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Art History
ARTH 338
Tamar Tembeck

Brock 1 Elissa Brock, # 26057302 ARTH 205: Introduction to Modern Art Professor: Samantha Burton TA: Heather Francis 23 November 2011 The Maternal Bond: Loss, Strength, and Survival This paper will explore how the relationship between mother and child changed throughout their personal experience of the Holocaust. Due to environmental, social, and external factors, this relationship was forced to adapt. This maternal relationship is a difficult one to track since many Jewish families were separated even before they reached a concentration camp. Few mothers were allowed to remain with their children. Only people deemed fit to work survived the Holocaust in most cases. This often excluded women and children, who were seem as inferior and incapable. The role of maternity can be reconstructed through interviews with survivors, testimonies, artwork, analysis, and especially though artwork. An especially relevant work of art is Halina Olomucki’s painting, Mother and Child. This paper will use all of the aforementioned domains to construct and present the bond of maternity during the Holocaust as illustrated through public and private memory. In the years following the Holocaust it became apparent that public memory differed between countries. Some countries, such as Germany and the Netherlands, were able to publicly admit to their guilt through personal memory and experiences (Ensink, 36). Other East European countries, such as Poland, only spoke about their involvement in a more distant way, through political memory (Ensink, 23). Also, the method of remembering differed depending on the country. Neitzche, a philosopher of the time, believed that history could only be properly commemorated in the absence of emotion. This objective history commanded the absence of hatred, resentment, triumph, and revenge in any commemorative practices. These practices included speeches, writing, film, and artwork (Ensink, 2). This ideology is in contrast to the role Brock 2 that I believe artwork, and other forms of representation, has served as evidence of the human, and maternal, experience throughout the Holocaust. Samuel Bak, a Jewish survivor as well as an artist of the Holocaust, further develops this idea of the importance of the visual image. His inspiration for his artwork came from his experience in concentration camps during the Holocaust. He explains that survival was intertwined with death, that “no one’s survival can be detached from the loss of someone else” (Bak, 17). His artwork, produced after the Holocaust, represents the dismemberment of art and faith (Bak, 27). The role of faith in Jewish artwork starts as a personal connection for the artist but can extend to apply to the Jewish population as a whole. When faced with symbols of Judaism, different people react different ways. What stays constant, is that every individual identifies these symbols as Judaic. This represents greater idea that while experience may be specific to one person, it is still felt by the whole nation. To understand the role of faith in artwork one must first understand the role of faith within the Jewish religion. Many Jews, both those who survived the Holocaust as well as those who analyzed it, felt that the Holocaust was a dark period characterized by the absence of God (Raphael, 18). The Jewish God is faceless. Therefore, Jewish artists struggle to depict God in their works. This wasn’t a problem for artists who depicted the Holocaust due to absence of God, believed by many, throughout the time period. This was true for artists who lived through the Holocaust, in their artwork produced during as well as after the war. Those who did choose to represent religion did so through the use of religious and spiritual symbols, such as the Star of David. Both during as well as following the Holocaust, the female body was used in Jewish art. The female body, which traditionally represented the Jewish household and Jewish values, Brock 3 changed in its role in representation after the Holocaust. At this point, it was used to represent the “collective loss of Jewish life” (Raphael, 88). Women in Holocaust art typically had shadowed faces or no faces at all. This facelessness represents the lack of individuality. These women became unidentifiable. This draws a parallel to their defenselessness as was experienced by the nation at large (Raphael, 88). The Jewish people as whole were defenseless to the power exerted on them by the Nazi regime. Jews were not seen as people and they had no identity of their own. As such, they were powerless in the concentration camps and were powerless to escape death. Even though it was difficult to produce art during the Holocaust, due to laws against drawing and the production of art, a few artists managed to do so. Paper, pencils, and especially paints were hard to find. Artwork was hard to store because of the stark conditions in the barracks where the Jews slept in the concentration camps. Towards the end of the war the laws were not as strict and it became more common for inmates to find paper and pencils to use (Raphael, 117). Female artists during the Holocaust generally recorded labor and relationships. They recorded this in memory, in writing, and in art. This subject material represents key aspects to female life during the time (Raphael, 117). An example of this is Halina Olumucki who was in Birkenau. When the war started, like many young girls, she was separated from her mother who was later killed (Learning about the Holocaust through Art). Throughout her time as an inmate in Auschwitz she took it upon herself to depict women and their children (Learning about the Holocaust through Art). Women would ask her to paint their daughters as evidence of their existence (Learning about the Holocaust through Art). These mothers knew that it was unlikely that they, or their daughters, would survive. They said, “we want to be among the living, at least on paper” (Sujo, 10). This was a responsibility she took seriously and believed that it was her duty, as a historical and moral witness, to provide a testimony of their life. She saw herself as an observer Brock 4 throughout the Holocaust. This status of an observer within her own experience can be interpreted as a coping mechanism. Perhaps by distancing herself from her reality she was able to survive it. More importantly, she felt that she was a “link between living and the dead” (Sujo, 91) and she ensured that not all victims of the Holocaust would lose their mothers. Halina Olumucki’s painting Mother and Child, shown in Figure 1, is an example of the visual evidence that many sought to record. Amongst other interpretations, this work represents the maternal bond. This painting suits the terminology given by the Nazis of “degenerate art” (Strom, 223). Though this term became popular in the pre-World War II era, it’s influence continued into the Holocaust. This term encompasses all art by Jewish artists, whose subjects have unattractive faces or distorted figures. Anything that didn’t glorify war, and the German tradition, would fall under this category. The only artwork worth viewing had to be realistic, of German countryside, in the classical style or using German folk tradition. Anything that could fall under the heading of abstract or expressionist was also considered degenerate. In Mother and Child (Fig. 1), the viewer can see a mother holding a child against her chest. The mother has dark hair and a darkened face. Her large eyes, surrounded by dark bags, are focused elsewhere and her mouth is in a frown. Her face is hollowed, with distinct cheekbones, and a long, pointed, nose. Her glance gives the impression that she is looking for a way out; for somewhere to go, or for someone to help. Her child’s face, in comparison, is illuminated. The child’s eyes are looking directly at the viewer. Even though the eyes are not clear, they seem to be both focused and penetrating in their stare. The child’s mouth is slightly ajar and her face is rounder and plumper than her mothers’. Both mother and child’s bodies
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