Holocaust Art Exhibit

            August 2012    
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holocaust exhibit
Dead Class - courtesy of the Israel Museum


Fighting for the Wrong Side

By Jay Levinson

How does one confront the past? Not everyone has joyful memories of a pleasant childhood and positive adolescent years. Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) grew up to realize that the younger years of his life were not a source of pride. He was a member of Hitler Youth, then volunteer for the Nazi Luftwaffe. Finally he was sent as a German soldier to the Western Front. After the war he realized the atrocities of Nazi rule and tried to redefine himself His medium was art.

Tadeusz Kantor (1915-1990) grew up in Poland. Much detail of his early years is cloudy, but from sources it appears that he was raised by an anti-Semitic father in a nominally Catholic household. During Nazi occupation of Poland he was involved with the Independent Theatre in Krakow. To what extent did he cooperate with the Germans? History laves many questions unanswered. In any event after World War II it is clear that he was bothered by German ideals and sought a new relationship of Pole-German-Jew in a new world order. He was bothered by the past. His medium of expression was also art in its widest definition, from drawings to theatre.

Neither Beuys not Kantor is an historian. Their purpose is not to document the past in all of its detail. Their work is an expression of conscience in the greater context of “Remembering,” the title of an exhibition of their works that has opened at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Some of their works depict faces of the past, the visages of people fearful of an uncertain future. Did Beuys actually see these faces which he tried to depict in film, or are they a summary of his feelings of the past? It is certain that they represent his feelings of the German past. Another of his creations is a skeleton in the sand, again conjuring up images of the past. The “Annihilation Machine” is not real “machine” as drawn by Kantor. It is not an engineer’s sketch of Nazi death camps. It is, however, an artist’s fanciful depiction of annihilation and the recognition by the artist of Nazi atrocities.

One of the most moving items in this exhibit at the Israel Museum consists of a movie, The Dead Class (La Classe Morte) (1989), in which Kantor is both author and actor. There is also a display of “The Class” used as a prop in the film. The film is thought provoking. An entire generation of school children is dead. They were taught, but it was like teaching the dead. They had no future. Yet, they were taught anyway. It is Kantor’s way of confronting the past in Poland and trying to come to grips with his past.

The exhibit was opened by the Director of the Israel Museum, the Ambassador of Germany, and the Ambassador-Designate of Poland. Both foreign diplomats were very candid in their own reconciliation with the past, even though both were born after the war or were mere toddlers. Andreas Michaelis representing Germany was clear, “History has shown us we cannot stop asking questions.” In listening to him speak, one has the feeling that he, too, does not really understand what happened to his country in the Nazi era. Jacek Chodorowicz stressed the post-war need to redefine relationships in a new reality.

One of the most moving statements is in a movie by Kantor, “They will trample us, and nothing will remain.” People were trampled and obliterated, but it is through people like Beuys and Kantor that their memories remain and the consciences of those involved do not rest.


from the August 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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