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 efforts to educate and shed light on the atrocities, I was, as always, astounded by the extent of abuse the human spirit can endure. Researchers in psychology and sociology have noted connections between the experiences of Jewish holocaust survivors and residential school survivors in Canada. The struggles and generational trauma of Indigenous peoples caused by the residential school experience seems to resonate with Jewish holocaust survivors. Indian Affairs Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott, in 1910, called residential schools “The Final Solution,” preceding Hitler’s similar pronouncement regarding the “Jewish problem.” Hair was cut off and numbers were assigned to dehumanize and “other”. The two groups of survivors have connected around strategies of survival and healing. Holocaust survivor Robert Waisman, who meets with Indigenous survivors 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 forged from the shared need to find ways of healing in the wake of horrendous abuse and attempted literal and cultural genocide.
Holocaust survivors are becoming elderly and dying. Indeed, we have already lost one gentleman who was part of this project. There will soon be no first-hand accounts of these atrocities with which to counter denial. After hearing Nate speak, I felt I needed to somehow honour the memory of these amazing people who endured and survived such horrendous mistreatment. The inclusion of residential school survivors in the project seemed to make sense in light of the connections previously mentioned. I’d also hoped that the act of listening and bearing witness would help me understand that experience a little better and make a small personal step towards reconciliation. As a portrait painter, portraiture is the methodology through which I can offer the strongest statement. Through portraits of individual survivors, I hope 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, and 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. In Hebrew tradition eighteen is the number that represents the word “chai” which means “life”. The subjects with whom I have met spoke so honestly and poignantly that, in some cases, their words have been incorporated into the piece. The project title is inspired by the proverb: “They buried us…they didn’t know we were seeds.”
Portraiture requires direct, intimate interpersonal interaction, and a deeply-rooted interest in people. The intensity of the artist/subject gaze is akin to that of lovers, or of a caregiver 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 cultures, our social systems, 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 a 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. One personal story often has more resonance than statistical abstractions, no matter how appalling. As numbers of holocaust survivors dwindle, and in anticipation of the same eventual loss of first-hand accounts from residential school survivors, these portraits will remain as reminders of these individual stories.
This project explores trauma, ongoing recovery, shared pain, courage, and the indomitable human spirit, as well as an enduring hope that, through truly hearing one another’s stories, humanity will someday be characterized more by its compassion than by its capacity for cruelty.
*I would like to gratefully acknowledge the Saskatchewan Foundation of the Arts for their generous support of this project.