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How do we reconcile the desire to forget with the need to remember? Is one gruesome example of mankind’s inhumanity more memorable than another? Can individual memory become collective and vice versa? Through generations and cultures?

These are some of the questions raised by the artwork in “The Dilemma of Memory: Maine Artists and the Holocaust” at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine (HHRC) on the Augusta campus of the University of Maine. Poets, painters, photographers, printmakers and sculptors wrestle with the memory and impact of the Nazis’ systematic genocide of six million Jews and millions of other minorities. (The term “holocaust” was used before the 20th century but has acquired a capital initial to refer to the Nazi atrocities during World War II. If referring to the genocide of Jews alone, “Shoah,” the Hebrew word for “catastrophe,” is the more appropriate term.)

“The Dilemma of Memory” includes paintings by Leonard Meiselman and Robert Moskowitz, photographs by Judy Ellis Glickman, sculptures by George Mason and Robert Katz, works on paper by Dorothy Schwartz, as well as poems by Tony Brinkley, Mark Melnicove, Lee Sharkey, Martin Steingesser, and Anna Bat-Chai Wrobel. (Part of a permanent display, photographer Jack Montgomery’s empathic portraits of Holocaust survivors in Maine should not be overlooked.)

Among the offerings are some incredibly moving words and images that grab us with their thoughtfulness, skillfulness and pertinence. Most of the visual artists address the Holocaust and its immense suffering obliquely, that is, aesthetically, of course. The resulting tension between the beauty and visual interest that draw the viewer in and the subjects that make us recoil is profoundly unsettling and illustrates the power of art to deal with the most disturbing issues in a way that speaks to us directly, viscerally, rather than intellectually.

Meiselman’s splattered and streaked paintings run the risk of foregrounding process over subject, but when the balance is right, they are magnificent and heart-rending. “Prayer Shawl from Auschwitz” is an ode to faith in the direst of circumstances. Almost dissolving into the painting’s rich, black background, like a torn and bedraggled survivor, the tallith actually brims with barely perceptible colors and strong whites, seeming anything but defeated. This powerful evocativeness is paralleled by supreme paint handling that oscillates between rich impasto and thin glazing, liquidity and substance, luster and velvety muteness. Meiselman’s heads (one can scarcely call them portraits for their universality and expressiveness) resemble Alan Magee’s haunting monotypes of faces in intent and composition. However, Meiselman’s seem on fire, dripping with “blood” and emotion. The face in “Enigma 2,” the most successful because most restrained of the group, could belong to someone escaped from the hell of Hieronymous Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” (1490-1510). Cracks traverse the face, fracturing its sanity. Dark, wide-open eyes have seen what nobody should have.

In some of her images the late Schwartz refers to particular historical violence, yet her most striking work, “Boots,” is timeless and universal. Combining the spontaneity of drawing with the rigidity of printmaking, its accumulation of boot prints and “spilled blood” transcends specificity, culture and history. So do Mason’s overlapping panels of burlap richly worked with plaster, casein paint, and encaustic. “To Mend 4,” the color of oxidized copper, suggests the sadness of rain through small beads running like water down window panes. They are occasionally interrupted by stars, like those rare moments in life that are more memorable. Generally Mason’s pieces are rich with metaphors of time and history – fragments that overlap but never fully occlude each other as they build up memory and identity.

In contrast, Glickman’s documentary photographs by definition are specific and hit us in the gut. Photography can reflect back to us part of our own world, one we recognize and identify with. Beauty and horror coexist in her straightforward shots of gas valves at the Theresienstadt crematorium, of bunks at the Birkenau concentration camp. Other images are altered using photographic processes, like solarization and double-exposure, which softens their impact.

Because words have a narrower range of possible interpretation than images, the poems in “The Dilemma of Memory” get more under our skin and are able to transcend the time-bound element of experience. Brinkley speaks of the inability to face the unfathomable, of the incommunicability of the deepest suffering, of the doubt of faith. Melnicove focuses on how future generations were affected, dispersed, robbed of their historical continuity, and deals with the sacrificial interpretation of the Holocaust. Bat-Chai Wrobel evokes the everlasting presence of memories and their transmission through the generations, “I remember what I cannot know,” but also their ties to specific places. Sharkey bemoans the loss of worlds, promises, and prospects and makes full use of the imagination’s ability to revisit and relate past experience, “Hush live it backwards recall.”

The artists’ appropriately grave responses suggest an overwhelming sense of loss – loss of life, faith and futures – as well as an obligation to remember and to remind. For them, remembrance is an ongoing, communal process that requires nurturing and constant renewal, as well as the realization of its necessity for the future. Memory has to look forward to make a difference.