocaust experiences in some form of other, Kinberg says Artist Meets Testimony enabled them to offload some more of their emotional baggage. “The video project offered them an opportunity to release things they hadn’t done before. Art offers a new channel of expression. It is very moving for all of us involved.”

Kinberg fully expects some of that to rub off onto the public too. “All the survivors are so full of life and optimism,” she says. “It is so inspiring.”

The possibility of taking Artist Meets Testimony on the road is, of course, very much dependent on the necessary wherewithal, and the museum has launched a crowdfunding effort to help pave the financial way to get the testimonies and fruits of the artists’ heartfelt labors out there. ■

For more information, visit: bterezin.org.il/en/events/artist-meets-testimonial/