"I wish people would just stop writing about the Holocaust.” Unprompted, a woman said this to me at a national writing conference in 2010. The stories are overdone, she explained. The first part of her sentiment was troubling, but the second is the artist’s task: to make it new. To stop telling the story is dangerous. But the numbing effect of cliché — commonly known as Holocaust fatigue — is just as hazardous. With Yom HaShoah approaching and the loss of witnesses, including the last Treblinka survivor, how are artists and local cultural organizations continuing to interpret the Holocaust?
“Art is always changing, just as the factors that determine the environments in which artists live and work change,” says Jennifer-Navva Milliken, curator of craft at the Bellevue Arts Museum. “Attitudes toward the Shoah, and the ways we deal with the unspeakable horrors that occurred in it, are also fluid.”
Despite philosopher Theodor Adorno’s dictum that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” artists, writers, and filmmakers continued to try to make sense of the catastrophe through their craft — and their perspective. From Mexico native Yishai Jusidman’s 2010–2012 Prussian Blue — Memory After Representation — paintings of gas chambers in compounds derived from lethal gases — to Israeli artist Nir Hod’s Mother series and recent films like Son of Saul and Woman in Gold, artists tend to look for new angles and lesser-told stories that break from the traditional narrative while still paying respect to it.
A focus on people and how they lived, as opposed to death and statistics, is an approach taken by Seattle’s Holocaust Center for Humanity and Music of Remembrance. “We often forget that people had full, ordinary lives before the Holocaust,” Ilana Cone Kennedy, director of education at the Holocaust Center, says. Mina Miller, MOR’s artistic director, shares the sentiment. “We use commissioned work to create new Holocaust works to explore the lives of people who experienced the Holocaust in different ways,” she says. “Through music, we tell stories about people and their lives in all their complexity, without reducing them to stereotypes of sainthood or martyrdom. There is so much more to a survivor than surviving.”
Out of Darkness, MOR’s newest commission, premieres May 22. The two-act opera by renowned composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer tells the story of poet Krystyna Zywulska, a young woman who was forced to catalog the possessions of the people she then had to march into gas chambers, and Gad Beck and Manfred Lewin, lovers in 1930s Berlin persecuted for their homosexuality. Beck, who died in 2012, was the last known gay Jewish survivor of the Holocaust. “In the opera, Manfred’s ghost wants to be remembered for their love,” Miller says.
The Holocaust Center for Humanity, which runs an annual writing, art, and film contest for students in the fifth to 12th grades, urges students to think beyond barbed wire and swastikas. A seventh-grade winner in 2010 named Finn Colando drew a tree sprouting from an old building, suggesting the possibility of a seed to create extraordinary change. Entrants hail from around the region, and most are not Jewish. “Encouraging students of diverse cultures, faiths, and backgrounds to connect with this history on a personal level is powerful — it fosters empathy and an understanding that people of all cultures faced and continue to face persecution in a variety of ways,” Cone Kennedy says. “It is our job to meet them where they are, provide a variety of approaches and starting points, and to encourage more questions.”
Yet as society grapples with how to remember the Holocaust, universalist approaches are both welcomed and critiqued. Walter Reich, a professor at George Washington University and a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, writes about the purpose of Jewish museums in an ongoing debate in the online magazine Mosaic. “The urge to ‘universalize’ — that is, to hitch Jewish experience to the wagon of ‘tikkun olam,’ or healing the world,” he writes, “is a glaring reality in Jewish museums generally and in museums on the Holocaust in particular.” He goes on to add, “Anne [Frank] was at Bergen-Belsen, as she had been while hiding in that annex in Amsterdam where she wrote her diary, because she was a Jew. One can leave the Anne Frank Huis without appreciating this.”
“There is a place for universalizing the Holocaust and keeping it uniquely set in its historical context,” Cone Kennedy says. “It depends on your audience and it depends on your goal — and I think there is a place for both approaches.” The Holocaust Center is also currently celebrating the launch of the first Anne Frank installation in Seattle in over a decade, an exhibit that reflects both the particular Jewish message and a universal message of hope and courage.
The tendency to find new angles and to universalize seems to parallel a generational shift. Yona Verwer, executive director of the Jewish Art Salon, observes that while plenty of middle-aged artists engage with the Holocaust, younger artists’ work tends to be “innovative, irreverent, questioning old values” and may focus on identity, rituals, or contemporary landscapes in which Jewish culture intersects with others — areas more relatable to their own experiences. “They are looking to contemporary society at large and how to create Jewish art in a different context,” Verwer says.
Likewise, the Jewish Museum of New York, which owns a collection of Holocaust-themed art, notes on its website, “A younger generation of artists has turned the discourse inside out, substituting images of the perpetrators for the victims. The latter warn against the seductive aspects of fascist ideology and imagery that seep through the thin veneer between this horrific past and contemporary culture.”
“Younger filmmakers may not have had contact with survivors,” Pamela Lavitt, director of cultural arts and the Seattle Jewish Film Festival at the Stroum Jewish Community Center, says. “Art fills the gap.” Short films, like The Holocaust Tourist, Pigeon, Pesya’s Necklace, and the documentary Numbered, exemplify ways younger filmmakers translate the Holocaust into a three-dimensional experience. “When survivors are gone, what will be left is some kind of mediated experience,” Lavitt says. To achieve experiential knowledge, several filmmakers have resorted to technique, like animation. “I didn’t want to use archival footage people have seen a million times,” says Seattle-based Leah Warshawski, whose documentary Big Sonia (in post-production) tells the story of her 90-year-old grandmother’s Holocaust survival. She uses animation to tell the hardest parts the story, like when Sonia watches her mother enter the gas chambers.
Artworks created during the Shoah “serve as records of an historical truth that was designed to remain unknown to the public,” Milliken says. The task of making it new is a natural continuation of uncovering both historical and emotional truths. “As the first generation of survivors passes on, I expect great change in the way we approach this part of our history,” she says.
For now, the Holocaust Center is preparing for this year’s student art contest. The prompt is a sapling from the chestnut tree outside Anne Frank’s attic window, recently planted in the Seattle Center Peace Garden as a symbol of hope and tolerance. Contest organizers wondered whether the prompt of the Anne Frank sapling would result in too many pictures of trees. Cone Kennedy is enthusiastic. “A whole forest of pictures!” she says. “That would be beautiful.”
April 10 Raise the Roof, Seattle Jewish Film Festival at the SJCC, 3:25 p.m.
May 5 Screening of Kaski: Lords of Humanity at Ezra Bessaroth, 6 p.m.
Through May 18 “Anne Frank: A History for Today” at the Holocaust Center for Humanity
May 22 World premiere of Out of Darkness in the Illsley Ball Nordstrom Recital Hall at Benaroya Hall, 4 p.m.