On June 11, 1989, correspondent Martin Weyl ran a lengthy piece in the New York Times entitled “How do Museums Speak the Unspeakable?” More than a survey of the then 19 Holocaust museums,
48 resource centers, 34 archival facilities, 12 memorials and 26 research institutes was a nagging question about the Holocaust and Art. Weyl and others were basically asking if Holocaust Art is even possible or does it somehow always trivialize the Shoah. This is not to say that photographs, records and artifacts do not provide necessary documentation, but rather a philosophical concern that the Holocaust was so vast and so horrible that no human artist could possibly and authentically represent the horror that was the Holocaust. Around that time, I had commissioned a Holocaust ballet for my Binghamton synagogue.
An angry survivor called me and told me I was trivializing his personal experience and desecrating the memory of the murdered members of his family. After the performance of the ballet, he quietly told me he found it surprisingly moving and appropriate.
The question of interpretative Holocaust art is serious and important. No one of good faith wants to trivialize the Shoah but rather find new, creative means to encounter the scope and depth of the worst human catastrophe in history. Indeed, I would say the opposite. If you believe in the possibility and power of art, then there must be Holocaust art, that artists who dare, must take on this encounter for themselves and for us.
Fortunately, the Temple Judea Museum, its indefatigable Director, Rita Rosen Poley and Guest Curator, Lise Marlowe, have found a graceful, meaningful and engaging way to interpret the Holocaust artistically as well as provide documentation, all in the confines of our museum space here at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. “Journey into Darkness, Heal with the Beauty of Life,” our first collaboration with Philadelphia’s Holocaust Awareness Museum and Education Center or HAMEC (located on the second floor of this building) is particularly effective. I urge you to view it patiently and slowly to take in its presentations, structure and messages.
The key to “Journey into Darkness…” is the apposition of the dark imagery of the late artist Frank Root with the bright post-impressionistic paintings of the late Harry Somers. Together they make the darkness of the Holocaust darker and the light of life brighter. It is a unique and uniquely successful answer to the question of whether or not there can be authentic artistic interpretations of the Holocaust. The answer is “yes” and the proof is here, right in front of your eyes.
This exhibition is also graced with Holocaust documentation in the form of appropriate original ephemera, photographs, Nazi propaganda, novel art such as Danny Campbell’s sculptural diorama of the subjugation of three Jews by Nazi guards and a piece of surreal Holocaust art by famed painter, Samuel Bak. The ensemble fits to together perfectly, challenges the viewer to the horror beyond the art and inspires us to continue to believe in art and life. Visiting this exhibition is a special experience which will deeply move you and carry you deep into the competing realms of darkness and light.
Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D., Senior Rabbi
Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, Elkins Park, PA