Category Archive: Mosaic Magazine

What If You Trivialize Hitler?

The question has plagued artists ever since the Holocaust. At least one contemporary artist manages to pass the test.

Bruce Gendelman’s Aerial View of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, 2017. Bruce Gendelman.

Bruce Gendelman’s Aerial View of Auschwitz II-Birkenau, 2017. Bruce Gendelman.


About the author
Menachem Wecker, a freelance journalist based in Washington DC, covers art, culture, religion, and education for a variety of publications.

“How do you shoot the devil in the back?” asks the character played by Kevin Spacey in the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects. A similar question has plagued artists for centuries. If evil stops to pose for a portrait, what if you miss your shot, trivializing Hitler or turning Torquemada into a cartoon character?

For many, the 2002 exhibit Mirroring Evil at the Jewish Museum in New York missed the mark egregiously. Among its works commemorating the Holocaust were Chanel-, Hermès-, and Tiffany-branded poison-gas containers and a concentration-camp photograph into which the artist had inserted himself holding a Coke. Even for artists exploring the subject of the Holocaust thoughtfully, gorgeous brushwork or careful cross-hatching can so prettify the surface as to tie up evil in a neat bow.

All the more edifying, then, at the other end of the artistic spectrum, are Leonardo da Vinci’s portraits of ugly people—exquisitely drawn, but there’s no mistaking their individual hideousness.

Such thoughts came to mind on a recent visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Even articulating what it’s actually like to stand at the notorious train tracks leading to the entrance gates and all that lay beyond them is like trying to explain color to someone who has never seen. How could art possibly supply the want?

Fortunately, I came upon one possible answer to this conundrum later the same day in Krakow, at an exhibit of the Holocaust works of the American artist Bruce Gendelman. The recipe with which Gendelman approaches the portrayal of evil combines ominous or horrific imagery with a graceful handling of materials while somehow also finding room for a sliver of hope, even of God, peeking through the enveloping darkness.

Gendelman’s artistic journeybegan in September 2015 in the abandoned towns and fields of Eastern Europe, where this Palm Beach lawyer and insurance mogul was tracking the graves of murdered ancestors. His father Max, an American sniper in World War II who was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, miraculously escaped a Nazi camp with a German pilot he’d befriended. (Their unlikely friendship became the subject of Max’s memoir, A Tale of Two Soldiers.) Other family members weren’t so lucky. It was their stories that Gendelman, a gifted photographer, was seeking on a two-week trip to Poland and parts of the former Ukraine.

Another quotation: “He who fights with monsters should see to it that he himself does not become a monster.” Thus Nietzsche’s warning in Beyond Good and Evil, which continues: “When you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” The warning, taken to heart by Gendelman, applies equally to viewers of his works, which chart new aesthetic territory.

Gendelman’s massive Aerial View of Auschwitz II-Birkenau(2017) measures twelve by eight feet; by the time of the exhibit, the 550 pounds of oil paint on the canvas still hadn’t dried fully. Gendelman intentionally skews the grid upon which the barracks at Birkenau, the extermination camp adjacent to Auschwitz, were arranged, making the composition feel off-center and forcing viewers to struggle, vainly, to piece together the perspective. (There are parallels here to Cubism.) So thick is the surface, whose ingredients include construction-grade string, as to bridge the separate realms of painting and sculpture. In this sense, the work recalls both the “combines” of Robert Rauschenberg and the giant (if often grandiose) Holocaust canvases of the German artist Anselm Kiefer, born mere weeks before the end of World War II.

Four other expressive paintings in the exhibit portray the chimneys of Birkenau, which obviously impressed Gendelman powerfully enough to inspire an entire group of “portraits.” Those chimneys had stood out for me, too, on my visit to Birkenau that morning, forming an artificial forest as far as the eye could see while the barracks holding the doomed prisoners were mainly gone, leaving behind only their foundations, the occasional fragment of brick wall—and those symbol-laden smokestacks. Gendelman had hung the group of paintings higher than normal so that viewers had to look up at the chimneys and then above them to the imagined skyward route traced by the combusted material of the camp’s crematoria.

Perhaps riskiest of all was the exhibit’s life-sized diorama of a barracks interior. The installation, roughly 20 feet square and nine feet tall, consists of wood, metal, fabric, and foam. Dozens of mannequins in prisoners’ uniforms lie upon or lean against the bunks, and a bucket—whose stench visitors can easily imagine—lies on the floor.

At first, it seems, Gendelman had thought of giving the figures the faces of real survivors, as in the famous April 16, 1945 photo of inmates (including an emaciated Elie Wiesel) at the then just-liberated Buchenwald. But he decided against that. Instead, each of the dozens of figures in his diorama bears the artist’s own face: a unique angle on the inevitable what-if-that-had-happened-to-me sort of question that the living inevitably ask when they contemplate the butchered and lost.

If the barracks in Gendelman’s paintings terrify in their accusing silence, his diorama of Birkenau, in a manner wholly different from a photo or movie, makes viewers keenly aware of their own bodies in space, figuratively incorporating themselves in the dreadful scene. The installation resurfaced in my mind’s eye after I’d left the building and remained lodged there days later when I was trying to go to sleep.

And then there was the mobile. In thinking about artful mobiles, most people are likely to conjure up the playful works of Alexander Calder that hang in major collections from Washington’s National Gallery to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Gendelman’s Arbeit Macht Frei: The Selection (2018) is a gruesome take on the genre. Installed in its own room directly across from the diorama, the largely metallic mobile is dominated at the top by the cynical phrase, “Work Sets Free,” set in exactly the same curved configuration as at the entrance to Auschwitz. Dangling from the top are rows of miniature barracks, empty paint jars recycled as Zyklon-B canisters, trains and train tracks, showerheads, hair, corpses, Nazi guards, barbed wire, more barracks, and judgment scales.

In the decadesafter the Holocaust, many artists attacked their canvases as if they were voodoo dolls, burning, tearing, cutting, and otherwise assaulting the picture plane. Such works, represented in the provocative 2013 exhibit, Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962, at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, illustrate one possible approach to exploring evil without glorifying it. Gendelman has opted for a different approach, at once more direct, more nuanced, and more purposive.

The idea of a Holocaust-themed mobile, for example, turns the playful, childish form on its head, and the enormous scale of the thing is surely enough to command attention. But like the mobile itself, the message hangs in the balance—as does memory of the Holocaust at a time when survivors and witnesses are dwindling and some countries complain they’re being blamed too much for not having protected innocent Jews.

On an hour-long walk-through of the Krakow exhibit, Gendelman expounded on his technique and its rationale. Thick paint evokes both the physical muck and the existential human quicksand that were the Nazi camps. Palette knives symbolize the tools used by inmates to apply mortar to the brickwork of chimneys like those through which the gaseous residue of their own incinerated bodies would ascend. The disused containers of artists’ paint, recycled into Zyklon-B canisters, comment bitterly on the artistic enterprise itself.

But, Gendelman pointed out, he also deploys symbolism pointing in another direction entirely. In several works, bits of blue sky gleam through, evoking the uncrushable hope that sustained the few who survived. In the high horizon lines of his landscapes, one spies transcendence and the presence of God.

In the exhibition catalog, Gendelman writes: “As memories of the Holocaust are replaced by history, post-witness contemporary art can serve as a powerful tool to awaken critical conversations.” He thus expects his creations to do double-duty, as art and as witness. Should they be called upon, indeed, they are prepared also to act as sentinels, exemplars of the awakened vigilance he urges upon all, and especially upon his fellow Jews. One gets the sense that his witness-paintings are up to the task.


After Kristallnacht, American Jews Did Little to Demand Action from Their Government

On the evening of November 9, 1938 Nazi party operatives orchestrated anti-Jewish violence across Germany that left scores dead and hundreds of synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses destroyed. The German government followed up by sending some 30,000 Jews to concentration camps. While these events, known to posterity as Kristallnacht, garnered the attention of the international media, the organized response of American Jewry was tepid. Matt Lebovic explains:

Most notably, the influential General Jewish Council insisted on maintaining radio silence following Kristallnacht. Composed of leaders from the so-called “defense” organizations, the council issued instructions in the pogrom’s aftermath [that] “there should be no parades, public demonstrations, or protests by Jews.” . . . The council also reminded American Jews that it was in their interest not to advocate for admitting more Jewish refugees into the country. [Meanwhile], most prominent American Jews were afraid of how their fellow citizens would react to “demands” from the Jewish community. Few Americans supported going to war with Hitler, and anti-Semitism was more widespread than at any other point in U.S, history. . . .

The most prominent American Jewish leader to petition President Roosevelt [to respond to Kristallnacht] was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise. With FDR reluctant to condemn the Nazi regime in public, the venerable Wise pleaded with the president to issue—at least—a statement against the violence.

In his four-sentence “condemnation,” the president did not mention the Nazis or Hitler by name. With few Americans in favor of going to war, FDR was keen to prevent anti-Nazi rhetoric emanating from his bully pulpit, even after Hitler began to carve up central Europe. . . . President Roosevelt’s Jewish advisers pressured him to make some gestures after Kristallnacht. FDR recalled his ambassador to Berlin for “consultations,” and he helped solidify the status of some Jewish refugees already in the U.S. The president refused, however, to support legislation that would have permitted an additional 20,000 German Jewish children into the country.


A Family Photo Album Provides a Rare Look at the Vanished World of Lithuanian Jewry

By Morton Landowne

A recently opened exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum features photographs that once belonged to Annushka Matz Warshawska and were kept safe by Lithuanian Gentiles for 70 years before they were discovered. (To read more about Warshawska’s family, which includes Annushka’s grand-nephew Jacob Wisse, the museum’s curator, please see the memoirs of her niece, Ruth Wisse, now being published by Mosaic in serial form). Morton Landowne describes the exhibit:

The tale begins in the autumn of 1943 when . . . Warshawska, smuggled her family photo album out of the Kovno Ghetto and entrusted it to the safekeeping of a non-Jewish Lithuanian woman, Terese Fedaraviciene. Shortly afterward, Annushka and her two young daughters were deported to the Klooga concentration camp in Estonia where they were murdered. Also killed in the Shoah were Annushka’s husband and seven of her eleven siblings.

Fedaraviciene and her family held onto the album . . . until, in 2013, her grandson, Juozas Federavicius, showed it to a historian interested in the history of the Slobodka [neighborhood], where the Kovno Ghetto was located. The scholar, Raimundas Kaminskas, organized an exhibition of the photographs in his hometown of Kaunas, [as Kovno is now known], where it was seen by the English photographer, Richard Schofield, who runs the International Center for Litvak Photography in Kaunas.

Schofield . . . became determined to discover the identities of the large and vital family depicted in the many scenes of holiday outings, cultural events, portraits (both formal and informal), and photographs and postcards of musical and theatrical celebrities, some personally inscribed. He contacted the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and enlisted the institution’s help in digitizing the photographs from the album. Upon receiving the digital images, Schofield posted them on Facebook under the heading “A Lost and Forgotten Family.” . . .

For all the details, you’ll need to see this beautifully conceived and lavishly mounted exhibition, but suffice it to say that a historian at the Vilna State Jewish Museum, Saule Valiunaite, saw the Facebook post and responded to it with what a wall label characterizes as “serious sleuthing.”


After a Miraculous Escape from the Nazis, a Life Dedicated to Defending America

By Richard Sandomir

Born in 1934 as Schaja Shachnowski in the Lithuanian city of Kaunas (known to Jews as Kovno), Sidney Shachnow died in North Carolina on September 27. In 1941, the Nazis had herded Shachnow and his family, along with the other local Jews, into a ghetto, where most either died of starvation and disease or were murdered. Against all odds, nine-year-old Schaja managed to escape, as Richard Sandomir relates:

Leaving behind his weeping parents one morning before dawn, . . . Schaja hid under his Uncle Willie’s long coat as the uncle, with Schaja moving in rhythm with him, walked through the gates, passing guards and a work detail that was often sent outside the ghetto. Shortly afterward, children at the camp were liquidated. When he and his uncle reached the streets beyond the gates of the ghetto, . . . his uncle gave him a prearranged signal to emerge from under the coat and find his contact, a woman wearing a red kerchief. . . .

[Later on] he was taken in by a Roman Catholic family and lived with them for several months. He was then reunited with his mother, who had escaped from the ghetto, and his younger brother, Mula, who had been smuggled to safety disguised as a girl.

After the Red Army retook Lithuania, Schaja and his family, wishing to avoid Soviet tyranny, fled to the Allied zone in Germany, where they reunited with Schaja’s father and then left for the U.S. Shachnow went on to join the Green Berets, was decorated twice in Vietnam, commanded an elite clandestine unit in Berlin, and eventually attained the rank of major general. He was serving as the Army’s commanding officer in Germany when the Berlin Wall fell:

As a German-speaking combat veteran, General Shachnow was well suited to serve in Berlin. But as a Holocaust survivor, he was confronted with what he felt was a delicious irony: his headquarters had been those of the powerful Nazi official Hermann Göring, and his residence had once belonged to Fritz Reinhardt, a finance minister under Hitler. . . .

After leaving Berlin, he was appointed commander of the Special Forces and commanding general of the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg, NC. . . . He retired from the Army in 1994.


World War II Brought a French Writer to Terms with His Jewishness

By Catherine Bock-Weiss

The French Jewish writer Léon Werth may be best known as the person to whom Antoine de Saint-Exupéry dedicated The Little Prince, describing Werth as his best friend. More importantly, Werth was the author of two chronicles of his experiences during World War II, which he spent in France hiding from the Nazis: 33 Days, which was lost and unpublished until the 1990s, and Deposition 1940-1944, which appeared in 1946. A complete translation of the first book, and an abridged translation of the second, have recently been published in English. In the latter, Catherine Bock-Weiss writes, Werth leaves a record of how the war changed his sense of himself as a Jew:

Werth had been largely indifferent to his Jewish heritage for most of his life, but his existential situation [during the war] was permeated with the fact of his Jewishness: he was in virtual solitary confinement in a remote village, forbidden to publish, . . . cut off from his friends and his intellectual milieu, a hostage to anti-Semitism. Though southeastern France, [where he had found shelter], did not have a heavy German troop presence, Werth’s safety depended on whether or not his neighbors denounced him. . . .

Werth’s first journal entry about Jews is a response to the issuing of the [Vichy anti-Jewish law] on October 3, 1940, the day of its promulgation. . . . Here, we see Werth holding Jews at arm’s length. Five days later, he describes two kinds of Jews he seems to know, the . . . materialistic assimilated Jew and the pious observant Jew. He has only contempt for the former. . . .

These distanced observations [about these two categories of Jews] seem to have been a kind of preparation for acknowledging himself as a Jew. But even as France disavowed him, he clung to his French identity. . . . It is not until the entry of December 9, 1940, that we find Werth clearly identifying as a Jew, though he worried about a narrowing of his worldview. . . .

“I feel humiliated,” [wrote Werth in 1941]. “It’s the first time society has humiliated me. I feel humiliated not because I’m Jewish, but because I am presumed to be of inferior quality because I’m Jewish.” It’s absurd; it may be the fault of my pride, but that’s the way it is.”


Can Children’s Books Ever Do Justice to the Holocaust?

In surveying literature for children about the Shoah, Ruth Franklin holds up Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic (1988) and Briar Rose (1992) as some of the best books in the genre, and compares them with such far less successful attempts as John Boyne’s popular The Boy in Striped Pajamas (2006). Yolen has recently written a third such book, Mapping the Bones, which, unlike her previous two, does not begin with a child encountering grandparents who are survivors. Franklin writes:

Not only are [Yolen’s] Holocaust books extensively researched, and their departures from historical fact scrupulously noted, but her fantasy framing devices also reflect a kind of imaginative humility about the difficulty of “truly understanding”—something to which Boyne, [for instance], pays only lip service. A book that involves time travel, [as does The Devil’s Arithmetic], deliberately relinquishes the possibility of being taken as historical fact. . . .

In The Devil’s Arithmetic and Briar Rose, the primary emotional pull comes from the struggle of a character from a younger generation to come to grips with what happened to her grandparent. But, having dispensed with this framework, Mapping the Bones immerses us in [the young protagonists’] struggles directly. There’s no reason that Yolen should repeat herself, of course, and it makes sense that the troubles of survivors’ descendants don’t feel as pressing as they did 30 years ago. Most children today will never see a survivor’s tattooed arm. Those of us who did are likely trying to figure out how to approach the Holocaust with our own children, wanting them to recognize its significance in their family history without allowing that knowledge to burden or define them.

Still, to me, there’s something essential about the interactions among generations in the stories we tell about the Holocaust, and I don’t think that my view is merely the product of my own childhood. In Yolen’s first two Holocaust novels, a younger person literally bears witness to the stories of an older generation—either by experiencing them herself, as Hannah does, or by listening to the testimony of survivors. And the reader, by imagining herself in the place of the main character, can vicariously bear witness, too. If there’s a consolation in reading these books, that’s where it can be found. . . . We may emerge from these books without grasping the true horror of their stories. But at least we’ve learned how to listen to them.


What Mark Zuckerberg Gets Dangerously Wrong about Holocaust Denial

Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, recently defended his company’s policy of not removing posts denying the Holocaust, stating, “I don’t think that [the authors are] intentionally getting it wrong; . . . as abhorrent as some of those examples are, I think the reality is also that I get things wrong when I speak publicly. I’m sure you do. . . . I just don’t think that it is the right thing to say, ‘We’re going to take someone off the platform if he gets things wrong.’” Regardless of what Facebook’s policies should be, Deborah Lipstadt points to a dangerous flaw in Zuckerberg’s reasoning:

Deniers are a . . . type of neo-Nazi. . . . Wolves in sheep’s clothing, they don’t bother with the physical trappings of Nazism—salutes, songs, and banners—but proclaim themselves “revisionists”—serious scholars who simply wished to correct “mistakes” in the historical record. This is extremism posing as rational discourse. And his statements suggest that Zuckerberg has been duped by them into thinking that they’re any different than someone who proudly wears a swastika. . . .

In 2000, when I was on trial in London for libel, having been sued by David Irving—then one of the world’s leading Holocaust deniers—for having called him a denier in one of my books, my defense team tracked all of his “proofs” back to their sources and found that imbedded in each of his historical claims was a falsification, invention, distortion, change of date, or some other form of untruth. Once these lies were exposed, his argument [that he wrote history in good faith] collapsed. . . .

Holocaust denial is not about history. A form of anti-Semitism, it’s about attacking, discrediting, and demonizing Jews. The deniers’ claims—that the Jews planted evidence, got German prisoners of war to admit falsely to crimes, and forced postwar Germany to shoulder a tremendous financial and moral burden—are predicated on the notion of the mythical power of the Jews, which was extensive enough to realize this vast conspiracy. These assertions rely on classic anti-Semitic tropes, some of which are over 2,000 years old.

Deniers, who today clearly feel more emboldened than ever before, are not the equivalents of flat-earth theorists, nor are they just plain loonies. . . . Their agenda is to reinforce and spread the very hatred that produced the Holocaust.


Remembering Claude Lanzmann and His On-Screen Portrayal of the Holocaust

By Henry Gonshak

Claude Lanzmann, whose 1985 documentary Shoah deeply affected the way many saw the destruction of European Jewry, died last week at the age of ninety-two. Henry Gonshak revisits his work:

Shoah is almost unique among Holocaust documentaries in that Lanzmann used no documentary footage, usually gleaned from Nazi archives, or any fictionalized scenes. Instead, the movie is composed exclusively of interviews with those who became entangled, for one reason or another, in the Holocaust: survivors, witnesses, and perpetrators. Lanzmann justified this approach by insisting it was the only way to represent the Holocaust authentically.

After Shoah was released, Lanzmann became a constant critic of the slew of Holocaust films that took more license than he had with the historical record. He attacked Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Schindler’s List, accusing it of “commodification” of the Holocaust, because Spielberg used professional actors and invented several scenes from whole cloth. Perhaps Lanzmann imposed excessively strict limitations on the boundaries of Holocaust representation. I don’t believe the Holocaust alone must be represented with no degree of artistic latitude—a demand not made of the portrayals of any other genocide. However, without question, Lanzmann’s narrow approach worked brilliantly in Shoah. . . .

Lanzmann’s directorial style eschewed the “fly on the wall” technique employed by many other documentarians, where the director serves purely as witness, taking no active role in the unfolding action. Instead, Lanzmann is a constant presence in his movie, both on and off camera, asking pointed questions that at times verge on badgering his often-fragile subjects. . . .

Not only did Lanzmann interview survivors and witnesses, but he also spoke with perpetrators—another directorial decision that provoked controversy. For example, Lanzmann talked to Franz Suchomel, who had been an SS functionary at Treblinka and after the war was convicted of war crimes and spent six years in a West German prison. . . . Initially reticent, Suchomel became more garrulous as the interview progressed, until by the end he was regaling the director with a camp song composed by the SS. Lanzmann’s interview with Suchomel demonstrates that many perpetrators felt no remorse for their participation in genocide.