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Artist Penina Granirer stands beside her paintings at Yad Vashem

The Virtues of Memory: Sixty Decades of Holocaust Survivors’ Creativity exhibit at Yad Vashem


By Pnina Granirer

This article was published in the Vancouver Jewish Independent on June 10, 2010.

Established in 1953 as the world centre for documentation, research, education and commemoration of the Holocaust, Israel’s Yad Vashem safeguards the memory of the past and works to impart meaning for future generations.

I have recently returned from Israel after attending the opening of Virtues of Memory: Sixty Decades of Holocaust Survivors’ Creativity, an exhibit that opened on April 12, the commemoration day of the Holocaust. I was honoured to have my work, “Out of the   Flames,” included in this exhibition, which is the first of its kind to be shown from the collection of 10,000 artworks at Yad  Vashem. These works by artists who survived the Nazi inferno and whose personal testimony in graphic form will last forever is a  powerful way to fulfill the Passover Haggadah’s instruction, “And  you shall tell it to your children.”

In curator Yehudit Shendar’s words, “Virtues of Memory opens up this collection of artistic expression, enabling those who were not  there to touch upon a reality from its visual aspects. It presents  a powerful language of signs and symbols stemming from the necessity that pushes those who seek to remember to delve into the 
depths of memory, unvarnished and unadorned. It is not an effort to recreate reality, rather, it is reality itself, both external and internal, daubed in the hues of personal experience.”

Having my work included in this exhibit is one of the most  meaningful events of my career as an artist, and so it was with  great trepidation and emotion that I arrived at the museum. I was welcomed by and met with Shendar and Orly Nachmani, the assistant  curator with whom I had been corresponding and who made sure I   received an exhibition catalogue. What an impressive document it is - a well-researched, heavy book of 660 pages, curatorial  statements and two pages each for the 300 artists.

As we entered the large exhibition hall, I was stunned to notice that “Out of the Flames” was almost the first painting a visitor  would see, and had been placed in the section titled The Need to  Document. Other works in this section recount the story of the  Holocaust from a personal vantage point, stemming from a wish to  document the historical events.

I had barely entered the hall when I found myself surrounded by my cousins, who came all the way from Haifa, and by friends from Tel Aviv and other parts of Israel, some of whom I had not seen for as many as 20, or even 50 years! I was moved to tears to see them all there, having come from afar to celebrate with me. Here, I would like to share a meaningful detail about my painting. The last panel is centered on a transfer  photograph of my cousin, Gabi, three friends and me, all of us who came “out of the flames” of war to Israel. Gabi was there that 
day, at my side, during the opening of the exhibition.

Over the last six decades, Yad Vashem has steadily collected works  of art relating to the experience of victims and survivors of the  Holocaust, culminating in the establishment of an art museum that cares for and exhibits works from the collection. However, the museum has never attempted an exhibition of such magnitude.

In the introduction to the catalogue, Avner Shalev, chairman of the  directorate of Yad Vashem, wrote: “The compelling intellectual  issue, which has been the impetus for numerous deliberations  regarding the ostensible absence of the moral right to create  artwork after Auschwitz, is ineffective for these artists.... For these survivors-artists, driven by the need to create, repression and silence are impossible. Creation is their means to exist.”

 Virtues of Memory is a very large exhibition, divided into 11  sections. It would take too much space to list them here, but I  will mention that this division adds an important narrative and  cohesion to a display of this size.

As people began to arrive, I noticed that many were looking for the artists and asking questions, sharing their own experiences and  having conversations about the works. By the reactions of the  visitors, I could sense a general feeling of personal involvement  made real through the art on the walls.

After awhile, there were speeches, and photographers, television crews and journalists began interacting with the artists. People approached me asking questions and someone even interviewed me for some television show that I will probably never see. There was a distinct feeling in the air that this exhibition was special, that it had deep meaning for the artists and the viewers alike.

 According to the rigid curatorship rules of today, Virtues of  Memory might be considered an “uneven” exhibit. However, it exudes elements that are rarely seen: a baring of the soul, deep  emotion and a raw, honest and direct truth of life experience. Not  all of the artists featured experienced the horror of the camps,  but they all fit Yad Vashem’s definition of survivor  – any Jew  who came out alive from Europe after Kristallnacht, the pogrom of   the Night of the Broken Glass.

 At the end of the war, the survivors who found themselves in  displaced persons camps in Europe began to draw and paint almost   frenetically, wanting to put down on paper not just words but  images of what they had witnessed. Fearing that their stories about  the hellish camps they had just left would not be believed, they were compelled to depict in visual form what they had seen.

 One of those survivors was Yehuda Bacon, who later became my  teacher at the Bezalel Academy of Art in Jerusalem. At age 13, he was sent with his family to the Terezin ghetto near Prague, and later to Auschwitz, where he was charged with transferring corpses  and ashes. He was liberated on May 6, 1945, after a death march to   Mauthausen. He immediately began drawing sketches of the crematoria  in Auschwitz, some of which were later submitted as evidence in the  Adolf Eichmann trial. Bacon went to Israel in 1946 with the Youth  Aliyah, studied at the Bezalel Academy and later became a teacher there. We – his students – knew vaguely about his past, but he   never spoke of it. His work in the exhibition is dated 1948 and  depicts a muselmann, as the emaciated inmates of the camps were  called. His work is included in the section entitled Granting the  Body an Image.

 In contrast, Jacob Pins, who taught me woodblock prints, belongs to those who managed to leave Europe before the outbreak of the war.  His parents, who stayed in Germany, were murdered by the Nazis in the Riga Ghetto. Pins gave me the knowledge that made possible many of the woodblock prints I have produced as an artist, some of which   are now in collections of public galleries and museums in Canada. His woodblock print in the Virtues of Memory exhibition is dated 1946.

The echoes of the Holocaust still reverberate across the decades, as seen in the works in Virtues of Memory, stretching over a time span from the end of the war in 1945 and up until 2008. Many of the  artists have passed away and the others are not young anymore. In  the not too distant future, none will be left to talk about their  experiences, but their art will continue to speak loud and clear. This is what makes Virtues of Memory an important and timely exhibition.

When it was time to leave, I realized that I had not really been  able to see everything, since I had been too busy talking with all the friends and relatives who honored me with their presence. We  returned to Yad Vashem the next day and spent a long time in the exhibition space. After that, we went into the amazing building designed by Moshe Safdie that houses the historical Museum of the  Holocaust, one of the most overwhelming, difficult and horrific  documents of the Shoah. Now, having seen it again, I had a much better understanding of the importance and lasting value of the  exhibit.

Virtues of Memory will be on display at the art museum of Yad Vashem until April 2011. Visit and click on the exhibitions navigation link to view information on the exhibit.

Pnina Granirer is an artist living in Vancouver.

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