In this edited-for-the-web version of Mike Regan's article on Jewish contemporary artists in New Zealand, artists reflect on the complexity of expressing Jewish experience and identity through art.
Nine artists were chosen and interviewed. To all, while Jewishness and being Jewish is integral to their art practice, most do not belong to a Jewish congregation nor regularly practice the faith. While their art practices are diverse and wide ranging, more than half of those artists interviewd have, for varying periods of time, reflected the Holocaust in their practice. While it is not the intention of this essay to focus on whether Holocaust-related art is more or less prevalent in New Zealand today, it should be noted that some research from the USA suggests it is there. That same researcher suggests that "remembering the Holocaust" may be a substitute for active participation in Jewish life which may also be true of our own sub-set of New Zealand artists.2
It is clear, however, that each artist portrayed here has a strong connection to their Jewishness, and a close attachment to that ethnic group, Jewishness, and what makes one Jewish has been discussed for centuries. The word implies a 'them' and 'us' -Jews and non-Jews. Philosopher Shaye Cohen says this dualistic view of the world was not formed in the ghettos of Europe nor as a response to anti-Judaism as many contend but had already existed in antiquity3. Rabbinic literature is "filled" with such statements that contrast 'Israel' with 'the nations' when there was no simple definition for a Jew apart from someone from Judea. Jewishness was subjective "constructed by the individual him/herself other Jews, other gentiles and the state". Then, almost anyone could join the 'group' and call themselves Jewish. It was only much later, through its rabbinical law makers, that Judaism defined their conversion standards.
He argues that Jews then, were an ethnic group - named, attached to a specific territory (Judea), with a shared sense of origin, a feeling of uniqueness and solidarity, a common history and some distinctive characteristics - the most outstanding of which was the way in which they worshipped their God. The Greeks used the word 'Ioudaismos' (Judean-like) which Cohen translates as Jewishness'. While Jewish Orthodox law is clear - that Jewishness passes through the mother - today Israel's 'Law of Return', intermarriage and the development of Liberal forms of Judaism allows patrilineal lineage also.
Cohen argues that the uncertainty of Jewishness is the same today as it was in antiquity adding that it is also not unique.4 He cites the African Americans, for example, and the USA's "one-drop" rule which states that anyone with a single drop of African American blood in their body is to be regarded as African American - regardless of how white they might appear.
"Once upon a time we knew who was a Jew," says Cohen. "Now we are not so sure."
Of the nine New Zealand artists interviewed for this essay none focussed their practice wholly on their Jewishness, though all but one had done so at some stage of their career. For those that did, one facet of Jewish history stood out: the Holocaust. It is, or had been, a significant motivator for six of the artists, with many having close personal links to tragedies, loss, escape and death.
James Young describes the Holocaust as something many artists are unable to relate to as pure historical fact, rather than "experience".5
"Neither history or memory is regarded by these artists as a zero-sum game in which one kind of history or memory takes away from the another; nor is it a contest between scholars and students of the Holocaust and the survivors themselves. For these artists know the facts of history never 'stand' on the own - but are always supported by the reasons for recalling such facts in the first place.
"Young focusses on Art Spiegelman's comic strip cartoon tragedy of the Holocaust which is entirely based on the author's father's experience; David Levinthal who photographs German toy soldiers in historical tableaux, describes this as his own historical reality - "the only remains of his past"; and Shimon Attie, whose projected 1920s and 1930s images of Berlin's Scheunenvierteljews recreate a Jewish "past" in their historical environment - "back on to the otherwise amnesiac sites of history in order to reanimate these sites with his 'memory' of what happened there."
New Zealand animation artist Miriam Harris wrote her Masters thesis on Maus. She is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor: her mother was taken by Russians to a camp in Siberia and ended the war an orphan. She and her sister were located by an uncle living in Israel who eventually adopted them and brought them there.
"My mother was totally part of the Israeli pioneering era and was passionate about the creation of a Jewish state." Miriam inherited this strong identification with Israel but is also very aware that her mother lost most of her family and sees the need to retain that memory and connection "not necessarily as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor but as someone who had grown up with a parent who had faced immense loss and grief as a result of the war and the Holocaust". She is currently working on an animated film comparing her family's life in pre-war Warsaw with their current south Pacific lifestyle.
Her widely acclaimed experimental animated film - Soaring, roaring,diving -is about the loss of her sister and childhood memories. It explores the peaks and troughs of life - and working through grief.
R B Kitaj describes the Holocaust as a world-changing event for Jews"6.
"After 1945, the world changed for the Jews. If your world changes, your paintings change. Your hand, changed by heart and mind, goes at its tasks in new ways...
"According to Martin Buber (1878-1965) the innermost meaning of that event was a message from God for a turning and a renewal. I thought the message from God had not reached me yet but since my art has turned and renewed istelf, maybe I got the message after all".
Noah Landau would not acede to any such influence saying, his art wholly guided by cirumstances and not at all by Judaism, despite having clear memories of people and events surrounding Jews and the Second World War.
Like may Jews he can trace his family roots to the Pale of Settlements - that strip of Eastern Europe which spanned the borders of present-day Poland, Ukariane, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova and parts of western Russia where more than three million Jews were confined. The family mixed in artistic circles counting Graeme Sutherland, Jacob Epstein and Picasso's dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, among their close friends.
Ori Z. Soltes writes that Jews poured into Paris before WWI because they particularly found the Paris art scene attractive, in that for once they could be "outsiders, not Jews, but as artists romantically misunderstood by the world around them".7 The scene attracted eastern European Jews such as Marc Chagall from Poland and Jacques LIpchitz from Luthuania who congregated in La Ruche, which Chagall described as a "curious beehive-like structure" built by Boucher comprising about 24 wedge-shaped studios beside the Abattoirs de Vaugirard.8
While Noah says his Jewish identity is "very strong", his parents enjoyed an assimilated lifestyle and his Jewishness, he says, "had never been imprinted by that kabalastic map of the universe".
"So that side had never really gone anywhere at all. But from a circumstantial point of view being Jewish made an enormous difference to me as a painter".
He moved to New Zealand in 1983 and today, with wide views of Mount Taranaki from his front porch, said that he was fortunate "to have the time to set aside most of the morning for meditation as a preliminary to actually taking brush to canvas". He described his recent works as much like Haiku poetry "very simple in narrative content while being very complex (profound) on the conceptual level and concentrating above all on the lyrical content". Noah died in 2011.
Printmaker Jule Einhorn's parents scraped in just prior to the war due largely to her father's (Helmut) architectural skills and reputation - and the assistance of friend and economist Wolfgang Rosenberg, | Helmut and his wife Ester were greeted with enthusiasm by the Jewish community but they shunned the connection. While Ester was not Jewish, Helmut was and he was determined that Judaism would play no part in their new lives, despite maintaining close friendships with the small and tightly-knit group of European Jewish refugees resident in Wellington - many of whom had close ties to the Jewish congregation.
Jule can not recall any links to Judaism in the house apart from the food they ate and enjoyed. She recalls a lovely childhood but always felt like an "outsider". However, both her parents she believes were "traumatised" by the Holocaust and the fate of their families in Berlin.
Only a few of her art works reflect her Jewish roots, including Mezuzah, which she created to affirm life and protection, and Einhorn, depicting a unicorn in front of the foreboding forest near Theresienstadt to which she believes her grandparents were taken and murdered.
A further work, The Esther Scroll, relates the story of Biblical Esther. Other works, she says, reflect her sense of isolation and 'otherness' but are imbued with her Jewishness. "I am Jewish, whatever proportion, and I'm happy in my skin. If I wasn't Jewish my art would be different."
The Holocaust was barely discussed in the Einhorn house - a not uncommon -, phenomenon for post-war children who often learnt more through media and discussions with peers.
Textile artist Helen Schamroth tells a similar story. Her parents refused to discuss the Holocaust nor reveal their miraculous escapes. Her father suffered repeated nightmares, headaches and fits of depression and only recorded his story when revisionist historian David Irving's Holocaust denial message gained in popularity. Like Jule and her sister. Helen and hers picked up scraps of information but says they have only built an incomplete picture. For Helen buttons and scraps of material have been part of her life since she was a toddler in their one-room apartment in post-war Melbourne.
"My mother had no toys for me so she used to give me a handkerchief, buttons, needle and thread and she taught me how to sew buttons. Then at night she would cut off the buttons and the next day give me the same handkerchief and buttons to start all over again. She had to amuse me. So I learnt to sew at a very young age." At around the same time her father was establishing a clothing business and the house was strewn with scraps of material - more fodder for Helen's busy hands.
While Helen's art practice was dominated by finely worked textile pieces, it was only relatively recently that they have reflected her Judaism and her family's Holocaust background.
The change occurred after she had seen one of her mother's last art works - a series of panels created for her Melbourne temple called 'From creation to redemption'. One panel made specific reference to the Holocaust.
Helen said she was "stunned" when she first saw it and asked why she was doing it. Her mother replied: I couldn't not do it any more. "This blew me away. If mum could do it, then so could I."
Her first overtly Jewish/Holocaustal work - 'Making my mark for the six million dead' - was created for a local exhibition called 'Making my mark'. The original comprised a black chimney-like structure made of cardboard rising like an ominous shadow over a partially obscured Magen David visible through a rent in the horizontal part of the structure. It was later selected - and remade in archival materials - to be part of the Holocaust Room at the Auckland War Memorial Museum together with another work - 'Honouring the dead' - comprising ten miniature, religiously-exact, prayer shawls made from silk, tattered and with burnt edges.
The ten shawls hang in ghostly fashion from non-existent shoulders depicting the missing minyan (the ten men required to conduct Jewish prayers).
Gerda Cohen, a recent arrival to New Zealand, was born in Vienna in 1925.
When Hitler threatened to annex Austria her father fled to Holland while Gerda and her mother managed to bypass Holland and go directly to the UK. After the war her father, having been held in two concentration camps, The Museum's own exhibition booklet asks some of the hard questions:
"Can only survivors speak?
How has art used Nazi imagery to present evil?
To what extent may artists overstep the bounds of taste in confronting facts that are outrageous and terrifying?
What are the dangers of ignoring the past or being complacent about the present?
How has art helped to break the silence?"
Meanwhile, Eli Weisel described Auschwitz as "the other side of life" and that only those who lived in it "can possibly transform their experience into knowledge. Others, despite their best intentions, can never do so."
He implores such creators to "listen to the survivors and respect their wounded sensibility". Feinstein suggests that it is "a perfectly human thing to indulge in art, even art that involves violent and grotesque subjects" and that "art should be recognised as a major and integral part of the transaction that engenders social behaviour ".13
Keeping the memory alive is certainly part of the problem but for many Jewish artists just talking about the Holocaust is difficult. It was such an unbelievable event it is almost impossible to put into words. How does one explain to young Jews how hated they were - and how lucky they were to escape the inferno?
Helene Carroll's paintings are replete with motifs and symbols alluding to the Holocaust, loss and Jewish tradition as she delves into her family's history.
Her vibrant paintings mix the joyous and the bleak, frequently referring to her parents' dreadful wartime experiences where they and her mother's father were the only family members to survive Hitler's carnage. They met in Tarnow ghetto and were married just three weeks later before being separated and sent to different camps. They met again in Tarnow after liberation, where they were made very unwelcome by the locals. Seeking a haven, they journeyed through Czechoslovakia, Germany and Paris -where Helene was born - en route to New Zealand.
Although the family identified as Jewish they didn't attend synagogue or have any formal connections. Nevertheless they celebrated the occasional festival and sometimes lit candles on a Friday night. Here too, the Holocaust was barely discussed. "My father never spoke of it. He couldn't or wouldn't. He had the most dreadful nightmares, My mother tried to tell it with a humorous take. Reading filled in the gaps."She describes her vibrant and colourful paintings as what keeps her I going. "No one else can do it like I do it - whether it's good, bad or indifferent. This is what make me, me. These are my particular marks."And her marks ache with meaning. The falling/flying bride recalls her mother's happy/sad marriage in the ghetto, church steeples depict Catholic Poland, wolves warn of surrounding danger, flames burn I and destroy hope, scissors remind of her youth, candelabra for I what it is to be Jewish, tapa cloth to fix her locale in the SouthPacific and Persian rugs as a symbol of European Jewish life. Helene's bride reminds her of Marc Chagall's dreamy floating figures. Chagall's work is firmly rooted in his early life experiences in the small Polish town of Vitebsk, where he was surrounded by a flourishing and vibrant Jewish society. He dwelt almost exclusively in that traditional Jewish world - and especially the Pale of Settlements where, in 1890, seventy percent of world Jewry lived. Chagall was born to a religiously devout family and joined all his brothers at a rabbinical school. Despite this early training and lifestyle, he, like almost all the New Zealand artists interviewed, led a non-religious life and was buried in a Christian cemetery near Nice where one person read kaddish - the Jewish prayer for the dead.
Like Helene, Noah also admires Chagall's work and its inherent Jewishness. He says: "If you were a Chagall you would have it all there and it would come to the surface, but I never had any of that imprinted.''
Self-taught painter Don Copeland has created manyjewish-themed works which can be seen in both of Auckland's congregations as well as private collections. His father was strictly Orthodox from which Don deviated until a life-threatening illness at 41 spurred him to become more interested in his Jewish roots.
His most visible Jewish work is the mural - Beginnings - on five panels at Beth Shalom which he describes as one his biggest challenges. It opens (reading right to left) with the first letter of the Torah and moves through the five books of Moses.
A particular favourite is the wry humour of a bird's-eye view of men in synagogue - almost all of whom are attending to anything but prayer. Prayer books are visible, but attention is directed to neighbours.
Auckland Keren Cook's connections to Judaism and its community have been fragmented, she spent her early years at the Auckland Hebrew Congregation in Grey's Avenue, attended Hebrew School and had her Bat Mitzvah in Jerusalem at the Kotel. Keren recalls this experience as pivotal to her memories of being Jewish, and throughout her teen years strongly identified with being Jewish.
Over the years, Keren has spent a large amount of time viewing significant Jewish sites, embarking on residencies viewing monuments and visiting Jewish museums around the world, particularly in Europe. Her interest in Jewish faith, and the visual has lead to an interesting discourse where her PhD studies embarked on an examination of both Jewish faith and daily life within Diaspora. Keren shares a sense of 'minority discomfort' and her practice is often a reflection around faith and cultural values seen from an assimilated position, and concedes that her view might be different if she was indeed part of something much larger by way of Jewish population.
Keren is very interested in the uniqueness of what could be seen as 'Jewish Art', and draws from her interest in Jewish history and culture as starting points for her own work. Being on the fringe, she says, makes her feel slightly vulnerable and careful not to put herself in a position where she would attract criticism,and conceeds her work often asks questions rather than providing answers.
'I question liturgy, remain curious about Midrash, and am also interested in the interpretation of rabbinical law seen as G-d's law and examined framework. For example; laws around cleanliness, aspects of tradition and the values attached to them - and what that might mean for us individually and as a collective".
Her first major work in this context she called 'The Mikvah' (ritual bath) and was completed as part of her Masters degree. For her this was about spiritual cleanliness and her own position - and isolation - in the Diaspora. It was a look at being Jewish and rabbinical law and feminist Orthodoxy - a movement at the time which "dared to challenge some conventions".
Her second major focus surrounded the idea of Jewish ghettos - and in particular a compare/ contrast of the Venice ghetto, the oldest, and the Warsaw ghetto, probably the most well known. The study prompted questions of how Jews live today in various parts of the world including the South Pacific and New Zealand, and in part, informed her questions for a Doctorate (uncompleted) tentatively named Minority Discomfort. Those questions included "what binds us together as a people and what things of cultural significance makes us a people".
South African Gail Haffern, despite anecdotal information to the contrary, was deemed by both Auckland congregations as not being Jewish, She was never able to prove her Jewish descent and converted to Judaism at the Auckland Progressive Congregation.
She studied art at Elam Art School and gained New Zealand's first Doctorate in the subject. Much of her work has been influenced by her search for Judaism and her interest in language and Jewish ethics and morality. Gail died in 2007.
The place of the Holocaust among these few artists is significant. For Helene Carroll it is central to her current work, for Helen Shamroth it still hovers as a strong force, while for Jule Einhorn and Gerda Cohen it is something they have dealt with. Keren Cook and Miriam Harris have both touched tangentially on the subject. All may yet return to it and seek further enlightenment and/or explanation. That six of the nine artists, at one time or another, focussed strongly on Holocaust-related subject matter speaks highly of its significance to Jews and especially the children of survivors.
A number of survivors have defied artists to describe the horror. Elie Wiesel says that Theodor Adorno, Jean Amery, and Primo Levi have all suggested that there exists a wall which the non-survivor can never surmount, and which art, in any form, can never conceptualise, Wiesel himself said: "Just as no one could imagine Auschwitz before Auschwitz, no one could now retell Auschwitz after Auschwitz."14
Feinstein ask whether art can heal15 and answers himself with a qualified 'Yes' adding that "it may be possible that art's role is more to remind us of the possibilities of other forms of knowledge as the real way of knowing what humanity has the capacity to do and achieve."
His research led him to write: "Artists involved with the Holocaust usually confess some of the problems they have encountered in dealing with its representation. Many cease their work entirely after much experimentation. Others continue."
No matter how austere and reverent the tone, no matter how traditional the format, any representation of the Holocaust, says Thomas Doherty attracts a special measure of critical scrutiny and, if judged lacking, earns a severe measure of opprobrium16. The usual criteria for literary and cinematic excellence-originality, wit, formal innovation, and the sundry "pleasures of the text" - are suspended for depictions of the Holocaust.
Hanging over all these enquiring minds seems is the question: Where was God when so many innocent people were murdered?
Exploring their Jewishness is - or has been - integral to most of the artists interviewed and all continue to question what it means to be Jewish - either within their practice or without. Few of them belong to a religious congregation.
Jewish groups have variously argued that Jewishness is a function of ethnicity (from birth), nationality (a function of politics), religion (pertaining to various beliefs and practices) or all 17- The beginnings of Jewishness -boundaries, varieties, uncertainties three but what makes them Jewish is, as Shaye Cohen suggests, a rather vague connection to a rather ill-defined ethnic group the ancient Greeks called loudaios -Judean17.
Image header (above) © David Levinthal. Reproduced for JoM with permission from the artist.
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