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Traces of the Holocaust in my Artistic Practice

The word ‘trace’ has perpetually haunted me throughout most of my adult and scholarly life. As an artist, I recreate rooms and spaces dedicated to the past, collecting wartime artefacts and antiques that I cannot stop myself from obtaining and keeping, even though the majority of the time it is only me that sees or feels them. It is an obsession, the notion that each object leads to another world. Another life, a personal identity, a story.

Piece by Joseph Bau
Piece by Joseph Bau,
from Hannah’s intern work at GFH

They are, in fact, a part of something that once was, and is no longer with us. During the time I spent living in Kraków, I was literally surrounded by buildings, people and remnants that were steeped in loss. Then, almost without ever intending it, my art practice began to reference the Holocaust: be it through associative symbolism such as hair or dirt, or a more recognisable object like a Star of David armband. My passion for history fused with my objectives as an artist in a significant way, infiltrating my work and tracing the past by literally bringing it into the present. I never quite realised how much one aspect influenced the other. I finally found a platform from which I could begin to consider and understand the complex relationship between art and the Holocaust. Much like an object or photograph of the event, creative works such as painting, drawings and sculptures that were completed both during and after the war can act as both evidence of unimaginable times, as well as an emotionally charged outlet through which a victim has chosen to express themselves and their experiences.

A piece of art is not only a document, but to quote Marianne Hirsch, it is a footprint. Yet, unlike a photograph, art goes far beyond the literal into the mind and soul of someone, marking time and the physical act of being. It can present a vision that exists somewhere between life and death, presence and absence. When first I started my previous internship at Beit Lohamei Haghetaot (Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum), I was overwhelmed. After being invited to work on a project in the art archives, I was taken to the rooms where hundreds of pieces of art are stored outside of the existing exhibitions available to the public. The collection is nothing short of incredible, with such diversity and individualism. I was completely and utterly in awe. I am now going through the extensive list of names of artists who have donated, or had their work donated, to the museum and creating a series of biographies, with the task of finding out as much information as possible about their lives. In addition to details of their work, I attempt to find out what happened to them before, during and after the Holocaust. Some of the artists listed are more high profile, such as Joseph Bau who was saved by Oscar Schindler, and whose marriage in the camps inspired one of the scenes in Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’. After he and his wife both survived the war, they lived out their final years in Tel Aviv, and his studio remains open for viewing.

Exhibition

Then, there is the lesser known like Nachum Bendel, who lives close to Haifa in Kiryat Haim. A survivor of Auschwitz, Bendel was featured in an interview with the University of Haifa a few years ago after sketching a scene of another survivor’s experience, when he heard her speaking at a ceremony. However, as frequently occurs in Holocaust research, there have been many names that lead me to very little detail. For example, Chris Baeckamn (also known as A. Carvallo), a Dutch artist who took part in the anti-Nazi resistance in the Netherlands literally disappeared from all records, his tragic fate remaining unknown. With a heavy heart, I moved on from one name to the next hoping for a better outcome, and a happier ending. Above all else, what I have taken from my role in the museum so far is just how important these pieces of art are as part of our understanding of Holocaust history and narrative. I know that when I examine each work, I am indeed tracing the past. I feel it there, within every line or sketch, each movement of a brush or carving. These pieces are a legacy, and in many cases only remains of a life once lived. 

 

Hannah Wilson