New Exhibit from Second-Generation Holocaust Survivors Opens at American University Museum

Series of watercolor works along a gallery wall

“The more they know, the more they can make a connection, the better our humanity will be.”

— Artist Chaya Schapiro

Less than a mile from Temple, the Katzen Arts Center sits on the American University campus. Last month, a new exhibit — “Art and the Demands of Memory” — opened, featuring works by second-generation Holocaust survivors. Traumatic events often influence art, but this collection of paintings, sculptures, photographs, and mixed-media works delves deeper into the psyche, exploring how memories are passed down and how our memories can be influenced by the stories we’ve heard, or in this case, often not heard.

Ten local artists are represented in the exhibit, including Mindy Weisel, whose piece pairs an abstract painting on canvas (far right) with a smaller version on a vintage suitcase, reminiscent of those that Jews brought to the camps under the belief they were being resettled. (WHC members might recognize Weisel’s work from the T’Shuvah-Tikkun piece displayed outside Edlavitch Hall.)

“It’s important that these artists who are still connected with that horrible episode from World War II, the worst in recent human history, are still among us,” says exhibit curator Aneta Georgievska-Shine. “And they have continued to create work inflected or affected by that history. And they are conveying the memories of that history, so it provides another lens through which to understand even current conflicts.”

Telling another person’s stories is difficult, but many of the artists featured in the exhibit said it was a role they relished. “I feel like the artists of my generation are expressing something that was silent, that wasn’t able to be expressed before,” said D.C.-based sculptor Micheline Klagsbrun, whose haunting work, Passage (center), depicts a skeletal structure embodying the ship her father made his escape from Lisbon on. The work is made from found objects, scraps of cloth, and a sail with images of her father’s transit documents embedded in it, which she says embodies the memories they hold.

On the floor below Klagsburn’s work lies a series of iron roots spreading out from a concrete column in the center of the exhibit. All are painted black, except for one in gold. Artist Dalya Luttwak explains that the outlier represents the new roots her parents made in Israel after they escaped Czechoslovakia, while the others are the ones they left behind, the ones her parents never mentioned. The idea of moving on from the past is a common theme, Klagsburn says. “Trauma creates new growth in strange ways, unconnected with the original trauma. It’s a creative regeneration.”

While some artists focus on moving forward, Miriam Mörsel Nathan from Silver Spring considers herself a documentarian — collecting fragments of memories and stitching them together. “When I’m working with photographs of family members who were murdered during the Holocaust, if I put their images out or do something that names them, they’re not gone.”

Nathan adds that she literally wants to put her work in people’s faces. “One of the quotes in my piece is ‘there’s too much distance already.’ and part of what I have done, and I did it intuitively, was to make you, the viewer, have to come up close. It’s written in white ink. It’s written on very fragile paper. It’s very delicate.” By forcing viewers to get right on top of the work to fully experience it, there is no avoiding the subject matter.

As painful as the past may be, nearly all the artists shared a vision of hope for the future, particularly as the exhibit is on a college campus, where students can see and reflect on their message. Photographer Michael Borek (Bethesda) returned to the town his father grew up in to record the things he may have seen before being sent to Auschwitz. The mundane images belie the horror that took place, which he says is the point. “I want them to realize that it’s not just a couple of evil people who create something horrible like the Holocaust, but you need to have many more people who make it possible by turning their blind eye to that and acting ‘as long as it’s not happening to me it’s ok.’”

This balance of honoring the past, while continuing to move forward allows the audience to question their own lives, and how they acknowledge their own family histories’ influence. Nathan adds, “There’s a hope that somehow we preserve something very important, but maybe, maybe, maybe we can also grow from it and become even more evolved and more more human over time.”

Art and the Demands of Memory: Works by Second Generation Holocaust Survivors is on display at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center through May 19.