Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sleeping With the Chickens and Bricks for Bread

It has been a bit of a whirlwind since returning from Poland.  I recently spent a weekend in New York where I met up with my Israeli friend who set much of my Radom project in motion when he sent me the 1937 film of Radom.    While there I interviewed two survivors from Radom, one of whom lived next door to my family in Radom.   I’m not quite sure what I’ll do with the interviews, but given that most survivors are in their late 80s and early 90s, I felt that I should take advantage of the opportunity while I could. Interviewing an elder population does forestall procrastination.

Upon my return I received my work back from Poland, just one day before a huge open studio event in Minneapolis known as Art-a-Whirl.  It is always a good opportunity to interact with people around my work so I was pleased to be able to include the Hole in Time Series on Radom that you’ve seen in this blog.  Art-a-Whirl which sports a tornado as its symbol ended up with a real tornado and closed with a rainbow visible from our studio window after a weekend of  visiting with art patrons.

Since returning from Poland I’ve been winding up my oral history project on Jewish Identity and Legacy.  With most of our interviews done and the end date looming, I’ve been drafting a final grant report and teaching myself video-editing.  Many of the interviews generated wonderful stories that I hope to include in a DVD.

I have also begun to develop paintings around the stories that have emerged.  In fact, source material was my original impetus for the project although it has proven to be quite fascinating in its own right.

One of our interviews was with a woman who grew up in north Minneapolis, originally the home to much of the Jewish community.  She related the following story to us about staying with her grandmother when she was young.

I remember my grandmother had a one bedroom apartment.   She had a mattress must have been about that thick (holds hands two to three feet apart), all feathers you know, and a stool to get up.  So when it was time to go to bed, I crawled in to get into bed to sleep with her… next to the bed my grandmother had  two live chickens in a box and I was deathly afraid of chickens and that’s where I had to sleep that night with the live chickens there.

In the morning she’d go to the shocket (a kosher butcher) and have the chickens killed.  She’d carry them to the shocket and come back and flick them.  Sit in the back yard and flick ‘em.  Every time on a weekend.  She’d go like on a Friday morning before Shabbos started and get her chickens and when I’d come to sleep with her she’d have the chickens Friday.  And every time I went I had to go sleep there and I had to sleep with those chickens.  I’ll never forget that.  I was scared to death that night.

That image stayed with me and led to the  painting called Sleeping With the Chickens.

 Another story that I’ve sought to capture was provided by a subject who was a Holocaust survivor.  He told us of being sent from Auschwitz to Warsaw to help dismantle the Warsaw ghetto.  After the ghetto was destroyed, buildings were dismantled and bricks sold to the Poles.  He told me that he would go down in the basements for bricks and discover bodies that he covered with sand.

Then they (the Nazis) need a transport to go to Warsaw.  But they didn’t take any people who speak Polish, but they didn’t know … I could speak Polish.  So I got in between the French and the Italians and the Greeks and I got into Warsaw…  The Warsaw ghetto was bombed.  People were laying on the basements there like flies. So what they did is to blow up the rest of it, the rest of the building and they covered up the other ones.  Then I had to do clean up with the bricks...The Polish people came in with a horse and a wagon and they were buying those bricks from the Germans.  When they got in they had to pay so much and they had to show me a piece of paper, how many bricks they need to buy.  So I gave them the bricks they needed to buy and sometimes I ask them if they have bread or something like that. Pretty soon they got smart, they brought me a bread, they brought me a salami and I gave them those bricks.  I gave them instead of 20 bricks, I gave them 25 bricks. See the five bricks they had a hole on the wagon and they put it in the holder so the Germans, because they count the bricks when they went out. They gave them 20 bricks and going out they had to show the paper that they got 20 bricks, so they went up on the wagon and count the bricks, but they didn’t count the other ones. 

The painting, Bricks for Bread, shows the Warsaw ghetto in its destruction in the distance.  One church remained amongst the rubble.  This gentleman survived frequently by his wits and used his skills in bartering later in rebuilding his life and a business.

 These early paintings are experiments in capturing the imagery based solely on the words.  Usually I have some visual imagery to work with, but in this case I need to create my own.  When I travel I frequently take photos for reference so my photos of horse-drawn carts in the Ukraine came in handy.

  This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hiding in Caves

Sometimes it seems like there are connections between everything I encounter. On Sunday we went to the Yom HaShoah Holocaust Commemoration in Minneapolis. The speaker at the event was Christos Nicola, co-author with Peter Lane Taylor of the Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story.

Nicola related the story of 38 people who survived the Holocaust hidden in a network of caves in the Borshchiv Raion within western Ukraine. Priest’s Grotto is actually one of the longest caves in the world with 77 miles of passages that have been explored. He put up a map of the region and there was Kamenetz-Podolsk, just 25 miles away. Last month when we drove to Kamenetz, the ancestral town of one set of my grandparents, our guide had pointed out Borshchiv as we passed and mentioned the story.

Nicola, a cave explorer, first discovered the cave and heard stories from local residents about Jews hiding in the caves. After ten years of searching he finally found a member of the family who had survived in the caves now living just blocks from him in New York. Relying on a memoir written by the matriarch of the family in 1960 as well as recollections from family members, he went back to the cave to document the existence of the family within the cave. His efforts were underwritten and reported by National Geographic. Some of the family members, from toddlers to a woman over 70, had resided there for 344 continuous days, the longest instance on record of uninterrupted cave living.

Nicola talked of their survival without any of the equipment and clothing that is commonly used by cavers today. They basically learned how to survive in this new environment. They tunneled to create an escape route which they had to use when they were discovered in the first cave. In the second cave they found a natural lake, learned how to dry the moisture on the walls and adapted to living in darkness.

Several family members who survived were killed by Ukrainians after the war had ended. Most of the family immigrated to the US and Canada.

To learn more you can find an interview on NPR and read the article in National Geographic’s Adventure magazine.