Art and Catastrophe
Life must be lived forward, but can only be understood looking backward. -Søren Kierkegaard
I am looking backward, now, to see what I can understand better–and I see a series of repetitions.
The Terezín Series | 1995-2007
I CAME TO ART late in life, and untrained, when my mother came to live with my husband and me. Both she and my father were Holocaust survivors. I abhorred the idea that my mother should end her life in an institutional setting, having survived four concentration camps. I had promised her that she would not go in a “Heim”, so she was with us for over five years before her death. She died peacefully, in her own bed, as she had wished, like her grandfather, Sigmund Brand, had, in Kromeriz, Moravia. Creating images around the historical themes of her life was a way to honor her and her experience as a Holocaust survivor, and to work with my demons as her daughter. Art opened important doors of communication between us as she approached the end of her life.
My Family: shattered stories
My mother, Klara (Löffova) Zimmer, spent over two years in Czechoslovakia’s Terezín Ghetto. Terezín was unique among the Nazi concentration camps for the organized cultural life that its prisoners pursued, which the Nazis tolerated for propaganda purposes. Apart from Verdi’s Requiem, Krasa’s children’s opera, Brundibar, and the folk play Esther, survivors have said that the most memorable and stirring artistic event was the premiere of Smetana’s Bartered Bride, the iconic Czech national opera. My mother was one of the singers in an inmate production of the second act of Aida. In her life story, she describes how this engagement with music helped her to forget her dreadful circumstances, if only for a brief time.
My mother’s first husband was Dr. Alfred Löff. They were newly married in 1939, but had been together since 1929. He was a pediatrician, and they had wanted to wait until he was established before marrying. They had just finished building their house in Kromeriz as the occupation began. They were deported together to Terezín in 1942. Alfred went to Auschwitz with a transport of children in September, 1944, and was not seen again. My mother went on the following transport, hoping to find him.
My father, Josef Zimmer, was first married to Kitty Thieben. They had one daughter, my half-sister, Marketa, called Ritta. Before the war, my father was an executive with a national refrigeration company in Prague. When the Gestapo came into Prague in 1939, they picked him up from his office in a Mercedes, with swastikas flying, to have him “consult” on the installation of a refrigerator system at their headquarters. They never figured out he was a Jew, and heiled him at the end of the appointment. He had nerves of steel–before Auschwitz. My father, Kitty, and Ritta were deported to Terezín in 1942. Ritta was among the children who took part art classes taught by the Austrian artist, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis. My father went to Auschwitz in June of 1944, responding to a call for “volunteers” who were to build a new family camp, where he thought his family would be safer. Of course, this was a deception and a fraud, which he realized on arrival at Auschwitz. After the war, my father returned to Terezín, hoping to find his wife and daughter alive, but they were gone. Ritta, Kitty, and Mme Brandeis were on the same transport to Auschwitz, on October 6, 1944. They were gassed upon arrival. Ritta’s drawings survived, and are in the possession of the Jewish Museum in Prague.
After the war, my father returned to Prague. My mother returned to her hometown, Kromeriz, but left for Prague after it became clear that her husband, and the rest of her family, were not coming back. My parents met and married in Prague. I was born there in 1946. In December, 1948, my family immigrated to Montreal. My father found work, at first, selling dishes door to door in the dead of winter, and later, as a refrigerator repairman. In about 1950, he started to work for Villeroy & Boch, and built a showroom for dishes and floor and wall tile. When he decided to retire to California, the Von Bochs bought out his contract. We always thought they were generous with him because they knew he was a survivor, but I don’t think they spoke of it.
In about 1981, after much pushing from me, my father wrote a manuscript of his life story. He died in 1984, at the age of 86. Many of my earlier pieces reflect my need to ‘make a mark’ on behalf of both of my parents, to tell their individual stories. I created monotypes that incorporated fragments of my sister’s drawings, historical family documents, and my parents’ handwritten life stories.
Family Artifacts: drawings, letters, and life stories
Art: confronting horror, honoring memory
“This Are Our People, and We Are Theirs” is a monotype with a fragment of one of my sister’s drawings, and my mother’s description of a stop in the Czech town of Plana during the cattle car trip from the Flossenberg/Freiberg concentration camp to Mauthausen, where she was liberated by the Americans in May, 1945. It incorporates a fragment of one of Ritta’s drawings, of a child in a boat with the Czech flag, made in Terezín, and an excerpt from my mother’s life manuscript. Some historians, like my friend, Michael Düsing, and author Wendy Holden, now believe the stop was made in Horny Břiza, rather than Plana.
“Vystup,” a monotype with chine collé, includes an altered photograph of my father and Ritta, walking in Prague in 1937, as well as a family document showing my father’s failed attempt to leave the Jewish religion in 1939. The date on the document is so close to March 15, when Hitler came in, that I wondered if he was trying, even then, to save his family from what was coming. He later described this “decision” as a result of a conflict over past due taxes to the Jewish Community in Prague, which he had refused to pay. This image resides in the collection of Simona Sternova and Vaclav Pumpr, Prague. Simona is the older daughter of my father’s best friend, Karel Stern. Karel, his brother Jirka (George), and my father were together on the death march from Auschwitz to Gleiwitz, in early 1945. The three remained best friends for life.
In his life story, my father did not often write directly of his feelings. Instead, he made simple declarations: “Nobody knew when his time will come” or “There were no happy days, or even moments in the ghetto. There were only quiet moments, between transports.”
In 2007, I was invited to exhibit my work at the Prague Jewish Museum and the Terezín Ghetto Museum in the Czech Republic. Because of the profound family connections to the history of the ghetto, and the role of artists and musicians in asserting human values in the depths of an inhuman space, I was honored to be asked to participate.
Much has been written about the nature of the art and music created and performed in Terezín. In her book, The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia, Livia Rothkirchen relates the attitude of composer Victor Ullman, who was later murdered at Auschwitz: “By no means did we sit weeping by the rivers of Babylon; our endeavors in the arts were commensurate with our will to live” (qtd in Rothkirchen 276). Others considered the negative implications of part-taking in the cultural activities, which the Nazis initiated as part of their scheme to deceive the world as to their genocidal intention. Ullmann’s friend, poet H.G. Adler, noted in Verheimlichte Wahrheit, that “the intended deception of [outside] visitors became the self-deception of the prisoners.” (qtd in Rothkirchen 276).
In taking part in the Terezín exhibit, I was mindful of avoiding the notion that art on this subject can, or should ever, claim to be transformative of the experience of victims or survivors. I insisted on the specific in my subject matter. I went to Terezín for my exhibit with a sense of completion, and elation, that has completely unraveled now, ten years later, in light of world events—I feel we are back in 1933.
I had previously been to the ghetto in 1971, with my parents and their best friends, the Sterns. I visited again in 1991, with a reporter from Santa Barbara, while on an environmental consulting trip, and in 2006, with my friend Simona, to arrange for the exhibition. The place is usually enshrouded in fog, and heavy with despair. It was odd to have a cup of tea in the former Gestapo canteen, while waiting for our appointment with the Museum Director. Simona hates to go, and I do not plan to go there again.
Above is a photo that my cousin Peter, who taken to Terezín as an infant, took of one of my monotypes at the exhibit. “Leiber Fritz” includes a 1943 postcard that my mother wrote to Peter’s father, my uncle, Fritz. Fritz, who would be murdered in Bergen-Belsen, was then still free in Bratislava. In her postcard, my mother thanks him for a package they had received with marmalade (which the Germans had stolen), and expressing their joy at hearing from him. She also says that the “Kremsierer” (our family from Kromeriz) had not been heard from. They were deported east on July 27, 1942 and probably perished in Maly Trostinec. I notice now that the date of this postcard is November 22, 1943, only twenty years before the assassination of President Kennedy. That day a seminal event in my life, a few days before my 17th birthday, and the day I lost hope for the future of America.
Terezín Requiem | 2009
In May of 2009, I was invited to present my work in a solo exhibition in connection with the Santa Barbara Choral Society’s performance of Verdi’s Requiem, at the Granada theater in Santa Barbara . The Requiem was performed in conjunction with a commemorative concert in the Czech Republic, and was dedicated to the inmates of the Terezín Ghetto, who had performed this music under inhuman conditions, under the leadership of the courageous Austrian conductor, Rafael Shächter.
Ironically, the opening of the Requiem exhibit was derailed by the Jesusita Fire, in Santa Barbara, and we and the children evacuated our homes.
The fear of wildfire, and losing all my family and possessions had been a primary source of my obsessive anxieties in the last twenty years. We actually spent a calm and happy week, waiting together out at El Capitan Canyon. Once we were all safe there together, I was not afraid of the fire or the losses of possessions. Being together as a family was always my parents’ priority. It was the reason my mother and her first husband did not emigrate to India, or Bolivia (which would have taken them, but not my grandmother), in 1939.
My artwork for the exhibit included, “A Na Troskach Ghetta Budeme se Smat” (On the Ruins of the Ghetto We Will Laugh). In it, I incorporated in the title the words of a song composed by Karel Svenk in Terezín, to honor the strength of the artist’s and the survivor’s spirit. The chine collé element in this monotype is from a 1948 passport photo of my mother, and the handwriting in the background is from my grandmother Elsa (Brand) Kohn’s recipe book. Elsa was forcibly separated from my mother at Auschwitz, and gassed in early October, 1944. She was only 57 years old, but had serious vision problems, which prevented her from working. My mother’s ignorance of the meaning of being directed left or right lasted until the last moment: she tried to rejoin Elsa in the line going toward the gas chambers. This might be a source, if not the source of my extreme anxiety at being separated from my few family members, which goes beyond even the mythic and much maligned Jewish “worry” gene.
Memorials | 2010-2017
In 2010, I participated with two architects (Gale Goldberg and Emma Ramoy) and another visual artist (Barbara Parmet) in entering a Holocaust memorial design competition for the boardwalk in Atlantic City. Our design was based on the fateful journey of the St. Louis–its passengers, denied access to Cuba, then America. It spoke to the refugees refused admittance to this country, the soldiers who liberated the camps, and the immigrants who arrived after the war. Gale, Emma and Barbara and I worked on the design; I found the words. Our design was not selected.
Our intention in this project is to further the work of memory by situating the Holocaust as an occurrence in American history. To do so, the proposed Memorial evokes three aspects of the role of the Ship:
- the refugee ships, such as the ill-fated M.S. St. Louis, whose Jewish passengers were refused a haven in America in 1939
- the troop ships, which transported our soldiers to war and to the searing task of liberating the camps
- the passenger ships, which brought the remnant of survivors to America to begin
Quotations and text which cross-connect these perspectives are stamped on the interior of the hull, providing a focus for contemplation from six rows of meditation benches.
Eighteen, the Hebrew numerical of ‘Life’, is repeated in dimensions of the Memorial design components:
- the highest point of the Ship’s bow,
- the length and height of the meditation benches
- the depth of sea glass stone receptacle/repository. A diverse selection of voices allows this Memorial to stand both as a witness to our collective past and as a barrier to its repetition in other
“And Then They Came for Me” is Facebook profile picture from January 2017. It is a digital collage, using the monotype from 2007 as the background, overlain with an appropriated image from an exhibit that my husband and I attended, in Cesky Krumlov, in 2014. The exhibit addressed the cleansing and deportation of the ethnic Germans from Sudetenland, following the defeat of the Nazis. Suitcases are a favored artifact in museums of memory.
I love my parents’ handwriting. It is so firm, self-controlled. In 2017, when democratic values and human rights are again in terrible peril, I revisited one of Ritta’s images, along with my mother’s manuscript. My oldest friend, Anna, whom my mother had taught to knit after college, cut a page of the manuscript, which we printed on silk tissue into a continuous ball of yarn. “Knitted Lives” is a composite of an altered photo of mother’s yarn-manuscript, and one of Ritta’s drawings from Terezín.
When did the Holocaust end? For my mother, it ended in her mind when she realized she was alone in the world, and decided not to kill herself, and to start a new life with a new family. When she was old, she described it as a terrible time, but fifty years in the past. In contrast, my father said that even forty years afterward, he was “normal” by day, but it came alive every night in his nightmares, when he was back in Auschwitz. For me, the fear of imminent loss has always been present. My father’s nightmares and experiences are imprinted on my nervous system, despite his silence about them.