I lived most of my life ignorant of the fact that some of my relatives died in the Holocaust. Approximately 15 years ago, we asked my uncle (my father’s brother) to tell us about the family. He talked descriptively about the life they led as children of immigrants growing up in a Jewish neighborhood in the Bronx, New York.
He told us in a very vivid manner about their childhood, playing games in the street with children of Jewish and Italian immigrants; about their home full of children; their grandfather who lived with them and taught them Torah and an uncle, who only recently had arrived from Europe; the Jewish holidays in a religious environment; attending synagogue on festivals, et cetera. In short, the life of a large, warm, and united Jewish family.
Afterwards, he began telling us about his father’s (my grandfather) family. His mother, sister, and brothers, with their families – all of whom had remained in Galicia – perished in the Holocaust.
I was shocked. At first I did not even comprehend what he was telling us. It was the first time I had ever heard about my family who perished in the Holocaust.
Both my parents were born and raised in the US and were always so “American,” that it never crossed my mind that there was such a direct link between the Holocaust and our family.
From that very moment, I was captured by a fierce passion to discover as much as I could about our relatives who had died in the Holocaust. Since then, I have conducted a passionate search, trying to know and comprehend who these people, whom I never ever knew, were. Many avenues along which I searched proved to be barren.
Although information was not easy to find and only trickled in from time to time, the more I searched the greater was my desire to know more about them.
Learning about the family members lost in the Holocaust
When I called my aunt in the US, she told me that she had a letter that my grandfather had kept and cherished all his life. It was written in Yiddish, and she didn’t know what was written in it. She sent me the letter with a photograph of the author. I sent the letter for translation into Hebrew and was most distressed on reading its sad content.
The letter was written by one of my grandfather’s cousins, who related to him how “our family was annihilated “ My aunt also sent me a picture of my grandfather’s mother with his sister and a child.
During my search, I finally came into contact with people from the town of Mikulince, where my grandfather was born, who knew my family. Meeting them was an extremely exciting experience for me. I felt that I was now so very close to my family that I could almost reach out my hand and touch them…
A few years ago, I traveled to Mikulince with a companion, a Holocaust survivor, who had known some of my family there.
In the meantime, we began wondering who were my husband’s relatives who perished in the Holocaust. We knew very little about them as well. We found pictures of them and more sad and formidable information about the fate of the family in Latvia and Belarus. Here, too, we found sad letters written by a (non-Jewish) Latvian relative to my mother-in-law’s family.
Today, it is clear to me that there are many things about our family that we will never know.
Some years ago, I began painting portraits of my husband and my family members who were murdered during the Holocaust. Through painting, I felt that I was getting closer to them and getting to know them. I also felt that I wanted to perpetuate them, to extract them from the dark abyss into which they had been forced.
I wanted to give them an identity, a shape and a face and revive the memory of people forgotten, people who even their family did not know of their existence and tragic end. I wanted to make known that these people once lived on the face of this Earth; beautiful and good, intelligent and talented people, who lived and loved and raised families, until the Germans arrived.
When I began painting the portraits, I wasn’t completely sure of how I wanted them to appear. It was crystal clear to me that I would be painting in black and white. While painting, I realized that the portraits had to look like a painting from an old photograph, exactly the same as the photograph I was painting and, to viewers, it would be clear that this is an old photograph that is not “disguised” as a painting “of a portrait from nature.”
I also wanted the images to look as if they were emerging from darkness. While working, I also found the types of charcoal colors that appear to me to reflect appropriately what I wanted to portray. I also painted a picture of houses that are linked to our family. I felt it added another dimension and facilitated a feeling of comprehending their lives and identities.
There is at least one painting in which I intentionally painted blurred facial lines because the photograph was blurred, and I wanted to remain true to the original.
The paintings that I completed are only of people whose photographs we have. Regretfully, there are even more relatives who perished on whom we have no information at all. We do not know of everyone; the names of spouses, how many children they had; their names; and, of course, we do not have any pictures of them. ■
The artist’s exhibition “Those I Never Knew” is on display at Heichal Shlomo-Jewish Heritage Center, Jerusalem.