Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Pathways of One's Life

Have you ever thought about how each action lays the groundwork for the next?  Any genealogist soon learns how each document provides information that leads to the next piece of information.  A census record helps you to hone in on an immigration record, a death or marriage record gives you the names of the prior generation.  Step by step we construct a family tree by leveraging off prior discoveries.  It is only when we look behind us that we realize how far we’ve come.

Lately I’ve been thinking of the process of genealogy as a metaphor for understanding the pathways of one's own life, not just the lives of our ancestors.  Just as with genealogy, we begin to understand and manage our path through life when we understand the way each step opens the door for new paths and how multiple paths can begin to weave together into a more powerful direction than any one path in isolation.  The often innocuous discovery can lead to opportunity.  Sometimes the opportunity is right in front of us, but we don’t recognize it until we are ready. 

I am an “ incrementalist” by nature, realizing that the big stuff grows out of many little steps.  And perhaps I am more focused on this than most, going so far as to keep a spreadsheet of steps taken and what they lead to. 

Let me give you an example…Recently I was invited to show my artwork on Radom, Poland at the arts and culture center in the city of Radom.  I’ve had many people ask how that came about and I realize there is no simple answer, multiple threads connected to create that opportunity.  Just as I often retrace my steps in genealogy to understand how I solved the puzzle, I began to retrace my steps in life.

In actuality it started over five years ago when I tracked down a second cousin in Israel.  His daughter who spoke English became my point of connection.  When she was going to a conference in Montreal, I flew up to Montreal to meet her.  There I also met her cousin who is head of the Radom Society, the organization for survivors and children of survivors of Radom who live in Montreal.

And another thread…Early this year I developed the Shtetlink for Radom, Poland.  The Shtetlink is a website for that is created to help others researching family from that town.  In developing the site, I connected with people all over the world sending out 400 e-mails to fellow researchers.  One Israeli friend provided me with a homemade film of the Jewish community of Radom that dated to 1937, five years before that community was annihilated.  In taking stills from the film for the website, I realized its potential as source material for artwork.  That same friend connected me with the arts and culture center when I was planning a trip to Radom.  They very kindly assisted me in getting the key to the cemetery as well as providing photos for the website. 

I’ve been working on a series of artwork on Radom, but feeling the need for story to breathe life into it.  My work typically is a vehicle to tell a story and while the Radom work captures a picture of the former Jewish community, it needed more.  I do quite a bit of public speaking and it was through an arts connection who heard me speak that I was introduced to a woman in my community who is a survivor from Radom.  She has graciously agreed to let me interview her and incorporate her memories with my artwork.

So we have the website, source material feeding into a body of artwork, a survivor’s story, a connection in Radom and a connection in Montreal.  Now we have only to set it in motion.   I have a mental image of a pinball machine shooting the ball forward. A month ago I received an e-mail from the head of the Montreal Radom Society telling me about a new development in Radom.  I’ve written about it in this blog at An Unusual Collaboration , but essentially it was the discovery of 70 previously unknown Jewish tombstones that had been hidden away and are now incorporated into a monument, that had recently been dedicated.

Now to appreciate this fully you must realize that the Nazis used many of the Radom tombstones to pave the roads, not only destroying the synagogue and the people, but also destroying the history of past Jewish families as reflected in the cemetery.  I promptly decided I needed to get pictures of the tombstones for the Shtetlink, but how to do so?  An e-mail to my contact at the arts and culture center soon secured their agreement to send me photos.  Of course, I also shared with them the link to my artwork on Radom and the story of my interviewing the survivor.  They quickly responded with a request that I consider showing my work in April when they do a focus on the former Jewish community of Radom.

 And that is how things happen.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Budapest Brain Drain

My travels and research are often accompanied by a reading program on related topics.   In recent years I’ve been particularly intrigued by the cities of Eastern Europe and especially the Jewish experience.  While the Holocaust was a defining historical event, I am also interested in the Jewish experience pre-war as well as post-war.  What was life like? When did they begin to sense danger in their environment, a danger that exceeded the “conventional’ anti-Semitism of that time and place?  After the war, many Jews continued to live under Communism.  Others immigrated and attempted to rebuild their lives as survivors.  Obviously the Holocaust would have marked their experience and responses to their environment, but in what way?

My family history research has awakened an interest in history as it provides a context for understanding it on a personal level. The books that I find most enlightening are those that present history through the lens of those living it.  I only wish that I had been able to learn history in this manner originally as it would have captivated me much sooner. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Budapest and learn more about the history of that region.  When I stumbled across a book by Kati Marton, I was intrigued by its focus on Budapest and its mention of familiar places that we had visited.  As the daughter of Hungarian journalists with Jewish roots, she has a unique connection to the city.  Her parents were journalists in Budapest during the Communist regime, arrested, imprisoned and finally released, ultimately immigrating to the US.  Years later she goes back to Budapest and reads the files of the secret police, realizing the constant surveillance that her parents had been under in both Budapest and the US.   Her book Enemies of the People paints a vivid picture of life under the Communist regime.

While Marton’s maternal grandparents had perished at Auschwitz and her father’s career options were restricted by his Jewish heritage, the family raised their children as Catholics. It was not until Marton was an adult that she stumbled across her Jewish roots.

Marton’s book, The Great Escape also focuses upon Hungary, in this case the stories of nine Hungarian Jews who left their country as Hitler came to power.  Settling in the US and England, these nine Jews became major figures in physics, photography, film and literature.  While Marton’s memoir Enemies of the People, tells one story in which she is herself a character, The Great Escape captures a broader experience by virtue of the multiple and often intersecting histories it presents.  The Great Escape looks at the story of four scientists: Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and John von Neumann. These scientists were key figures in the creation of the atomic bomb. In addition von Neumann, a renowned mathematician, was known for inventing Game Theory and pioneering the computer.

The book relates a fascinating journey by Szilard and Wigner to visit Einstein in Long Island.  There they discussed the experiments in Germany which suggested a nuclear chain reaction could be created by bombarding uranium with neutrons. They then added a piece of information that Einstein had not yet contemplated, that this in turn could create atomic bombs.  Much of their impetus for their involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb was the fear that the Nazis would get there first, a fear colored by their realization of the danger presented by the Nazis long before the US shared that understanding. Several of them had studied physics in Berlin and knew the advances in science that could make this possible. Einstein was alarmed enough to sign a letter to President Roosevelt to alert him to this threat which ultimately led to the Manhattan Project.  After Hitler’s death, the creators of the atomic bomb assumed opposite sides of the issue. Szilard opposed the use of the atomic bomb convinced that the mere threat of it would have been sufficient.

Marton also tells the story of Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, major figures in modern photojournalism.  Michael Curtiz, the producer of the movie Casablanca and Alexander Korda, a major producer/director are also chronicled.  Marton rounds out the nine with the political writer Arthur Koestler. While all are interesting lives, the preponderance of the scientists who were so central to key world events causes these segments to dominate the book.

Marton hypothesizes that the position of these men as outsiders contributed to the remarkable roles they ultimately played.  They were outsiders on many levels, as Jews and as Hungarians.  Marton makes the point that Hungary was isolated by way of being landlocked and “language” locked, the language having no relationship to other languages and thus limited to a small segment of population.  In fact, many of those of whom she writes had extensive language skills that eased their transition between cultures.  She also notes that they were all nonobservant Jews, a product of the secular world of Budapest and its cafĂ© society.  Many of these men came of age in a period of rich cultural ferment prior to WWI.  Many went on to study in Berlin.  They were worldly and well-educated and highly sensitized to changes in the political environment.  Enough so that they saw the impending dangers, departed and re-established their lives and careers.

I found the consideration of “outsider” status of particular interest as I believe the outsider role frees one up to challenge the conventional wisdom, to “think outside of the box”.  I think it is likely that the considerable success of many Jews is partially attributable to that factor.  When one doesn’t have access to the traditional rewards of the system, one is strangely freed up to do the unexpected, to create one’s own path.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Creating a Cohesive Whole

 I’ve been working on the series on Radom and am beginning to think about how to create a cohesive whole as well as sections that can stand as a group.   I’ve been using a limited palette of black, white, red iron oxide and phthalo blue although more brown tones are beginning to emerge as a mix of these colors .  Red iron oxide and phthalo blue are my favorite colors and form the backbone of virtually all of my paintings.

In this series the colors will unify the imagery, but I realized I also need to keep the size of the images relatively consistent as well.  That means that images like the bicyclist which are of a smaller scale will be eliminated and new images like the market will be added in their stead.  I also am thinking in thematic series within the broader series.  While colors may vary slightly between the images, the thematic series should be more unified by color. The water carrier and the market are a pair as are the two of the women in the cemetery.   I’ve begun to group these on my art website so I can begin to picture the larger piece. In my newly completed market scene you will notice that the water carrier who has his own painting appears in the background as well. 

I am drawing imagery from a 1937 film that offers very poor quality images. This is both challenging and beneficial as it forces me to interpret and reinvent imagery into something recognizable. Some images are truly compelling in their original form.  Others require consolidating multiple images to form a painting. Many of the images are of people looking at the camera and while this may not be the normal everyday scene, I like the idea of the townspeople engaging with the viewer.  I anticipate breaking it up a bit by including some imagery of buildings, but don't have nearly as much fun doing paintings of buildings so they may come at the end.

London Bound

Late in December I will be shipping off my Lithuania based artwork to the Woolfson and Tay gallery in London.  There it will be in an exhibition that will kick off with an opening event around Holocaust Day.  As I will be speaking at the opening, I’ve begun to put words to my work.  Artwork often begins in a less verbal place and words are a way not only to explain it to others, but to make sense of it to myself after the fact.

I have come to realize that my work is very much about testimony.  When I was in Lithuania our guides were those who experienced the Holocaust first-hand.  In telling others of what occurred they offered their testimony as evidence, proof of what they experienced and witnessed.  In telling their experience they verify the events that occurred in a country where denial and minimization of those events is all too frequent.  Those determined women who told us of their experiences are in their 80s.  When they are gone, the testimony that they so fervently offer will be gone also. History will be rewritten to a more palatable version. It is already occurring.

So what is my role, a mere observer 70 years later?  Perhaps I should say, “What is my responsibility?” because I feel that I have one.  At minimum it is to take what I’ve learned and observed and communicate it more broadly.  We all use the tools at our disposal and so my artwork becomes a kind of testimony, reflecting my response to information I’ve learned and observed.  My experience has been that imagery allows one to tell a story that stays with the viewer.  By linking it with an image there is a visual hook and thus artwork is a natural vehicle to preserve testimony. 

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Unusual Collaboration Unveils Lost Radom Tombstones

 When I visited my ancestral town of Radom, Poland, we had an opportunity to visit the Jewish cemetery.  Just a few tombstones remained intact with broken portions embedded in the wall that surrounds the cemetery.  The Germans had used many of the tombstones to build a runway and to pave a road to the airport. 

I recently learned an interesting story about the Radom cemetery and efforts throughout Poland to restore Jewish cemeteries. Prisoners from 50 Polish jails have volunteered to participate in a project to restore Jewish cemeteries.  When the Israeli Prison Service learned of these efforts they began a collaboration with their counterparts in Poland. Brian Anderson, a former Brit who retired to Israel, became aware of these efforts and raised the funds for this project to continue.  

Haim Kincler, head of the Israeli Radom Society, made a fascinating discovery on one of his visits to Radom.  A Polish tombstone maker had moved 70 of the most elaborate tombstones to safety hoping to sell them at a later time.  This plan was thwarted by the Communist regime which prohibited citizens from holding anything of historical value. Many years later the sons of the tombstone maker returned the tombstones to the city with the understanding that they would be showcased.  With the support of the Polish cemetery project, a monument was recently unveiled which incorporates the 70 tombstones.  Thus an important piece of history has been preserved.  I am making some inquiries to see if I can secure photos of these tombstones for use on the Radom Shtetlink as they may well represent family members of those who are researching family from Radom.  You can read more about this at Vos is Neias? (What’s News) along with pictures of the monument.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Of Bicyclists and Water Carriers

I am continuing to develop the series on the Jewish community of Radom, the town in Poland from which my grandfather came.  I am using a 1937 homemade film of the Jewish community as source material and am painting in a size of 12 inches by 12 inches.  There is something satisfying about working in this size.  It is a study, a snapshot of a moment in time. Something I should be able to capture quickly, although that is not always the case.

I’ve learned that size has little to do with the amount of work a painting may demand. Someone recently asked me how long a painting takes me. Some paintings almost paint themselves. Others start with an idea that evolves. Sometimes there are happy accidents and sometimes it is a struggle and I paint over it several times before arriving at something with which I am satisfied. When I paint something that is representational it is easier in the sense that I know where I am going with it although I may struggle to capture it. When I am trying to capture a quality evoked through texture or layering, I may work it extensively. And there are those paintings that lean against the wall indefinitely waiting in vain to be announced as finished.

I am posting two that are still in progress.  The one on the left is of a bicyclist on a crowded street. As I look at a cross-section of seven paintings I find that there are qualities I like in some better than others. In some paintings I’ve used medium to build up the surface and then carved into it giving it a three dimensional quality. I plan to go back to the other paintings to try to create that same quality so they look more unified.

Since I began this series I’ve had a serendipitous development. I’ve been doing quite a bit of public speaking on genealogy and artwork and someone who heard me speak remembered that a woman she met is a survivor from Radom. I called her up and discovered a wonderful connection quite apart from our Radom link. We’ve been getting together regularly and I’ve invited her to collaborate with me in this project by sharing her recollections around some of these images. My new friend is now in her 80s, but was 15 at the time of the war so her recollections of Radom are of school mates, summer camp and visits to the country. Her world was one in which they didn’t want to speak Yiddish because they considered themselves Polish. Youth groups were focused on Zionism. The streets were filled with people who appeared very modern next to the older religious Jews in their long black coats, very much the imagery that the film captures. We talked about the stereotypes that were fostered by Roman Vishniac’s photographs and how little they represented the reality of a city like Radom. And yet there are the anachronisms that existed side by side those more cosmopolitan citizens. In the imagery from the film there is one image of a water carrier. It seemed like a very unusual image to me and I asked her about it. Who did he carry water for? “Oh there were people who didn’t have indoor plumbing who bought water from him.” She urged me to paint him as he was truly an image from the past.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Great Migration

Immigration records are often the starting point in a family history search.  The records of my ancestors who came over in the early 1900s frequently reveal their nearest relatives in Europe and who they were going to in the United States.  From these records we can observe how each new immigrant helped the next.  Each new immigrant goes to a brother, uncle or cousin who has already braved the journey. Parents are often the nearest relative in Europe and frequently remained behind as each child departed. 

Stories that have been handed down often indicate difficulties in leaving the country with my grandmother actually taking a bullet in order to leave the Ukraine.  What drove them to such lengths to leave a familiar place for such a long and unknown journey?  Often it was the threat of a stint in the Russian Army or threats to their life presented by Cossacks and pogroms. 

I recently read a fascinating book that focused on a different kind of immigration that echoed the experience of my Jewish ancestors.  The book is The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson.   It addresses the migration of Southern blacks to the North and views them through the lens of immigration theory.  From WWI through 1970, six million black southerners migrated from the South to the North.

Although it took place within the confines of one country, it meets many of the characteristics of immigration.  The South under Jim Crow laws was unquestionably a dangerous, dehumanizing and limiting environment in which to live.  Lynchings and the inability to defend oneself were not unlike the pogroms that arose periodically in Eastern Europe leaving as many as 300 dead in their wake, the tally in my grandmother’s shtetl a year before she departed for the United States. The North, while by no means prejudice free, did not have prejudice embedded in the very fabric of its laws like the South.  It presented a land of opportunity to blacks in terms of quality education, the opportunity to move freely and freedom from threats to their life. 

As I read of their lives under Jim Crow laws I was surprised to learn how the restrictions arose after Reconstruction.  The North withdrew in the mid-1870s and Southerners began to take away the opportunities that had accrued to freed slaves in the intervening decades.  Freedoms were stripped away one by one, gradually dehumanizing them and constricting their world.  The restrictions that were imposed were eerily similar to many that were placed upon the Jews by the Nazis. 

Leaving was not an easy thing to do because Southerners didn’t want to lose their cheap labor force and often blocked their departure.  They had to plan their exit carefully often leaving from another town quietly to assure a safe exit.  Not unlike my family members who had to swim a river and were shot at crossing the border.

In the North the Southern blacks faced many of the challenges of other immigrants, compounded by the fact that race was a far more defining characteristic than ethnicity.  Wilkerson writes that immigrants who traveled the furthest against the most difficult challenges typically found a greater level of success.  Southern blacks were no exception to this rule spawning such well known names as Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Jesse Owens, Oprah Winfrey, August Wilson and Michelle Obama. 

I found this book enlightening on many levels and thoroughly engaging.  Wilkerson follows the stories of three unrelated people from their experience in the South, their departure and their subsequent life in the North.  Her premise of “The Great Migration” as an immigration story creates a logical context through which to view the evolution of today’s black communities.  For me it created a level of empathy as I saw their experience echoed in my own family’s immigration story.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Solving the Puzzle

For the past few days I’ve been holed up in front of a microfilm reader at the Family History Library in Utah.  This is my annual trip to do genealogy research in the candy store for genealogists.  The library has many of the records that you would have to travel all over the US to locate.  In one place you can find a wide variety of records: birth, death and marriage records, immigration and naturalization records and countless other documents.  Not only does the library have US records, but they have European vital records. 

As I’ve been at this for many years, the discoveries are less frequent, but I had one exciting discovery on my first day.  For many years I’ve searched for my grandparents’ marriage certificate from the early 1900s.  I’m back to the 1700s in Poland, but I was quite frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t find a record that was slightly less than 100 years old in the US. I’ve researched records at the Family History Library in Utah and in NY and never had been able to find it.  There are sites that have developed finding aids, among them the Italian Genealogical Society which has an on-line index for brides and grooms in NY.  When you do research on the Internet, it is important to revisit paths you may have already explored.  As I was researching for a client, I decided on a whim to plug in my grandparents’ names despite the fact that I’d searched there unsuccessfully. To my surprise, the record came up.  Presumably it had been added since my last search.

When I arrived at the library, I made a bee-line to that microfilm.  There was the certificate with my grandmother’s brother-in-law and brother as witnesses.  My grandfather was the only one in his family who came to the US so had no family of his own represented.  Interestingly he indicated he was born in Warsaw even though I have his birth record from Radom, about 60 miles south of Warsaw.  My grandmother indicated that her birthplace was Vilna although she actually was born in a shtetl 75 miles away from Vilna, but in the Vilna gubernia. 

When I interviewed her daughter years ago she told me, “My father was from Warsaw, Radom.  Radom was a province of Warsaw.  My mother was from Vilna which was also a larger development. They were proud to be from large cities that represented more the intelligentsia.  People that came from small towns, they related to them as people coming from a "dorf".  A dorf is a forest, a wilderness, nothing.  In those years it was further to go to a school or to a development.  When my mother would relate (her past) she came from a shetl, a small town.”

In addition to my own records, I’ve been doing considerable searching for several clients and met with some success taking one family back to the client’s great-great grandparents.  It is often satisfying doing someone else’s research where there is still much to be discovered.  I am always fascinated by the process of unraveling the story.  In this case I did a lot of research on-line before I came to Utah.  I was able to find immigration and census records that built out the family tree to her great-grandfather and identified three of his siblings.  From the immigration record we identified the town the family came from.  In Utah I found the death certificate for her great-grandfather that gave his parents’ names giving us a solid base to begin to explore European records and a branch that immigrated to South America. 

The trio of records that I like to begin with includes immigration, census and death records.  Immigration records tell you who the nearest relative was in Europe, who they were going to in the US and the town they were from.  Once I determine the town, I map out all of the family names from that town and then start identifying relationships, frequently finding cousins and siblings.  Census records reveal immigration and naturalization dates and often verify family members with whom they were residing,  With some data points of ages, immigration dates and family members, I can verify death records which take us back one more generation.  My original search years ago was far more random as I had yet to learn the interconnections between the various records.

I often speak with fellow genealogists about what draws us to genealogy.  Solving puzzles is often the entry point.  In my work, I have always been intrigued with understanding the system, how one part interrelates with another and often leverages it.  Systems are a form of puzzle.   Just as a Suduko puzzle or Scrabble board is built on specific interrelationships, genealogy solutions also are derived from interrelationships. When you understand them you can use them as tools to solve the puzzle.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Principles for Basic Genealogy Searches

Recently I’ve been immersed in genealogy, preparing for my Utah research trip and doing genealogy consulting and lectures. It is always interesting for me to work on someone else’s family history with the benefit of the insights I’ve learned from my own. As I’ve been preparing a talk, a recent consulting job was a helpful exercise in articulating basic research principles.

I always recommend that people first start with interviewing everyone in their family who might know something about their history. In this case, the client didn’t have the benefit of family members who could offer that information so we were reliant on what she knew and remembered. She knew her grandmother’s married name and thought she knew her maiden name. She also knew the names of some of the siblings of her grandmother, the birth year of her grandmother and the year of immigration.

With that as our starting point we began by following principle #1: Work with what you know towards what you don’t know. We searched for her grandmother’s married name and quickly found the 1930 census. The census confirmed the year of birth, but the year of immigration was six years later than what we had believed it to be. Principle #2 What you believe to be true, isn’t always accurate. Don't let it blind you to other possibilities. We had done some unsuccessful searches for immigration records using the year we believed she came over. This new information told me we needed to widen our net and search a broader number of years. Principle #3 Start broad, then narrow as necessary.

With our broader net we quickly found the 1920 census record for my client’s grandmother and family. This record indicated yet another immigration date, but one that was close to that of the 1930 census. The 1920 census record was an important one for several reasons. It provided the name of the client’s great-grandfather who brought all of his children to the US. It told us he had filed initial papers to become naturalized so we could look for a naturalization record. It also told us that different siblings immigrated at different times. The record confirmed several of the siblings’ names and provided a few new ones of whom we hadn’t been aware. Most immigration records just indicate the place of birth as the country, but in this case, it actually specified Vilna, Russia. I knew from my own family experience that Vilna could mean the gubernia rather than the city, kind of like a county or province. My grandmother used to say she was from Vilna. In fact I found that she was from a small shtetl 75 miles away from Vilna which is now in Belarus, but at one time was in the Vilna gubernia.

Our next step was to search for immigration records as we hoped to find the town from which they had immigrated. Several siblings had come in 1914 as had my client’s grandmother Lillian. I had done some searches with the name “Lillian” with little success and wasn’t sure what that name might have been prior to being Americanized. Instead I decided to search on her brother Hyman whose pre-Americanized name I assumed was Chaim. Principle #4 Search for the non-Americanized name and Principle #5 If unsure, search for related names. Searching with just his non-Americanized name, birth year and year of immigration I quickly found the record which also contained his father Schaje and sister Lillian whose name appeared to be nothing like Lillian. Ellis Island had transcribed it as Kate. The year of birth corresponded with both censuses and what we knew it to be originally. One of the things I would be interested in seeing is a tombstone for Lillian as it might indicate in Hebrew what her original name was.

Within the record it indicated the last permanent residence as Wischnowo Wilna.  We now needed to convert the town name to what it is called today. We had a clue in that we knew Wilna was Vilna and we knew they were supposed to have lived close to Vilna. Substituting Vs for Ws the name now read “Vischnovo”. I then went to the communities database and input the name along with a request to tell me how close it was to Vilna. Up popped Vishnevo, Belarus within 53 miles of Vilna. All the other options were much farther away. We soon found a shtetlink for Vishnevo which talked about a match factory that my client recalled as a family business.

The key pieces of information on the immigration record are who remained in Europe and who were they going to. In this case they were going to Schaje's son Ichk, no doubt Isador in the 1920 census who had been the first family member to arrive in 1904.  The nearest relative remaining in Eastern Europe was Schaje's brother Abram.

Now that I had the town on which to search I decided to make use of the advanced searching techniques possible on the site. I input the surname and the town and soon pulled up ten records. Among them were Kate (Lillian), Chaim and Schage (Schaje) whose record we had found in 1914.  The variance in Schaje's name points out yet another principle #6 Transcription errors are prevalent due to transcriber unfamiliarity with Jewish names. Go to the original document to confirm.

I realized that I might not be picking up all of the towns of Wischnewo due to transcription errors so instead decided to search for the surname with a given name that started with an “I” for Ichk and a town that started with a “W”. allows this flexibility.  Now I picked up another transcription of the town, “Wiscknewo” which didn’t show up earlier and it was for Itrko. Interestingly when I went into the record it showed Itzek, then 12 coming with his brother Selik and his sister Mine, accompanied by his father Schaje who must have then returned to Wischewo only to come back ten years later with his youngest children. Selik was a new sibling of whom we hadn’t been aware as he had not shown up in census records with the rest of the family, probably living independently from the family in 1920. A 1912 immigration record of brother Benjamin notes that he was going to his brother Selig. The birth year for the father Schaje in this earlier record read 1852 instead of the 1862 as we saw in the 1914 immigration record. Principle #7 They didn’t pay much attention to birthdays or dates in general, don’t expect them to tie out across all documents. My great-grandmother had a different birth year for herself in every birth record for each of her children.

And one more principle from this exercise…Principle # 8 Search related lines. Since I knew that Schaje had a brother Abram, I took a look at the unidentified records of the same surname. Several of them had a father in Wischnewo named Abram, thus making them cousins and an additional thread to follow.

Searching is a laborious process, but you can shave some time from your efforts if you keep these principles in mind.

1: Work with what you know towards what you don’t know.

2 What we believe to be true, isn’t always accurate. Don't let it blind you to possibilities.

3 Start broad, then narrow.

4.Search for the non-Americanized name in immigration records.

5. If you can’t find a specific name, search for related names.

6 Don’t forget that names can be transcribed in error. If names seem close, confirm the actual name in the original document.

7. Don’t expect birth dates or immigration dates to match exactly across all documents.

8. Search related lines for cousins.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Story Gathering

Several years ago I began a series of artwork on family history.  That series has been the source of many offshoots in artwork about family, community and cultural history.  Earlier this year I contacted Sholom Home, a Jewish elder facility about showing my family history artwork there.  As we spoke it occurred to me that my artwork often elicits others’ family stories and what better place to do so than an elder facility.  My initial phone call quickly morphed into a project in which I am now engaged.  My partner in this project is a local storyteller, Carla Vogel, who in addition to storytelling also does legacy work at a local hospice.  We had spoken for several years about possibly partnering and she seemed like the perfect partner for this project.

 Together we are interviewing residents of Sholom Home and recording their stories.  We are especially interested in legacy elements and how individual stories within the same community can begin to tell the story of a community.  I will then develop artwork around the stories, similar to what I’ve done on my own family history.

Along the way we’ve connected with the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest who frequently does oral history projects.   I’ve done genealogy and collage workshops for them in the past.  They are providing guidance in how to approach oral histories and will be a repository for the stories when we are finished.  The artwork will reside at Sholom Home when it is not being exhibited elsewhere.

We’ve done one interview and I’ve begun the first painting.  The woman we interviewed is in her
Detail of Painting
mid-90s.  Against the backdrop of nursing home chatter and frequent beeps from residents, she told us of her life and her experience teaching young children. Behind her is an image of her as a young woman reading a book that had special significance in her history. During our first interview she sang her favorite Yiddish song for us, also one of mine. Oyfn Pripetchik (At the Fireplace) is a song about a teacher, a rabbi, who is teaching young children the Yiddish alphabet. You can find the song at this link.  Teaching children the alphabet seemed especially applicable given our interviewee’s history.  She attends a regular Yiddish class and spoke of how much she likes the power and fire of the language, offering her latest words to stump her teacher.  In the painting I wanted to include Yiddish, especially some words from the song that related to children learning the Aleph Bes (alphabet). I’m not sure if I’ve finished this yet as I am still experimenting with how I want to represent these stories, but this is what I have thus far.

I am also continuing with my Radom Hole in Time series.  One of the things that I loved in the 1937 film of Radom was the way people walked almost into the camera creating a sense of immediacy in the viewer.  I wanted to do an image that would capture that sense.  The image on the right is the result of that effort.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Hole in Time

I've added one additional painting (see bottom) to my series on Radom and reworked the top painting.  In setting them on top of each other I've also noticed that the top two paintings seem to have lines that connect quite unintentionally.  I may keep that in mind as I develop other paintings and perhaps have them assume a more precise rather than random assemblage.

The new image that I've added appealed to me because it seemed so classic.  There are always some young men who want to get into the picture and these two, particularly the one bending into the camera, seemed to fit that profile. I've got similar pictures that I've taken in foreign countries where a group of young men vied for the camera's attention.

I've been working with medium and carving into it to pull out the profiles and details of a face.  The wood paneling behind these two makes use of the grain of the wood itself.

As you may recall I am trying to use the motif of a pinhole camera in my imagery with the edges slightly darkened. My working title had been "A Point in Time", but I am now thinking of it as "A Hole in Time". It seems to fit with the theme I've been reading as of late on time travel.  Recently I cleared out some books from my bookshelves to make room for my genealogy materials that have taken up residence on my floor. In doing so I stumbled across a copy of From Time to Time by Jack Finney.  In the 1970 novel, the protagonist goes back in time to the late 1800s.  Finney's focus on the details of another time spoke to the researcher in me that seeks to go beyond dry facts to truly imagine another time.  I also loved Finney's short stories in About Time: 12 Short Stories and his sequel Time and Again.

It seemed to me that these glimpses of the once vibrant community of Radom truly provided a hole in time, allowing me  to step into and imagine a world that is no more.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Artist Under the Influence

I used to wonder what I was going to paint next, but I’ve learned to relax and ideas just come.  It often seems rather magical to me the way they arise, but I’ve learned that other interests often serve as an engine.

I am working on a new series on Radom, the town my grandfather came from.  I’ve begun two so far so I believe that meets the definition of a series.  I plan to do many more.  I’ve written about the 1937 film of the Jewish community of Radom that I received from a fellow researcher.  It captures a happy time and a cross-section of the Jewish community just five years before the Holocaust destroyed it.I’ve pulled many stills from it for the Shtetlink site that I created.  In doing so I found some images that really spoke to me.  When I put the page out on the Shtetlink I had three columns of images and I liked the juxtaposition of disparate images.  That was my impetus to create a series of small images that worked as a whole.

My second influence… I went to an open studio last week and stopped in a studio where the artist was painting on wood. Now I often paint on masonite, but she was using wood panels and I really liked her work and particularly the surface.  I liked the ability to use the grain or sand it so decided to try it as a material.  Unlike masonite the panels have sides so don’t need to be framed.  For someone who likes instant gratification, being able to hang a work immediately has a lot of appeal.

My third influence…My next decision was what size to paint.  As I wanted to create a larger image out of many smaller images I opted for 12” x 12”.  Earlier this year I had done several paintings in that size for the Foot in the Door Show that the Minneapolis Institute of Arts does every ten years.  They only accept paintings of those dimensions.  Normally I don’t work that small, but I found that I really liked the work that I did for that show so decided to explore those dimensions further.

And my final influence…Last weekend I went on a long bike trip with my husband and between pedaling managed to make use of the camera that I bought for our Eastern Europe trip.  I discovered quite by accident, as I tend not to read manuals, that it had a pinhole camera setting.  Now this worked beautifully for landscape shots.  Colors are slightly muted and a grayish edge surrounds the
center image. I soon was wondering if I could get that effect in my painting series.  My working title is A Point in Time and a pinhole image seemed to fit well within that.

So four influences drove my topic, material, size and style. Amazing where a camera on the wrong setting can lead.  This is how art happens.

If you're interested in the camera with the pinhole setting here's the link.  It also has a 12X zoom in a very compact camera, a high quality Leica lens and the wonderful additional feature of GPS.  It picks up where you are and links it to the picture.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Finding My British Family - Take 2

Today I received another thread in my continuing search for my relatives in the United Kingdom.  As you may recall (see entry: Finding My British Family 11/28/2009) I have been following the history of Louis Kodish and Annie Singer.  Louis Kodish was born in London around 1900, immigrated to the US in 1929 with his wife Katherine and returned to Glasgow in 1934.  He came to his cousin Abraham Singer who was also my grandmother’s cousin and returned with his wife Katherine to his father Marks Kodish in Glasgow.  This much I had learned from immigration records to and from the US.   

As his relationship was to my relatives from Dunilovichi, I am operating under the assumption that his father was also from Dunilovichi and have hopes of linking yet another family to mine.  I know that there were Hedeshes from Dunilovichi in the Dunilovichi cemetery and names spelled Khodis or Khodos in the 1834 and 1850 Revision Lists for the town.  No linkages yet, but I remain hopeful that a puzzle piece will click into sharper focus.

In February of this year I sent for the visa records of both Louis and Annie from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.  Two months later I received Annie’s record and today, six months later I received the record for Louis. This is relatively fast compared to the year or more it used to take before they started charging for their services.

The file for Louis was interesting, but didn’t provide anything new for me to pursue.  Included in the visa file was a photo that was clearly the same person who sent a photo to one of my father’s cousins signed “your cousin, Louis Kodish”.  The application provides his address and that of his father.  His mother was deceased by 1929 when he was submitting this record.  His father’s name was given as Marks.  Most of this I already knew from immigration records. The one new piece of data came from a copy of his birth certificate which gave his mother’s name as Kate Epstein.  The last name of Kodish was spelled Cordis. Back to the cemetery where I found no Epsteins.  Quite possibly his mother was not from Dunilovichi..

Annie’s file also showed a photograph of a young woman in her 20s. She was born in London in 1907 and lived in Jerusalem from 1923 to 1928 when the visa was issued.  I did the math and found that she went there at age 16.  Her mother Sarah was indicated as deceased and her father Meyer was no longer in London, but back in Diniavolitshe, Poland, presumably Dunilovichi.   Perhaps he returned after his wife’s death and his daughter decided to venture into Palestine rather than return home with dad.  Now in 1929, tiny Annie, at 5’1 ½ “ was leaving Palestine to go to Brooklyn to stay with her uncle Abraham Singer, my grandmother’s cousin. I am struck with the sheer adventurousness of her journey.

Her birth record indicated that her mother Sarah Singer was also formerly a Singer.  Communities were small and marriages to cousins were common.  In addition to the birth record there was a certificate showing that she was free of trachoma and a Certificate of Character from the Department of Police and Prisons.

So from the visa files, I now have a little piece of additional information for both Louis and Annie on their mother’s names.  I can continue to search for Louis and his father Marks in Glasgow.  Annie’s trail in London seems to have grown cold with her departure and her father’s return to Dunilovichi.  I may see if I can find a record of her original immigration to Palestine and some further trace of her father in Dunilovichi.  She appears to have vanished in America, no doubt marrying and changing her name, the curse of genealogists.

And while on the subject of my Dunilovichi relatives, I did have one ah-ha moment recently concerning the timing of my great-grandfather’s immigration.  I knew that my great-grandfather came to the US in 1904.  What else happened in that year?  It dawned on me that my great-great grandfather died in 1904 in Dunilovichi, a fact I learned upon my visit.   No doubt there was  a relationship between those dates. To test that theory I checked the month in which my great-great grandfather died against the month in which my great-grandfather immigrated.  Sure enough, my great-grandfather waited until his father’s death to immigrate leaving just a month or two after his death.  Somehow that is a humanizing detail.  Now I picture a son waiting for his father to die before he felt free to leave, perhaps waiting out an illness to be at his father’s deathbed. It is in these dribbles and drabs of information that we begin to piece together a story, a narrative about our ancestors’ lives that reminds us that they really lived with all the human emotions and drama that can accompany our own journey.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Paintings Redux: Version Two

 Between genealogy research and conferences I’ve been finding some time to work on paintings for my London show.  As you’ll recall, I’ve taken several paintings that I’ve done on board and repainted them on canvas for easier shipping.  It has been an interesting experience to take a painting that I considered done and begin anew.  I’ve always thought that I didn’t have the patience for repeated versions of the same image.  I can't read the same book twice or see the same movie. While Monet’s multiple waterlilies, haystacks and cathedral windows are inspiring, I thought I needed something new to sustain my energies.  Now with a reason to do that exploration, I’ve had a few discoveries worth learning. I've found that there are many levels within an image to explore.

It is very difficult to take a serviceable painting and paint out portions to rework them.  There is always the fear of destroying what already exists and yet it is the paintings I destroy that give birth to my favorite paintings..  Still a blank canvas is a second chance to take what I liked and emphasize it while eliminating what I was less satisfied with.  Sometimes I found it impossible to recreate some effects.  Instead I could let go of what I had done and do something new and unique.  Often that second effort has qualities lacking in the first.

The challenge that hung over my head was to take my painting “Gedenken” which is24” X 72” and recreate it in two paintings of 24” X36”.  I further added to the challenge by deciding I wanted the paintings to be able to stand on their own as well as combine into one image.There were two changes I wanted to make from my original “Gedenken”.  I wanted to create a larger base of darker color at the bottom to balance it and I wanted to put bands of sideways letters between each band that spelled “gedenken”.  Here’s what I arrived at, both separately and together.

 The other painting that I’ve been working on is “What is Left”. This was a very simple painting of the doors of the Torah ark that remained from the synagogue from 1438.  The synagogue was damaged in the war and destroyed by the Soviets after the war.  As I studied the image of the doors more thoroughly, I discovered some details that I omitted in the original.  The lock to the doors is inserted into a star of David, now captured in version two. What looks simple is deceptively difficult.  The doors are of hammered metal and create dappled areas of light and shadow.  The hammered forms and the variations of light presented some challenges to capture.This is definitely an image that needs to be viewed at a distance to see the elements come together. 
You can find the original paintings on my art website under Lithuanian Artwork on the right.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

How They Lived

Working on the Shtetlinks (websites on ancestral town) has the added advantage of putting me in the middle of the information that swirls around the towns I am researching. As I do both research and artwork around family and cultural history, new information often feeds one of those engines.

 I’ve written of the 1937 film I obtained of the town of Radom, Poland.  I recently put about 80 stills from the film on the Radom Shtetlink, a rather laborious process.  As stills the images spoke to me in a way that they didn’t when watching the film. Many are striking imagery, always good source material
for an artist and they will resurface in a different form in these pages. What I took particular note of was the diversity of the Jewish community.  While the stereotypic religious elder can certainly be found in the film, many within the Jewish community looked no different than my grandparents and parents would have at that time in New York. The stereotype of the shtetl Jew told through the stories of Sholom Aleichem and the camera of Roman Vishniac fails to tell the story of many in the Jewish community of Eastern Europe.  That was particularly true of a fairly large city like Radom where one could find merchants, teachers, doctors and lawyers.

Recently I was connected by a fellow Radom researcher to an author whose work is quite evocative of life in those times.  Bernard Gotfryd is a former Radom resident and a survivor.  He worked for Newsweek as a photographer for 30 years and brought his photographer’s eye to his stories. 

Gotfryd sent me a copy of his most recent book I Can See Them in My Dreams, published in Poland.  Stories in Polish and English introduced me to personalities in Radom and told their stories.  One of the things that I seek to learn in my research is what the lives of my family members were like.  With the Holocaust as the end point of their lives, it is easy to focus on their deaths rather than their lives.  Between the film imagery and Gotfryd’s words, I have begun to get a sense of what their world was like.

Intrigued by his recent book, I tracked down a copy of his earlier book Anton the Dove Fancier which similarly paints vignettes of Radom and subsequent events during the Holocaust.  The book won the PEN/Martha Albrand Special Citation for Nonfiction as well as several additional awards.  Gotfryd captures the complexity of human interactions.  It is not a black and white world, but one populated with people thrust into impossible situations, trying to find their way through them while preserving their sense of humanity.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

New Tools from the Conference - Creating Your Own One-Step Searches

Since returning from the International Jewish Genealogy conference, I have been hard at work applying what I learned.  I always try to attend a mix of topics that spans history, language, new tools and resources as well as technical skills.

Some of those technical skills and tools have already proven helpful in the Shtetlink sites I provide on Radom and Dunilovichi.  If you’ve explored those sites you know I am a fan of spreadsheets, often organizing research in spreadsheets and providing them for download.  During my time at the conference I attended Dr. Stephen Morse’s workshop on using his “One-Step” tools to create one's own search tools.  Basically he has written the HTML code to create a do-it-yourself Soundex search engine to search a database.  Steve is a talented computer engineer and entertaining presenter and his tools have become a critical resource for most genealogists.  For those of you who did not have the benefit of his session, you can find instructions on how to create a search engine at under Creating Your Own Search Application.  Click on Frequently Asked Questions for a basic tutorial.

You can find some of the ones that I’ve built on the home page of the Radom Shtetlink (see link at side).  There you will find one that I built for the 1823 Patronymic Database that I found on my recent trip to Radom.   If you click on the Names tab and then the 1823 Patronymic link you will see the original data as I found it in the archives.  There are two columns, one listing patronymics (father’s name plus an ending such as Herszkowicz) that Jews went by prior to being required to take last names in 1823.  The second column is the last name that they took. In the database I built, I've added a separate column for given name followed by patronymic and surname.

 While it was exciting to read my great-great-great grandfather’s entry, trying to do research on a hard copy handwritten listing is not an easy task.  Previously I input that information into a spreadsheet that I made available to download and search via filters.  Now I provide another way to search via the “One-Step” method. 

My 3rd great-grandfather was Berek Herszkowicz prior to taking the last name of Rubinsztajn.  That means that his father was Herszk.  If he had brothers they should also be listed as Herszkowicz.  But Herszkowicz can be spelled a number of different ways.  By entering Herszkowicz into the patronymic field and clicking sounds like, it will pull up the various spellings and the last names that those individuals took.  It is quite possible at this point in time that adult siblings took different last names.  Seven names come up with a father named Herszk, all possible siblings with different names that I may wish to remain aware of in my Radom research.

And a few tips for those who wish to build a search tool...

As a novice, I have found javascript (js-2) to be the easiest starting point to build search tools. You will also want to make use of Notepad to save files in order to remove code that may be input from various programs such as Excel.  And finally make sure the names match between the search engine name that you input into the tool and the name you ultimately save the file under.  Same goes for the database.  Use the "test-drive" button as you build the search to see how it appears to the user. Good luck!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Global Meets the Personal

For the past few days I’ve been attending the International Jewish Genealogy Conference in Los Angeles.  This very comprehensive conference gathers Jewish genealogists from all over the world for more offerings than one can realistically attend. 

I began the conference by attending Schelley Dardashti’s session on genealogy blogging, hoping to pick up some tips on how to make this blog more effective.  Schelley publishes the blog “Tracing the Tribe”, focused on Jewish genealogy.  Her overview was quite helpful and you may see some modifications in the coming weeks as I explore some of her recommendations.  I certainly related to her comments about blogging taking over one’s life.

Warren Blatt spoke about Jewish given names reviewing the naming patterns of Ashkenazic Jews that can assist one in genealogy research.  He reviewed the derivation of names and the Hebrew, Yiddish and American equivalents.  This very useful seminar helped to explain the many seemingly unrelated monikers that one person could go by and their relationships to each other.  He began the seminar with a confounding example of one name on a tombstone, a very different one on a marriage registration and yet another in the census, all for the same person.  By the end of the seminar it actually made sense.  You can find his Powerpoint at

As I create Shtetlinks, I was interested in Susana Bloch’s session on that topic.  I liked her description of a  Shtetlink  as a cyberspace landsmanschaft, an organization of people from the same shtetl.  At one time a landsmanschaft was an actual organization that provided support to others from the same shtetl.  With the ability to create this in cyberspace we can greatly expand our reach beyond any given geographical area.  I’ve found creating Shtetlinks to be especially rewarding when I have the opportunity to connect people who share common family as well as personally beneficial by enabling me to be aware of new information as it becomes available.

One of the topic that I found most interesting was presented by Ben Nathans, a history professor at the University of Pennsylvania.  Nathans discussed the Jews of the Russian Empire and their life within the Pale(the area where they were required to live).  His thesis was that Jews became a modern people as a part of the Russian Empire.  He spoke of the period around the late 1800s when there were over 5 million Jews within the Russian Empire.  Faced with poverty, pogroms and restrictions on their place of residence (eg. The Pale), they had a difficult existence.  In independent Ukraine approximately 100,000 Jews died in pogroms with the most severe wave occurring in 1919 as an outgrowth of the Russian Revolution.  He talked about the years of emancipation of the Jews in each of the European countries, emphasizing that they invariably tied to revolutions and wars in those countries.

 In Russia, Jews were selectively emancipated through an “incentive plan”.  Certain categories of Jews were permitted to live outside of the Pale with full rights.  These included merchants who paid significant taxes, graduates of Russian universities, artisans who were in demand outside of the Pale and Jewish veterans who had completed their 25 years of military service.  The result of this plan was that by 1880 15% of the students in Russian universities were Jewish although they represented only 5% of the population.  Of course quotas soon emerged as a backlash to this development. Jews became urbanized and moved in from the shtetls assuming more commercial occupations. His conclusion was that the modern Jew evolved in Russia long before he came to the US.

This topic was of particular interest to me as I had the opportunity to make use of some of the available databases while at the conference that underscored much of what he related.  The Jewish Chronicle, a British paper that dates back to 1840, is a wealth of information on the towns from which my ancestors came.  When I input their names I came up with articles that talked of the expulsion of Jews from towns, anti-Semitism frequently fanned by the church with talk of blood libels and deadly pogroms.  I have always hypothesized that my grandmother was brought over to the United States by her brothers in response to a pogrom.  Family folklore is that her child died in a pogrom and in fact pogroms murdered 300 Jews in her community just a year prior to her arrival in the United States.  A wave of pogroms had spread across Russia for the preceding two year period.

History becomes so much more meaningful when the global intersects the personal.  I particularly find history interesting when viewed from a system’s perspective.  Each action has subsequent consequences creating a repetition of pattern if one pays attention.  Genealogy itself is very much about pattern recognition as is any puzzle.  Nathan’s lecture reminded me that history shares that characteristic and is a puzzle itself to be deciphered and understood.

When I come to a conference such as this I am struck by the many topics that genealogy links into, all topics of great interest to me.  I frequently attend lectures on history, travel, language, technical skills such as web design and writing.  Let’s not forget that genealogy also links one into a social network of others who are equally excited about these subjects.  It doesn’t get much better than that.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Paintings: Version Two

It has been a busy couple of weeks since our return from Eastern Europe.  Much of my time has been spent adding my genealogy research to the Radom Shtetlink site.  If you are interested in the genealogy side of things you can find a summary of what has been added on the home page of the Radom Shtetlink (see link on right).

Currently I am working with a film from 1937 of the Jewish community of Radom.  As the film quality is poor (picture lots of people waving and the camera jumping around), I’ve decided to place stills on the website.  It must have been a big event to have the community filmed as everyone turned out to be captured on film.  There is a general spirit of gaiety that comes through despite having no sound. People bow, wave, shake hands, dance and hold their children up to the camera. And yet it is a sad film.  I can’t help thinking that most of the people in it were murdered just a few years later.  I watch for people who resemble my father, wondering if I might spot one of my great-uncles by happenstance.

 I’ve also begun to spend time at the studio working on pieces for a show in London in January.  I will be exhibiting my series of work that is based on my experiences in Lithuania.  The work will be at the Woolfson and Tay gallery.  Its founders produced a wonderful film of the survivors of Vilnius called Surviving History so our directions link up nicely.  I had contacted them originally hoping to show the film in conjunction with my artwork and ended up planning a show for their gallery.

 In order to simplify shipping, I am taking paintings that I have done on board and redoing them on canvas which is lighter-weight and doesn’t require framing. It is an interesting exercise on many levels.  There is part of me that hates to sell a painting because each one feels unique, something that I could never capture again.  Many paintings evolve in a serendipitous way through happy accidents and lots of experimentation.  There is no formula to easily reproduce it.  Occasionally I think I should be recording my steps in creating a painting, but I think too much analysis would get in the way of its evolution.  My compromise with the analytic side of my brain is to keep photos as a record of the process. If I flip through them in a slide show I can see how the painting evolved.  Because my focus is on showing a series of works, selling a core piece too soon interferes with that objective.  By doing multiple works, I am more free to let go, realizing that while I may not recreate the same piece, I may well create one I like better.

 I am giving myself permission to change a painting the second time, it needn’t be an exact replica.  Sometimes I like version 2 better.  Because paint goes on differently on different surfaces I can’t get certain effects on canvas that I could do on board.  I make lavish use of medium to try to make the surfaces more equivalent.

 So let me share a few version 2s with you.  You may remember Buried Truths based on the Polish journalist who lived in the forest of Ponar where he witnessed the murder of the Jewish community.  He wrote about what he observed and buried his pages in bottles in the ground.  The original one is on  the left and Buried Truths 2 is on the right.  The original is a little darker, murkier.  I discovered in the first one that I liked the line that cut across and wanted to highlight that so in version 2 you see it is much more distinct.  One would think that this would be an easy one to reproduce as it is not particularly representational, but it was actually quite difficult.  It may not come across well in a photograph, but the painting is built up with medium to create an almost fossilized effect when I glazed the medium with white. I also had some accidental drips in the first one that I decided I liked.  In the second version I tried to get it to drip blue across the iron oxide thinking of the drips as the roots of the trees reaching deep into the earth.

I am probably not done yet as I think I will want to make some of the background bottles slightly darker to distinguish them from the foreground and darken some of the background. Fortunately I have lots of time to play with this.

Another one which I have been working on is Sholom Aleichem with the old man who came to the restaurant in Vilnius only to reveal that he once lived there during the time of the ghetto.  There were a few themes that were captured in the original painting- a coal chute with a child who was hidden below, the gate to the tunnel which ran from the synagogue behind the restaurant under the building and out the ghetto gate.  There were also circles signifying the wall of wine bottles that now stands in this gentleman's former bedroom.  In the upper right corner they melt into the night sky.  Again the original version is on the left and version 2 is below in the center.

While I liked the image of the man in the first painting, I wanted him to be looking more contemplative so I tried a different view and changed him a bit.  I liked the wine bottles, but decided to have them overlap the man and liked having the background merge with the painting.  On the right I decided to add a new image - coal.  As the chute led to a a coal bin, I thought it would be interesting to paint coal which I did through the use of medium and glazes.  As an aside, I find that I need to take time from the studio to do other things and let ideas emerge.  In this case I was walking around the lake with a friend when I saw rocks that reminded me of coal.  I promptly took that image back to the studio. The gate still needs some work and I keep debating whether to have a child on the chute.  The scale seems too small for the painting.  It is likely that will get painted out or reformatted in some fashion.

What I find interesting about this image is that the images of coal, the circles of the wine bottles and the night sky could stand on their own as an abstract painting. Without the central figure they take on a symbolism of their own.  Perhaps they will find their way into a new painting in this form.

Both of these paintings require more work so I will feature them again as they evolve.  The third painting that I have been working on is Afikomen which is based on the hidden matzo factory in the Vilnius synagogue during Soviet times.  The imagery really didn't change between the original and the version 2, but I found that I couldn't get certain effects as easily on canvas.  As you can see they are not dramatically different except some colors appear more blended on the canvas.What is interesting about the process is that the original evolves organically.  It is only after it is done that I look at it analytically and think about repetition of form and how fields of color interact.  In version 2 of this painting I was less involved in organic evolution, but more focused upon capturing color and line.

So preferences?  Is version 1 just the prototype to be improved upon or does it have something unique by being more part of an organic evolution?  The mere exercise of putting these side by side has me itching to make changes to my version 2s.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pictures on Radom, Cracow, Warsaw and Prague

Pictures are now posted for the balance of our trip.  Go to the right side of this page to locate the links.  For those of you who follow genealogy research in Radom, you can find much of my research on the Radom Shtetlink site, also linked on the right side of the page.

Favorite Travel Tools and Books

Home again! After three weeks on the road we were ready for our trip to come to an end.  It was a complex trip with multiple cities and genealogy research, but it all came off according to plan with the exception of frequent rainy weather.  One of the big reasons for its success was our reliance on a GPS unit both in driving and as pedestrians.  Each trip I make has some new technology to smooth the road.  On my last trip I purchased a net book and a Kindle.  The net book allowed me to post this blog, organize photos and communicate by Google video chat.  The Kindle allowed me to travel light with an extensive library.  On one of our last driving trips my husband swore that next time we were only driving if we had GPS.  That was after we passed our turnoff to Ronda, Spain and ended up in Malaga.

Before our departure I began to research GPS units.  My objective was something reasonably inexpensive with European maps included rather than requiring separate purchase.  That led me to the Garmen 275 which includes European maps and can be used for pedestrian, bike or car travel. 
With my usual belt and suspenders approach we also got a rental car with GPS.  We found it difficult to program and the only instructions were in Polish so we were grateful that we brought our own.

My husband started testing the GPS for bike travel before our departure.  As you can choose the type of vehicle that is shown on the screen we went through Poland on a virtual blue bike.  I am used to using GPS in my Prius so that is my reference point. That unit dings before a turn, while the Garmin does not.  It took awhile to focus in on turning when it got to 100 feet instead of listening for the ding and we missed a few turns before we adjusted.  The GPS also wants to make you circle rather than finding another route.

Overall it did a good job of telling us when to turn, but given the difficult Polish names it was easier to recognize our turn by watching for the street name on the screen.  Occasionally we'd lose the signal, but within a few miles it was back.  Over the course of our trip we learned how to program it with specific locations so we could easily retrieve them.  It can be set to tell you the time to a destination or the estimated time of arrival and was fairly accurate.  Driving in Poland takes longer, but it seemed to allow for that.  We especially liked a feature that told us the speed limit and the speed we were going.  The GPS can be set for miles or kilometers and we found it helpful to think in miles.

While the GPS worked well for driving it was less useful for pedestrian travel.  Part of the challenge was determining which direction to go at the start.  Slower movement made it harder to quickly gauge if we were going in the right direction.  The features and price of the Garmen 275 made it a very good investment for European travel. Now that we've returned my husband has purchased a bike mount for it and put it to use between European trips.

When I travel I always try to read topical literature  that relates to my destination.  I had read quite a bit of non-fiction prior to our trip, but shifted to novels during our travels.  One of the books which we both read was "The Zookeeper's Wife" by Diane Akerman.
 The book is based on the true story of the Warsaw zookeeper and his wife who worked with the Underground and hid 300 Jews within the zoo.  When we found their photos at the Jewish Historical Institute among the "Righteous" we felt as if we knew them.  The book gave an interesting historical perspective on the impact of the war on Warsaw, the scope of the Uprising and an appreciation for the many Poles who saved Jews in Warsaw.  We only wished we had time to visit the zoo while in Warsaw after having read the book.

One of the other books that I read is titled "Not Me" by Michael Lavigne,
a book with an interesting premise.  The main character, Michael Rosenheim, is a standup comic whose father was believed to be a survivor and worked actively to support the Jewish community.  As his father is dying, Michael finds his father's journals from which he learns that his father was an accountant for the Nazis who faked being a survivor. At first I thought an accountant seemed rather innocuous until I realized he was accounting for hair shorn from the murdered and watches and belongings confiscated before their death. His father had served at Madjanek which we visited early in our trip. The story is in large part about how the son comes to terms with his father and his history, but it is also about how his father journeys from Nazi ideology to truly becoming what was originally a masquerade.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Travels to Terezin

Yesterday we met up with our guide Aharon to travel to Terezin. Unlike the other concentration camps we had visited, Terezin was a temporary holding place until victims were shipped to other camps. The camp was about an hour’s drive outside of Prague. Originally a garrison town, it was designed to be difficult to attack which also served the Nazis’ purpose of being difficult to escape from. The city was encircled by walls, then an area that could be flooded as a moat, then more walls. Around the town lived many ethnic Germans insuring that if a prisoner escaped they would have nowhere to go. The people who lived in the town were moved out to open up the town to serve as a camp and many moved back after the war.

The first transport was in November 1941 and transports continued until 1945 with 150,000 Jews going through Terezin. It wasn’t a death camp although 35,000 people died of illness or starvation. Most were sent on to other camps and their deaths.

Terezin is best known for its role in deceiving the Red Cross about what occurred in the camps. The story of the camps broke in April 1944 after the first successful escape from Auschwitz. The escapees were part of the underground so were very knowledgeable about what was occurring. At that point most of the Jews had been murdered so only the Hungarian and Slovak Jews remained. The two escapees published a detailed report that went to a number of sources including the Red Cross and the Vatican. The Red Cross had to respond and so they planned to visit Terezin. The Nazis sought to create a showcase camp that would deceive the Red Cross into thinking that the stories were false. In order to make the camp seem less crowded they sent 13,000 Jews to Auschwitz. They arranged for them to be kept there for six months so they could write letters home indicating all was well. Then on Purim they were gassed. False stores and cafes were created to facilitate the deception. Needless to say it was not the finest hour of the Red Cross as they believed the Nazis’ lies.

Not everyone worked in Terezin and children lived in the camp until their deportation and death. As a result there were efforts to engage the children artistically and much of their artwork remains. Adult artists were required to work for the Nazis, but many also did their own artwork, often subversive in nature and showing the side of the camp the Nazis hoped to hide. There was also an active theater and a number of talented writers and musicians. Theater and musical performances were an important part of the camp and a group of teenage boys published a newspaper until their deportation.

We then headed over to the hidden synagogue, originally located in a private home, now part of the memorial. The original family had to leave Terezin when it was converted to a camp. They returned after the war and discovered a room decorated with Stars of David and Hebrew text. It was not until after the fall of Communism over 20 years ago that the family felt they could reveal the room. In the intervening years it was used for storage.

To enter the synagogue you must first go through a courtyard. During the war a bakery for the Nazis was on the other side of the wall. The design of the synagogue is attributed to Artur Berlinger who it is believed was an artisan at Terezin with access to paints. The walls contain a number of texts, paintings of candles and Stars of David. The texts are particularly telling given the circumstances faced by the Jews. The Eastern wall has the text from the Talmud, “Know before who you stand”. On the other walls are such texts as “We beg you, turn back from Your anger and have mercy on the treasured nation that you have chosen”. The portion from the morning prayers asks that they be removed “from distress to relief, from darkness to light, from subjugation to redemption, now, speedily and soon”. Other prayers plead with God not to forget them and to rescue them. The selection of prayers which were on the walls was clearly designed as a response to the circumstances in which they found themselves. The hidden synagogue was a deeply touching expression of faith in circumstances which could sorely test it.

As we drove through the countryside Aharon reminded us that the Germans’ murder of the Jews was only the first step in their plan which would have next extended to Poles and other nationalities. The plan for the Czechs was to exterminate a third, use a third for slave labor and Germanize the balance. He noted that the countries that were closer to the earlier activity during the war saw the most Jews escape prior to the war. Over 50% of pre-war Jews in Austria and Germany left as well as 25% of Czechs Jews.

We also discussed the interest in Eastern Europe in Jewish heritage today. I related that when I was at the Vilnius Yiddish Institute, I was surprised at the number of non-Jews who sought to learn Yiddish, many with an interest in the history or literature. In the United States that would be very uncommon. Aharon noted that in Europe the Jews co-existed for centuries with the local population and often made up a significant percentage of the cities. Their history is also part of the history of the nation in which they lived which contributes to this interest. Frequently grandparents may remember the Jews who lived in their communities and that spurs interest as well. He also commented that many people are discovering that they have Jewish roots and there is a new-found interest in learning more about their history.

Today we shifted gears from Jewish history to Czech art with visits to two excellent museums. The Kampa Museum is located along the river south of the Charles Bridge. It has large collections of paintings by Frantisek Kupka and sculptures of Otto Gutfreund. I had especially enjoyed the work of both artists on our earlier visit to the Veletrzni Palace. Kupka was born in Czechoslovakia, but worked largely in France. He painted largely abstract work and was an amazing colorist. He also saw a relationship between music and painting and sought to express that in his artwork.

Gutfreund is acknowledged as the first cubist sculptor. His earlier more representational work was also quite strong. We recognized many of the same pieces that we had seen at the Veletrzni Palace with the Kampa having many of the earlier studies.

Later in the day we stopped at the Mucha Museum to view the work by Alphonse Mucha, a leading Art Nouveau artist, best known for his posters of Sarah Bernhardt. Our travels to different countries are always a good opportunity to see a cross-section of work by artists in their countries of origin.