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.

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