Saturday, April 27, 2013

Sky Tinged Red

Earlier this week my friend Dora mentioned to me that she had a book for me to read, a typical conversational topic for us. "What's the name?" I asked.

"Sky Tinged Red".

"Sounds familiar" I replied, only then realizing why. "Your father's book", I exclaimed. "You have it!"

A little background....Dora is from Radom, Poland, the same town as my grandfather. She was 15 years old when the war broke out. She spent the war years in the Radom forced labor camp, Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. While her immediate family survived, 80% of her family did not, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents were sent to their deaths at Treblinka.

Dora's father had the unusual distinction of surviving two and a half years in Auschwitz, a place where a few months was unusual. Isaia Eiger was an accountant in Radom where he also directed the Jewish orphanage and was active in the Zionist movement. He was sent to Auschwitz in 1942 along with 200 leaders of Radom. There he was part of the resistance. His survival hinged on his ability to speak seven languages. He became the registrar, taking information from the many people who arrived in daily transports. In this capacity he learned about subsequent events in Radom and how his family was faring. When Dora and her mother were sent to Auschwitz in 1944, her father was there to greet them. He was able to help them get indoor work as seamstresses during the harsh winter, furthering their own odds for survival.

Of those seven languages, Dora's father chose Yiddish as the language for this memoir. At that time Yiddish was the language of many Jews throughout the world. The memoir was written immediately after the war when memory was fresh, but it was not until his death in 1960 that Dora discovered three copies typed in Yiddish. In the intervening years Dora raised her family. It was not until the early 1980s that Dora took on the task of translating this memoir.  To her dismay she discover that it ended abruptly in 1942. She searched in vain for the other portion of the memoir. In 2006 her nephew brought over more of her father's papers that were in the files of her late brother. No typewritten pages were to be found.

It was only as she began to box these materials for Yad Vashem that she discovered the entire handwritten memoir. There it was hiding in plain sight. Busy searching for typewritten pages, they had missed these narrow yellowing pages, not recognizing them for what they were.

Once again Dora began to translate these pages. This was more challenging than before as Dora is now legally blind. Nonetheless she is quite indomitable. A lack of vision might slow her down, but not stay her from proceeding. With the aid of a magnifying machine she could examine each word. Letter by letter she transcribed it, building sentence after sentence. At this stage she couldn't read a sentence for context as it wouldn't fit on the screen at a magnification level sufficiently large for her to read. It took almost a year of painstaking work for her to complete the translation.

Almost seventy years had passed since it was written. Time for two generations to come of age, great-grandchildren her father had never known now stepped in to bring his story to fruition. Her two grandsons Etan and Jonah took the lead, driving the effort forward to share the legacy and story of their great-grandfather. I suspect there is a little "beshert" (Yiddish for fate) at work here, the pages waiting patiently to be discovered when the time was right.

I saw pieces along the way, serving as Dora's eyes as we read through the names list verifying spellings. Many of the names were familiar from my work on the Radom KehilaLink ( ancestral website). Sometimes I felt as if I knew the residents of this town but soon I would know them through the lens of her father's experience.

Among the range of survivor accounts, this is an unusual and important book. There are not many people who were members of the resistance in Auschwitz and survived to tell of it. Even more rare is a two and a half year perspective on the camp from the inside. Isaia Eiger was a well educated and thoughtful man who tells his story for future generations, "a memorial to former comrades" and an "indictment of the murderers".

You can find some excerpts of the book on-line. You can learn more about it or purchase a copy on-line.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Art and Legacy

I have an event coming up that arose unbidden, the best kind!  It began to unfold when I was contacted by the Minnesota Jewish Theatre.

The Minnesota Jewish Theatre is a wonderful gem in my community.  I was introduced to it by friends and have been very impressed with the quality of its productions. One of their tag lines is "Telling Stories of Our Common Search for Identity", a theme that resonates deeply with me.  Given this history I was especially pleased when they contacted me in connection with their current play, "Handle With Care".

After a visit to my studio they asked if I would be willing to participate in a program to complement the play, an exhibit of my work and a talk about the blending of art and legacy.  They spoke with Mt Zion in St Paul who agreed to host the show and event.  That felt particularly fitting because one of my interviewees spoke so glowingly of the community he found at Mt Zion.   Now I'm trying to figure out how to talk about this project as it is the first time I have focused solely on this work without my prior series also being exhibited.

Fortunately the work itself helps me as it has story embedded within it.  I also have videos from the project so am busy creating video excerpts to share the stories that were my inspiration.  When I develop new artwork, I also need to find new ways of talking about it, pulling out salient themes.  As legacy is central to what I do, I've been thinking about what it is and how we experience it.

We talk about legacy as what we pass on to subsequent generations, but I think many of us would be hard pressed to state our legacy, some because we may not have yet found it, others because it seems like a rather grand concept to apply to our everyday lives.  Even though legacy was the focus of my interviews, I often discovered it through circuitous routes.

For many of my interviewees it was story itself, for others it was shared through food and song, passed down through generations. Sometimes artifacts such as Sabbath candlesticks. represented the rituals that were continued from one generation to the next.  A few of my interviewees wrote books that shared their stories.  Two of my interviewees took in new immigrants, exposing their children to a broader world and embracing these new children as their own.

Personal attributes also were shared and often absorbed through children and grandchildren.  A toughness and carry on attitude from Hana who lost her family and was on her own at 16.  A shrewdness from Sam who traded bricks to the Poles in exchange for bread and knew to lie about his age to save his life.  An appreciation of the world and ability to move within it with ease from Harold and Dorothy.  From Walter,  a gentle demeanor inviting others to find common ground. From Fannie,  a deep commitment to and involvement in the Jewish community. From Shirley the ability to use her imagination.

So many of my interviewees were extraordinary storytellers who taught me a thing or two about how to tell a story.  I found myself hanging on their words eager to know where they would take me.

I have realized that legacy need not be grand.  Few of us will invent a new vaccine, create a world renowned work of art or discover new frontiers.  Fortunately for us, legacy can be embedded in the everyday world in which we live, in food, in song, in how we interact with our children and with the world around us. One of the most important things we can do is to value, preserve and share our stories, never knowing who they will touch or how they will shape the future, but trusting that somehow they will.

For those in the Twin Cities, please stop by for the reception and talk on April 30th 6:30 PM at Mount Zion, 1300 Summit Avenue in St Paul. The show will open midday on April 29 and come down on May 3rd.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Yesterday was the day on which we remember the Shoah. In my community of the Twin Cities it is held at a different synagogue each year. Each year fewer survivors remain. This year I was unable to join my community in this commemoration as I am in Madison, Wisconsin gathering with other artists from Minneapolis-St Paul, Madison and Milwaukee. Each of those cities is participating in The Jewish Artists' Lab, a project of which I've written in this blog.* This was the first time we met with the other cities to discuss how the projects are developing.

On the first evening I was glad that they incorporated a Yom HaShoah commemoration. In some ways it was more personal as it encouraged greater interaction within our group. The facilitator spoke of the enormity of 6 million deaths and the difficulty of fully appreciating the loss of individuals when framed in such scope. She then recounted the story of one individual and asked each of us to in turn recount the story of someone lost in the Holocaust who in some way touched our life.

My mind began to race. Which story would I recount? I have done so much work around the Holocaust, my problem was not a dearth of stories, but too many. I waited while several of the artists told their story. Each clasping hands and joining the growing group in the center after they told their story. My heart was beating a little faster waiting for my opening, hoping I wouldn't choke up. It is often unpredictable when I tell these stories, sometimes factual and calm, sometimes caught in emotion.

When I rose, I began to tell the group of my grandfather who came to America in the early 1900s. He was the only one who came, leaving behind about 50 family members of his extended family. Virtually all of them died at Treblinka, no record in the Nazis Holocaust records as Treblinka was a death camp. They only kept records of those viewed as worker inventory, good for a few months of labor at best.

I told them of the film I had of the Jewish community of Radom, Poland, a homemade film done in 1937. It captured the community when it still thrived, five years before so many of its Jewish residents were murdered. In the film they were still light-hearted, playful as a former resident filmed them circling through the streets of their community. When I watch the film I watch for men who resemble my grandfather. Several of his brothers remained in the town.

Then I told them of the one person with whom I felt a special connection. Her name was Szajndla Wajnberg . She was a second cousin. We share the same great-grandparents. She was 19 years old in 1941 when the Nazis required her to file an identity paper. She was a beautiful young girl. Her photograph is in a circle and feels more like a keepsake one might give a boyfriend than a record for the Nazis. She was murdered the following year. We often use euphemisms. We say "she perished" as if the event that caused her death was remote, detached, rather than an act of aggression.

Our common great-grandmother was named Szajndla also. She died in 1920 and her great-granddaughter was named after her a few years later. Had I been born in Poland, my name, Susan, would more likely have been Szajndla. An accident of timing and birth meant my father was born on this side of the Atlantic, his cousin on the other. I took the hand of the person next to me.

*The Jewish Artists’ Laboratory is an arts initiative through the Sabes Jewish Community Center featuring 17 artists exploring the theme of Text/Context/Subtext through study and art making. The project is funded through The Covenant Foundation and similar projects are being done in both Milwaukee and Madison. Artists explore how the theme of Text/Context/Subtext is relevant to Jews and non-Jews, to religious and non-religious, to the community and to the individual, to the artist and the non-artist.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Blowing Kisses

I touch bases with my mother daily and today I hung up the phone chuckling.  "I just blew your Dad a kiss", she had said.  "Huh?" I replied.  My father passed away early last year and my mother now marvels that she never imagined she would live an entire year on her own, with a cat no less. She never had a cat before and is as mystified at the connection she feels for this furry creature as the fact that she is managing without my father.

She now hastened to add that my dad's picture had just come up on her picture screen and it was an old one of which she was quite fond, hence the kiss.

My mother is 86 and I am afraid it is too late to introduce her to a computer.  We have, however, often wished we could easily share pictures with her.  When a friend mentioned the Pix-star to me I was intrigued. It is like a digital picture frame, but with some unusual features.  It allows anyone to email pictures to the device.  They then come up automatically on the screen.

Unlike a traditional digital picture frame where someone needs to manage the card, this can be managed from afar and operates via Internet in addition to supporting a SD card. An email with a picture as an attachment is all that is required and multiple people can add to it.  A password enables one to go in and see what is on the device and organize it into folders if you wish or take some pictures off.

The one drawback is that you need an Internet connection and a person who is not computer literate may not have one.  In this case I installed wireless because it made it easier for both my sister and me when we spent time with my mother.  I wanted to make sure she got the benefit of it as well through pictures.

She is amazed when new pictures suddenly appear.  It is like magic.  She looks up as she eats breakfast and there are images of her recent visit with her great-grandson. How did they get into there she asks? She recalls how amazed her immigrant mother was at her world.  Now she often feels like her as she observes ours.  I confide to her that sometimes I'm amazed too.

When I last visited I used my mouse scanner to scan some of her old pictures and added those as well.  For elders whose memories are beginning to flag, it provides a way to keep the important people in their life visible and to remind them of special memories that they share with family members.  Sometimes I'll ask her to describe the pictures and we reminisce together about shared experiences.

When we first installed it my sister sent a message saying not to send more pictures of our late father as it made my mom sad.  A short time later she said to ignore that earlier instruction as my mom decided she liked them.  And now she’s blowing him kisses.