Postcard from the past

Halina Davidovitch, a Schindler Jew, documented her life story to her daughter-in-law before she died, and her Holocaust stories are now part of an art exhibition.

schindler card 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
schindler card 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got 'till it's gone…" Singer Joni Mitchell probably wasn't aware that when she wrote that line in "Big Yellow Taxi" - a song about environmental degradation, irretrievable loss and yearning for what is past - she was also describing the difficulty of thousands of people cut off from their own family history. Too many of us know surprisingly little about our own parents, even less about our grandparents, and almost nothing about the lives of our ancestors. Many of us feel the loss particularly acutely when we recall hearing these stories from parents and grandparents while we were children, at a time when we were simply too young to care about their recollections or understand what they were about. By the time we reach an age at which we're hungry for any scrap of information about our families' histories, the people who were once so determined to tell us their stories are no longer with us. Not all of us, however, are so sadly bereft of family history. Amira Davidovitch, a 48-year-old painter and sculptor from a small village southeast of Haifa, had the presence of mind not only to listen attentively to her mother-in-law's stories about her experiences in the Holocaust, but also to record them. Now, an exhibit of paintings, sculpture and other representational work details the experiences of the artist's mother-in-law, Halina Davidovitch (born Halina Wohlfeiler) of Krakow. Halina, along with her family and friends, was caught up in the Holocaust and ultimately saved by the famous Oskar Schindler, with whom she maintained a lifelong friendship. To properly chronicle Halina's riveting story of horror and survival, Davidovitch spent years recording the elderly lady's reminiscences; sifting through boxes of old documents, photographs and other family memorabilia; and then compiling a commemorative book, creating a wide array of Holocaust-related artworks, and mounting a solo exhibition entitled "Oskar Schindler: My Family's Story." Born and raised on a kibbutz not far from Zichron Ya'acov and having lived most of her life in rural Israel, Davidovitch agrees that she is something of a "diamond in the rough." With neither academic training nor prior writing experience to speak of, she is an unlikely historian, and perhaps a more unlikely artist. Davidovitch's artistic life began abruptly at around age 30, when, as she says, "it just started coming out" of her. She recalls her childhood on the kibbutz, in the days when children still slept in communal children's houses. "You think that's just the way things are. Only when I grew up and became a mother myself, I realized that I'd missed a lot - like being in a family that's together all the time," she relates. When she had children of her own, she decided she wanted to be with them while they were young, a decision that led to her discovering her abilities as an artist. "My husband is a doctor, and he was working a lot of night shifts. On those nights when the children were sleeping and it was quiet at home, I started to make these little things with colors, and started to feel that this was something that was good for me," she explains. A fellowship for her husband led the family to the US for two years, where Davidovitch studied ceramics. She then decided to focus on sculpture, and once back home in Israel, she studied at Emek Israel College with noted sculptor Dalia Meeri. About three years ago, she also started to paint, studying with acclaimed painter Marlene Ferrer. Her involvement with the memories of her Holocaust survivor and "Schindler Jew" mother-in-law began eight years ago. Davidovitch recalls: "In her last years, I think that it was very important for her to tell her story. I decided to save her story for when she was gone. I felt it would be important for my kids to know. It would be like a last will and testament. So, in 2000, Halina and I decided to sit down together once a week so that I could write down her story about her childhood and youth during the Holocaust." The two met in Davidovitch's home every week over the course of two years, and their work resulted in a privately published book with a print run of 60 copies "for all the people [Halina] loved." Unfortunately, Davidovitch's mother-in-law died a month before the book, I'm Here to Tell You So that You will Tell the Generations to Come, was printed. The title is taken from a line in her narrative. Halina Davidovitch died in 2002. A living sister, who shared her experiences, including being on Schindler's List (they were added to the list as a family), still resides in Haifa with her husband. Amira Davidovitch inherited all the papers, passports, photos and other memorabilia that had belonged to her mother-in-law. They might have remained stored away in her home indefinitely, had an exhibition about Oskar Schindler not been staged in Krakow in 2004. "I was asked if we had any family photos with Schindler. That gave me the chance to take out all the albums and look over all the photos, and I found quite a number of… Schindler with our family. In all of his visits to Israel in the last years of his life, he used to visit with survivors from [his] list. So this story - slowly, slowly - became part of me. I began to feel that I was the one who had to keep this story alive." The trigger for the creation of much of her artwork and for the resulting exhibition came from one particular photograph - one mysterious picture that Davidovitch found among the others, which no one quite understood. The photograph, apparently taken some time in the late 1940s, shows Oskar Schindler standing next to a young Halina, who is seated. The two are engrossed in conversation and seem to be talking about something that Schindler was holding in his left hand. No one in Davidovitch's family knew where or when the picture had been taken or could identify what exactly Schindler was holding. Then, in 2005, one of the organizers of the Krakow exhibit came to visit Davidovitch. Glancing at the photo - now framed and standing on a shelf in Davidovitch's home - he informed her that it was famous, having appeared in an April, 1994 magazine article, "The Real Oskar Schindler," by Herbert Steinhouse, the journalist who first stumbled upon the Schindler story back in 1948. Davidovitch learned that the picture was taken at a reunion of Schindler's survivors at a Paris restaurant in 1948, and that the object in Schindler's hand was a postcard. This led a family member to recall that the postcard in the picture was from Halina, to be sent to her parents - still in Belgium - with additional words of greeting written by Schindler. This spurred Davidovitch to examine all of her late mother-in-law's photos and documents systematically and express her reactions to them through her art. The postcard itself was eventually found in a bag of postcards from those years, and it - and the photo of Schindler and Halina - are major sources of inspiration for Davidovitch's art exhibition. "Oskar Schindler: My Family's Story" is not intended to be a Schindler's List exhibition. Davidovitch explains that the purpose of the exhibition is to show the process she has experienced over the last three years. The artwork on display is "the result of a journey I've been going through, from the story of Halina to the discovery of new information I have found," she says. "I have found myself during the past three years… I just started this process, and one bit of work led to another, as one new piece of information led to another." As she was discovering these fragments from her family's past, Davidovitch was also discovering the artistic possibilities of painting with tar. Mixed with turpentine, tar enables the use of a variety of shades and textures. She first saw it used by her painting mentor Ferrer. But when she started to use it herself, she found it a perfect medium to express her subject. The browns and blacks lend a feeling of age, of something antique, and of something made distant and almost incomprehensible through the passage of time. The use of this unusual medium provides a sort of leitmotif for the exhibition. There is virtually no sense of anger evident in any of Davidovitch's paintings or sculpture. The word that best describes the artwork featured in her exhibition is "haunting." Perhaps the most haunting of these is a painting based upon one of the photographs from Davidovitch's mother-in-law's collection. It is the only surviving Wohlfeiler family photo from before the war, and shows a young Halina and her sister in Krakow - two young girls playing together with carefree, happy smiles, blissfully unaware of the unutterable horror that lay ahead, just around the corner. Oskar Schindler: My Family's Story will run until May 6 at Bet Amanim Al Shem Chagall Haifa, Sederot Hatzionut 24, Haifa. Please call (04) 852-2355 for details.