O Umeni Zustat/Art Talks

‘O Umeni Zustat Stat/ On the Art of Remaining Upright’
Artist Remarks
Prague, Education and Culture Centre of the Jewish Museum, September 10, 2007
Terezin Ghetto Museum September 11, 2007
Copyright © 2007 by Jana Zimmer

In 2006 I decided to donate my family documents, photos and the transcripts of life stories of my parents to the Jewish Museum in Prague, which is my birthplace. After my mother died in 2000 my ‘guardianship’ of these historically important materials became more and more a source of anxiety, and I wanted them somewhere I could hope they would be preserved. It was time for them to go home. Conversations with Jewish Museum staff in the course of the organizing and copying of this material led to me showing them some of my own artwork, which is thematically related to my parents’ Holocaust experience, and an invitation to exhibit my work in Prague at the Cultural and Education Centre of the Jewish Museum and at the Terezin Ghetto Museum. I wish to sincerely thank Dr. Arno Parik, Dr. Martina Durdovicova, Dr. Jan Munk and Dr. Miroslav Vesely and all other museum staff in Prague and Terezin for giving me this opportunity.

I am a printmaker, working primarily on an etching press in monotype and collage enhanced with other media. The material that I use includes fragments of my parents’ written life stories, family photographs and historical documents that I alter on the computer, as well as digitally altered fragments of my late sister Marketa’s (Ritta) art work which was done in Terezin between 1942-1944 when she was about 10-12 years old.

One of Ritta’s images has been in public exhibits of children’s drawings for many years, and is included in the new edition of “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” a compilation of images and poetry done in the Terezin ghetto by the children there. I had seen that image at the Jewish Museum in Prague for the first time in about 1979, and when I went again in 1992 I made an appointment with the museum staff and they told me they had eight other drawings, mostly watercolors, in their archive, and they eventually sent me copies. The last drawing that we have is dated May 24, 1944. Ritta was deported with her mother (Katuse Zimmerova) to Auschwitz in October, 1944 where they were gassed on arrival.

This series of monotypes and collages is an attempt to respond to Ritta’s artwork as well as to my parents’ narrative. I have spent a lot of time looking at each of Ritta’s drawings, magnifying them, changing them, making them into multiples as guided by my own internal obsessions, and then including them as an element in my images, trying to know this child a little, and especially to penetrate her relationship with our father. My father never once discussed her with me, but I was very aware throughout my life that I have some responsibility to replace her and to compensate for my father’s losses, so this artistic inquiry has been quite emotionally challenging. I realize that the level of detail I have provided in the ‘Catalogue’ of work is unusual. Those details are intended to function as a part of my memory and documentation work to honor the experience of my family, not just as a mass of victims, but as individuals. Thus, my descriptions include not just size and medium, but also information about the subjects of photographs, the specific writings of my parents, and the inventory number of the particular image drawn by my sister.

The title of the show, ‘O Umeni Zustat Stat’, comes from the title of an essay by Milena Jesenska, a non-Jewish Czech journalist who put herself at great risk – and paid with her life- to encourage the Czechs to stand up to the Nazi occupiers after Munich and Hitler’s invasion in 1939. Jesenska’s title was translated for English-speaking viewers as “On the Art of Remaining Upright”. As applied to the artwork that has emerged, and as rendered in the Czech language, this phrase is quite ambiguous, so it is really more of a question about the complicated nature of spiritual resistance and survival in circumstances where physical resistance is impossible, rather than a call to action.

My artistic process over the last six months has included a lot of fits and starts- I have done a lot of reading as I work, reflecting, and writing about what I am doing. I came into this commitment with a lot of questions, and after six months of work I still feel I’m just at the beginning. There are certainly no complete answers, and the esthetic and moral questions have become more layered and complex. But some of the reading I have done has helped me to crystallize my questions, and to put into words some of the concerns I have about the risks of artistic expression of the Holocaust, particularly by artists like me who did not directly suffer the experience. I have to especially acknowledge the work of Professors Lawrence Langer, James Young, and Saul Friedlander . And I have to remain aware also that what I ‘conclude’ is only for today. I don’t know how this will change next week or next year, but I am sure it will change.


The first question I asked myself comes from my accusatory internal voice: “Who are you to put this content in your work? These are not your experiences, these are not your memories. How do you dare appropriate this content?” I feel especially weighed down by this question in daring to bring this work to Terezin, to hang in the same room which has previously held work by artists like Bedrich Fritta, who did experience these events directly, and in using the testimony and imagery of my family members who were here. In general, when I have come to view the childrens’ drawings in Prague, and to visit Terezin in the past- once with both my parents, once alone, and once with my dear friend, I have been mute before the enormity and heaviness of what I feel.

By way of response to my own accusation, I offer a line from the Israeli film “Under the Domim Tree”-

“Some people want to forget where they’ve been; other people want to remember where they’ve never been”

Whether its cellular memory or some other phenomenon, I am at least reassured that I am not alone in my impulse, that in fact my need to express this content is shared by others. And I have been reassured by the reaction of survivors who have seen this work, who were moved by it and who have praised it as restoring the voices of those who did not survive, and in inspiring them to make their own testimony. Although I now can accept the legitimacy of my artistic voice, the dilemma remains, for me and for all post Holocaust artists to portray, in an ethical way, events they never experienced – a vicarious past ‘remembered’ by them as stories told by parents, photos and writings of others.

A related question– this is one of those questions that begins with the dreaded phrase that has made many of us Jews cringe: “Why do you Jews always…or…why do you Jews never…? In this case, it was a question asked of me by a lawyer colleague about fifteen years ago: “Why do you Jews still insist on talking about the Holocaust? Why aren’t you over this, Jana?” I think that the real question this person was asking was not, “Why aren’t you over it”, but “Why won’t you let the world get over it, and let us all off the hook?”

In any event, instead of being defensive about not being over it, I’m beginning to see that the right attitude in artistic representation requires me not to be over it. And the reason is,- as Langer, Friedlander and Young teach- in order to properly remember, and to avoid trivializing the enormity of what was done to us, we must resist our need for closure, we must sustain uncertainty, and learn to live without full understanding. This means that we have to resist our natural inclination and psychological need to make sense of things, to impose meaning or ‘lessons’, to talk about the vindication of suffering through transcendence. This also means that my art has to remain very specific, and to express the private narrative of individuals- there are enough to choose from in my own family- because the impulse to universalize, or to reclaim broader meaning is actually an abuse of memory. Primo Levi wrote about an incident in Auschwitz where he impulsively asked an SS man why he gratuitously struck a prisoner. “Warum?”“Why?” The response: “Hier ist kein Warum.” “Here, there is no why”. To live with this answer, and yet to avoid despair, is a huge challenge.

Lawrence Langer talks about literalists and exemplarists in relation to the Holocaust. Exemplarists cannot tolerate looking at the Holocaust unless it can either serve as an ‘example’, or as an instrument that informs our awareness. But if the Jewish experience in the Holocaust can be made to ‘stand for’ some larger human experience, then the danger is that the intolerable becomes more tolerable. A literalist, as I understand the term, insists on pointing at a specific thing and saying, “Look at this, it is no more or less than this”.
When an artist approaches the Holocaust with a prior commitment to an agenda that arises from her own need transform the atrocity in the service of some higher principle, and make it something ennobling, it is not only immoral, but perhaps more importantly, it has lead to some very bad art.

The third question I have asked myself in relation to this work is, since I identify as a ‘literalist’, and insistent on the specific, and the particular, what is the purpose of turning to visual art at all, instead of continuing to study and document and organize information about history. For me, right now, it’s this: Listening to what happened is a moral obligation and it’s one that I believe that I, as a daughter, have fulfilled. But remembering, in the right way, has been described as a spiritual act. And that is not complete, and probably never will be. After all, we do not say Kaddish for only one year.

My parents are both gone, as are the majority of the survivors. My father was in the Terezin ghetto and responsible for thirteen members of his immediate family for two and a half years before they were all shipped to Auschwitz. He was the only one who returned. It was forty years before he wrote about his experience, and he included in his narrative his three favorite jokes about Hitler. Beyond the recitation in his narrative of the details of keeping his ‘people’, as he referred to them alive, virtually the only statements of his emotional life are simple declarative statements like those you see on the walls here:

“There were no happy days in the ghetto, or even happy moments.
There were only quiet moments, between transports”.

“Nobody was safe. Nobody knew when his time will come”.

Every word evokes the words not said, the words I will never hear. So I repeat these phrases in contexts of color, in juxtaposition with fragments of his daughter’s drawings, with photographs of the life they had before, altered to look like the remnants of a life that they are.

Friedlander asks whether after all the survivors have disappeared, the Shoah may leave traces of a deep memory beyond individual recall. While I do not believe that the work of remembering can ever be completed, I have an instinct that some elements of the spiritual and emotional memory of the six million can be found in the arrangement of the components of a piece of art and in the spaces between. This, too, must be sufficient.