In April of 2016 I attended the Saskatoon Holocaust Memorial service for the first time in several years. As survivor Nate Leipciger spoke of his horrifying experiences in a Nazi death camp, and his ongoing courage and survival, I was, as always, astounded by the extent of abuse the human spirit can endure. Researchers in psychology and sociology are noting connections between the experiences of Jewish holocaust survivors and Canadian residential school survivors. The struggles and generational suffering of the Jewish people seems to be echoed by the experiences of Indigenous children in the residential school system. Indian Affairs Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott, in 1910, called residential schools “The Final Solution,” preceding Hitler’s similar pronouncement regarding the “Jewish problem.” Both had their hair cut off and were assigned numbers as a means of dehumanizing and “othering”. There has been communication between the two groups of survivors around strategies of survival and healing. Holocaust survivor Robert Waisman, who meets with Indigenous people about his concentration camp experience, speaks of “a sacred duty and responsibility” toward helping residential school survivors heal. He states, “we cannot, and we should not, compare sufferings. Each suffering is unique…I don’t compare my sufferings or the holocaust to what happened in residential schools. We did it [survived] – so can you.” Both Indigenous survivors and Jewish survivors speak of a solidarity that has grown out of the shared experience of abuse and attempted genocide.
Holocaust survivors are becoming elderly and dying. There will soon be no first-hand accounts of these atrocities. As a Jewish person, after hearing Nate speak, I felt I needed to preserve the experience of encountering a face that has endured and survived such horrendous mistreatment. As a portrait painter, portraiture is the methodology through which I can offer the strongest statement. Through portraits of individual survivors, I intend to create a silent dialogue between Jewish survivors and Indigenous survivors. The painted portrait is a true meeting of two subjectivities, requiring a commitment of time and engagement unique to the process. Through sketching/photographing/interview sessions with very generous survivors who expressed willingness to collaborate on this project, I have compiled the information and inspiration I needed to complete a series of eighteen portraits; eighteen being the number that, in the Hebrew tradition, represents the word “chai” which means “life”. The subjects with whom I have met spoke so honestly and poignantly that their words have become part of some of the pieces. The title is inspired by the proverb: “They buried us…they didn’t know we were seeds.”
Portraiture requires a series of direct, intimate interpersonal interactions, and a deeply-rooted interest in people. The intensity of the artist/subject gaze is akin to that of lovers, or of a mother and child. It’s an artificial situation that paradoxically allows for authentic connection. Life experience begins with that first gaze between caretaker and infant. As our gaze widens to include others we encounter, it eventually encompasses all of our social engagement. When distilled, our politics, our culture, our social system, can be reduced to the simple dialogue between one face and another. After years of portrait painting it’s become apparent to me that the essence of a person reveals itself through the nuances of line and colour in one’s face. After a relatively short period of interaction, for most people, the face reveals all. A well-done portrait has the potential to be a unique record of the sum of an individual’s experience, offering the opportunity for some form of engagement with that person, even in their absence. My hope is that this work will give viewers a chance to encounter a survivor they may never meet in person. Histories of racism and abuse are still an abstract for many who are distanced from the marginalized and disenfranchised. As numbers of holocaust survivors dwindle, and in anticipation of the same eventual loss of first-hand accounts from residential school survivors, we need to find very personal ways of making sure we remember.
This project explores trauma, ongoing recovery, shared pain, courage, and the indomitable human spirit, as well as an enduring hope for compassion.
*I would like to gratefully acknowledge the Saskatchewan Foundation of the Arts for their generous support of this project.