The Silent Witnesses

LAS student, Raizel Shurpin, reflects on Dr. Alter-Muri's art of the Holocaust lecture

May 07, 2012

Dr. Simone Alter-Muri, a renowned art therapist, spoke about the art of the Holocaust, the symbolism to be found in the work, and the importance of studying and preserving these works of art. The lecture was well-received by the audience, students and professors alike. “It was a very profound workshop of how art can be used to express the extremes in pain and document the Holocaust – a meaningful hands-on way of learning about the Holocaust and pain,” said Professor Sutton, a Holocaust historian.

After being introduced by Professor Sutton, Dr. Alter-Muri began her lecture with the words, “Making marks is something common to all people [from the first] scratch on stones…” and proceeded to call the students’ attention to the scratchboards placed on most of the chairs for the group exercise. Not all of the chairs had scratchboards on them and Dr. Alter-Muri pointed out that similarly during the Holocaust art supplies had to be smuggled in, shared, and made to stretch for as many people as possible.

Dr. Alter-Muri impressed upon the audience that this art is so important because it is “telling the stories of those who can no longer tell their own stories.” Surprisingly, those who were in the Concentration Camps during this terrible time were very aware of this power of art and its ability to bear witness. Alter-Muri told the crowd about her recent visit to Auschwitz and the paintings that she got to see during that visit. “There were so many portraits,” she says, and explains that this was because “even if someone was starving, they asked someone to draw their portrait…if you draw my portrait, I know I’m human.”

Dr. Alter-Muri’s lecture had largely to do with some of the courageous artists of the Holocaust. “Frieda Dicker-Brandeis was one such artist. She made it her business to teach art classes to the children. Dicker Brandeis, “believed children needed hope in times of terror,” says Alter-Muri, “and wanted to give them the moment of creation that comes with creating art as opposed to the fear they had to live with every day.” After the war, 4,000 children’s drawings were found. Other artists, such as Alfred Kantor, Charlotte Salomon, Samuel Bak, and Gyorgy Kagar, documented camp life and the events of the Holocaust through their drawings and paintings. Alfred Kantor destroyed most of his original work so that he would not be killed for showing what was really happening in the camps, but Salomon documented everything in 1,325 notebook-sized gauche paintings and published them under the title Life? Or Theater? Samuel Bak, an artist whose surrealist work often contains images of apples or pears falling apart and the theme of metal birds that cannot fly, was a child prodigy from Vilnius (Vilna). The rav (rabbi) of Vilnus told him to document what was happening to him, and years after the war, his journal was found.

“It is works like these that are so important,” says Alter-Muri, because, “When words fail, visual images fill in the gaps.” Dr. Alter-Muri described some of the recurrent themes in Holocaust Art, such as repetition and the appearance of crows and clouds in even the most seemingly happy pictures. She showed the students a picture painted by a young child, portraying Moses leading the Jews through the Red Sea, but, in what should be a triumphant and joyful scene, Moses has a sad face and is wearing the infamous yellow star. However, Dr. Alter-Muri, says that what she sees more than anything else in these paintings and sketches is “resilience. Resilience is finding meaning in times of trouble, finding meaning in times of stress.”

Dr. Alter-Muri normally does work based on nature, but on her visit to Auschwitz, she was struck by how many lines there were – the lines of the bars leading to the camp, the lines of the barracks, the straight lines everywhere, and how much they looked like barcodes. She began to paint flowers behind bars and this work eventually morphed into flowers behind barcodes and then simply giant barcodes. Dr. Alter-Muri explains that this series of her work, “Codes on Canvas”, symbolizes the labeling and desensitizing of people as well as prayer by evoking the lines on the tallis. In her own way, Dr. Simone Alter Muri is continuing the mission of the art of the Holocaust. “Art talks the language we all know, the language of our hearts,” says Alter-Muri, “It is a link to a past and what can be. No matter how silent, art can talk.”

Dr. Alter-Muri is speaking up for those with no voice.