Shoah Stands For Catastrophe

Work makes you free
The Quest For Meaning After The Shoah

by Mary B. Hagerty

Dr. Mary B. Hagerty is assistant professor of History and Political Science, Iona College. She holds the BS degree from Cornell University and the MA and PhD degrees from the State University of New York at Albany.

We live in "dark times" in the words of Hannah Arendt. The technologies of mass communication have made us a little less literate then generations preceding us, and a lot more dependant on visual and auditory messages. Our history is revealed mostly in the form of written narratives, supplemented by photographs, audio-visual documentaries, and artifacts that withstand the ravages of time. The history of the two World Wars of the twentieth century are recorded in every conceivable medium, yet many of us in the dawn of the twenty-first century are unaware of the history of only a few generations before us. History is the multi-lingual story of who we are as human beings, how we adapt to changing environments, interact within out own and in relation to differing cultures, a record in writing and artifacts of some of the most wondrous and horrifying deeds that shape our understanding of ourselves as individuals and social-political beings.

The history of the Holocaust (Shoah - Heb. Ha-Shoah השואה = Catastrophe) has been told most poignantly by the survivors. The larger story of sacrifice of many million lives, on the basis of unique cultural or religious traditions distinct from the majority Christian culture of Europe, has all the elements and symbolism of the most profound and sacred tragic drama. The hero of the ancient Greek tragedy is a person of noble stature who loses everything, but yet returns, transformed, in a kind of death-in-life and resurrection. He or she bears unbearable or excessive sufferings. In religious lore, the story of Job has all the marks of profound and redemptive tragedy.

The Holocaust was not a narrative of fiction, however. Like other accounts of wholesale civilian casualties—Stalin's reign of terror and labor camps, Mao's liquidation of intellectuals and the bourgeoisie, the massive fire bombings of cities by the Allies, and ultimately the use of nuclear weapons by the United States—Nazi Germany's assembly line civilian killing techniques are another facet of a collective global horror. But what makes the Holocaust stand out most egregiously was the magnitude of human slaughter [on an industrial scale] and the collective impact on European Jewish culture. "History is a nightmare from which I am still trying to awake," wrote James Joyce.

deported Jewish children
Historians offer differing interpretations of the massive genocide. Some blame the institutionalized racism of Nazi political leadership. Ordinary Germans were ignorant or otherwise silenced by a fear for their own lives under the terror tactics of a totalitarian state. Others locate the fault in the widespread indifference of the general population. Hannah Arendt faced severe censure for suggesting that European Jewish communities were partly at fault for not engaging in the political realm and maintaining optimism in the face of ominous portents. Survivor Elie Wiesel portrays a veil of illusion clouding the perceptions of the character of his father in his autobiographical narrative, Night [Kinkazzo owns an autographed copy, handed to him by Wiesel himself!].

No matter how hard we struggle to interpret the most disturbing history of our time, the fact is that some individuals did respond. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat to Hungary and witness to the round-ups and deportations of Hungarian Jews, gathered and doctored passports which saved as many as 100,000 from the death camps. Jaap Penraat of Amsterdam used his father's print shop to make fake identification cards for friends, neighbors, anyone whose "crime was being Jewish." He risked his life going undercover and masterminding an underground escape route for Dutch Jews into France. Taking a stand against armed soldiers required great courage, cunning (in outwitting the enemy at his own game), and quick action (for time was of the essence in saving lives). The individuals who took a stand against the blatant human rights abuses of their neighbors were warriors on the behalf of humanity. What defined them was not the nationality or partisanship of religion, but their human instinct to protect threatened lives.

CLICK to go to Shoah Memorial Website
Those who saw and acted to counter cruelty on such a massively vindictive scale are heroes of courageous action. There are also heroes of spiritual action—the millions who died, their untold sacrifices, the "deaths of the great army of unknown and unrecorded victims" in whose name Viktor Frankl wrote. The survivors bearing witness, plumbing the depths of horror, rebirthing themselves and all of humanity in the process by transforming themselves into creators and meaning-makers are more than heroes. Because a threshold was crossed in the Holocaust, a void of eloquent destruction and mute meaningless exposed, the effect on the individual and collective psyche is like a black hole, absorbing all light and sense morally and intellectually. The survivors who have returned with messages of profound insight (Viktor Frankl), paintings or poetry that makes the tragedy and its transcendence palpable (Alice Lok Cahana), novels that place the reader in the body and psyche of a stripped and depersonalized parish, a God-lover whose God of old is suddenly dead (Elie Wiesel), bring also cinders of light and new life after the scourge of humanity's collective soul. The survivors who became master creators in spite of the destruction they lived and witnessed are like prophets in our "dark times."

In a poem, the artist survivor Alice Lok Cahana wrote: "The shadows in the dark question me: Are you defeated? I answer—Oh no! Not me! ...And you who got life instead, What will you do with the memories of that long night?" The paintings of Cahana commemorate the victims and the events of the Holocaust in a kind of graphic counterpart to Dante's journey through the realms of hell, and like Dante, she emerges from the underworld and ultimately discovers a path that transcends time altogether. She was only 15 years of age when her family was uprooted from their home in Hungary and decimated in Auschwitz. The sole survivor in her family of the "selection" process (her father was saved earlier by the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg), she moved to Sweden where she began to study art, and then emigrated to the United States where she studied at the University of Houston and Rice University.

Cahana: Empty Window
More than three decades later, as a woman in middle age, she returned to her hometown in Hungary and was shaken, not as much by her memories as by her discovery that there was no memorial, not even a trace, of the entire community of Jews who disappeared on that fateful June day. Her art form and her mission as an artist changed in response to her renewed encounter with the dead. Her paintings from this point on would be creations commemorating all of the forgotten slain. Cahana's paintings revisit the realm of great sorrows, making the Shoah, the human catastrophe and Great Haunting, a lived experience, transforming viewer into a participant.

In "No Exit," numbers and letters in luminous yellows and whites float in the darkness. In the mystical tradition of the ancient Kabbalah, numbers and letters are the link between the unknowable Creator and the palpable, sensual world we inhabit. The victims of the work camps, gas chambers and crematories were first depersonalized, reduced to branded numbers and letters. Here Cahana transforms the horror into a numinous realm. Parts of upper body torsos, the color of bone, are visible in the darkness. Flashes of red—blood red—transform the spectator into a participant. In the trauma of dying and death inside the gas chamber, the specters are faceless and lungless, their silence suffocating. In the awesome silence, I can almost hear my own heart beat, a collective heartbeat, and it is slowly fading away.

Cahana: 1940-1945, II, Detail
In the second piece of triptych "1940-1944," a photo of a large community stands outside the sun, framed by a tree that is black and gnarled. No new shoots adorn its limbs. All about the community and the haunting tree are charred pages of literature, disconnected from a central bookbinding but yet surviving time—random pages surviving the burning books like random lives during the Shoah. Later that day I see a shadow cast by a tree shorn of all its leaves and recognize the form of the shadow framing the doomed community. The shadows, realm of the shades, are also metaphors of souls. Really good art changes the way that we see. And feel. The dark shroud of black voiceless horror that is the Holocaust has now become a community of faces and people I recognize and feel I know. My heart feels heavy; there's a weight on my throat.

What is the significance of the pages charred around the edges by the fire but not destroyed? The artist's perceptions and her works give clues here. "One of the greatest archaeological findings of the 20th century," she claimed, "is the finding of the Dead Sea scrolls in 1947, in the Qumran cave in the vicinity of the Dead Sea in Israel," These hand-written parchment scrolls—transmitting ancient Jewish cultures and traditions from generation to generation perhaps several centuries—survived the passage of time for over two millennia and they were accidentally discovered only two years after the end of the Holocaust! Cahana's paintings of the parchment scrolls symbolizing "multi-spiritual ideas of the genesis of Jewish culture and the colorful esthetic" of expression leads us out of her graphic images of the Inferno.

From Bosch, A Hell of an Inferno
The dark tree, shorn of its leaves, deprives of new shoots, returns as a symbol of what still stands, rooted in the earth and aspiring to the heavens. The tree might represent what endures, collective creations of human cultures and traditions. Even in the midst of hell, young women joined Alice Lok Cahana in the latrines of Auschwitz to sing a traditional song on the eve of the Sabbath, Shalom Aleichem (Peace be to you, O ministering angels, Messenger of the Most High) ..."and the angels' shielding wings enveloped the voices and carries it beyond time and place," the artist-mystic reflected. Songs that connect prayers in a shared art form and common breath, art that recreates the broken shards of fragmented memories into a collectively shared experience, scrolls that unfurl like conversations with all generations preceding us and rituals connect our existence in time with a timeless realm—all adorn the tree of life, the backbone of our common humanity, in a recurring rebirth of dawn after the darkest night.

Cahana has emerged from the depths of darkness, as her paintings trace her journey out of the darkness into light. "Art must have a message of the transcendence of the human spirit over inhumane evil and hate," she said. Cahana's work is a bold journey into the mystery of the human soul that issues in a triumphant affirmation of life.

Cahana: Where Are Our Brothers?
...the rekindling of the Jewish spirit after the Holocaust should be remembered in the way we remember Passover... My work cannot end with the Holocaust, but with the images of freedom and hope... the survival of the human spirit. ~Alice Lok Cahana

December 2001

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