Sunday, May 19, 2013

They Walked Together

After returning from the Artist Lab* my overly active brain often goes into overdrive. I was thinking of yet another painting I could do for the exhibition, an idea I had put on the back burner, but of which I was recently reminded. Of course I kicked into gear at 2AM and reached for my iPad to sketch out an image. Sometimes I'm not sure whether to celebrate an idea or mourn sleep.

I had originally been thinking of another direction for my painting. Then at the last Artist Lab we talked about negative space and I began to think about representing a story in a more simplified manner than I typically paint, leaving more to the viewer's imagination. The story I had in mind was one from my dear friend Dvora. She and I had talked about me painting some of her stories from during the Holocaust and last week she reminded me of that discussion.

After the Artists' Lab discussion of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice Isaac, I realized I had a story with some symmetry. We were asked to imagine Abraham's torment upon being asked to sacrifice his child. The limited text allowed each person to reflect on the strength of that bond in their own life and what the prospect of severing that connection would feel like. Dvora's story speaks to sacrifice, the strength of that bond between parent and child and how a proposed sacrifice averted death, all elements in the original biblical story, no less dramatic but arranged in a fashion that feels more comprehensible.

The most pivotal relationship in Dvora's life during the war was with her mother. They were together in the ghetto, in Auschwitz and in Bergen Belsen. Dvora has told her stories many times and is often quite matter of fact, except when she speaks of her mother. Then her voice quivers, tears catch in her throat and she is visibly moved. Her mother died a few years after the war, a huge blow for Dvora. She would not have survived had it not been for her mother, for on many occasions her mother took decisive action to save her life.

The story Dvora told me was about a death march. When they set out they were given three objects, a loaf of bread, a blanket and a can which she recalled had a picture of a chicken on it. The road was soon littered with cans as they had no way to open them. They tied the blanket around their neck and soon found that it felt like a noose. They shifted it from first one shoulder, then the other. The bread they guarded, saving a portion, not knowing for how long it was to last.

They walked for miles, everyone in a weakened state. The road once littered with cans was soon littered with bodies for if you sat down you got a bullet in the back of your head. Dvora, exhausted, asked a guard when they would stop. He motioned to lights ahead at a village as their destination. With that hope she pushed onward. But when they reached the village, they continued on.

With no energy remaining, Dvora began to contemplate the appeal of a bullet in the head. She turned to her mother and said she was going to sit down. Her mother and several other women tried to dissuade her for they all knew it meant instant death. Finally unable to dissuade her, her mother said, "All right, we'll sit down together." "Not youuu!" Dvora replied. While she could contemplate her own death, the threat of her mother sacrificing her life along with hers allowed her to summon the strength to carry on.

There is an odd parallel to the story of Abraham and Isaac. In each case the threat of death loomed, a parent contemplates the loss of their child and a sacrifice is proposed. It was only when sacrifice was offered that death was averted, sacrifice waived. There is also a paucity of detail in this story, a distillation to essential facts. The three objects create imagery for the story - can, blanket, bread. A path littered with cans, then bodies. In the story of Abraham and Isaac there were also three items, the wood, the firestone and the knife. In the narrative I was struck by the phrase, they walked together, true in both stories in both a literal and figurative sense. What happened to one, also happened to the other. For Dvora and her mother who had survived the whole war together, the only certainty was that they would act together.

I knew how I would paint this. A face partially hidden, a blanket tugging like a noose, the road with cans fading into the distance, hands cradling bread, and an arm reaching around cradling Dvora, her mother's hands holding her upright. The trees echo the uniforms of the concentration camps and instead of bodies, stones memorialize those who fell.

*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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