Monday, April 12, 2010

Yom HaShoah

Yesterday I went to two events for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust remembrance day). My synagogue, Temple Beth El of Ithaca, hosted a speaker, Professor Marc Dennis (who teaches art at Elmira College). The topic of his presentation was "Under the Floorboards – Hidden Art from the Holocaust." (The image at left is one that he showed; it is a drawing by Josef Szajna, “Waiting to be Called for Execution," 1944, Buchenwald, pencil on paper, 8 x 12).

To quote from the Temple website:
Inmates of concentration camps made thousands of clandestine drawings and paintings. In fact some 5,000 drawings and paintings survived the war – each one revealing a human dimension – providing us with a rare glimpse of the daily existence in the camps.... It reveals the little-known work of artists who left expressive evidence of what they witnessed. Mr. Dennis states, "We cannot understand it and appreciate it say in the same way we might a Rembrandt…. Victims of the Holocaust risked their lives to make art so that others may understand what they had to endure. There are very few situations where so much art can offer this unique perspective on history. It should always be a priority to study how others have suffered and survived, sacrificed and endured, and left their creative mark on history." Marc Dennis is an award winning professor and nationally recognized artist and Holocaust researcher. He teaches drawing, painting and digital imaging, as well as a course on the history of the Holocaust with a specific focus on the art of Europe from 1933-1945.
In the evening, I went to a staged reading of the play "Kindertransport," written by Diane Samuels. It was performed by On the Verge, a joint effort by the English and Theater Departments at Ithaca College, which puts on staged readings once or twice a year. The New York Times review of the performance in New York City in 1994 said of the play:
Yet another investigation of the Holocaust and its continuing reverberations, "Kindertransport," which opened last night, approaches the subject from the unusual perspective of a child who escaped the immediate horrors but paid a heavy price anyway. Kindertransport was the plan formed in 1938, in reaction to Kristallnacht and the rising Nazi threat, to evacuate children from Germany and Eastern Europe. Before World War II erupted, nearly 10,000 youngsters, most of them Jewish, had made it to England.

Ms. Samuels, an Englishwoman, has set her play in the attic of a suburban London house in the 1980's. Evelyn (Dana Ivey), a brusque middle-aged housewife, and her daughter, Faith (Mary Mara), are sorting through the cardboard boxes and steamer trunks. Theirs is a touchy relationship, although we're not to find out why for a while, and the air is charged with animosity.

At the same time, in a series of flashbacks, we follow the progress of Eva, a frightened 9-year-old Jewish girl (Alanna Ubach). Tagged like a piece of luggage, she leaves her mother in Hamburg and travels to England, where the well-meaning Lil (Patricia Kilgarriff) takes over her upbringing. Little by little, the distraught child grows into a reserved young woman. Her accent fades. And so, presumably, do the old traumas.
The performance was excellent, I thought - even though the actors had only rehearsed twice, they did very well, and I found it moving.

When I got home from the performance, I watched the latest staging of the life of Anne Frank, produced in Britain and broadcast on Masterpiece Theater (PBS). The show had the same effect that the story always does on me - it makes the life of Anne Frank vivid and real, and then at the end we discover what happened to her - she died in Bergen Belsen only two months before the war ended.

Tonight I'll be watching another PBS production - Among the Righteous: Lost Stories from the Holocaust in Arab Lands. From the website:
Did any Arabs save Jews during the Holocaust? That's the question author Robert Satloff had in mind when he set out to discover the lost, true stories of survival, courage and betrayal in Arab lands during World War II. The history of the Holocaust in Europe is well-documented, but the history of what happened to the Jewish people of North Africa has been mostly forgotten, even in the very towns and cities where it occurred. The truth is remarkable: not only did Jews in Arab lands suffer many of the same elements of persecution as Jews in Europe -- arrests, deportations, confiscations and forced labor -- but there were also hopeful stories of "righteous" Arabs reaching out to protect them.
I'm glad that this film has been made - most American Jews (or for that matter, American non-Jews) don't know anything about what happened to the Jews in North Africa during WWII. I think it's important for people to know this history, so that they don't imagine the Holocaust was simply a European story. If the Germans had succeeded in holding North Africa and then conquering Palestine, the Jews there would also have been killed like those in Europe. (The Nazi advance towards Egypt was halted at the first battle of El Alamein in July, 1942; the second battle of El Alamein in October-November 1942 was the first significant Allied victory against Axis forces and the beginning of the retaking of North Africa). We can see from how thoroughly the Nazis killed the Sephardic Jews of Greece, the Greek islands, and the Balkans, how they would also have killed the Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews.

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