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Yad Vashem Virtues of Memory

Virtues of Memory

The "Virtues of Memory" exhibition will be displayed in the Yad Vashem Exhibitions Pavilion through April 2011.

“A day will come, surely, of thirst appeased, we will be beyond memory, death will have finished the works of hate.” 1

Etju (Esther) Schoenfeld. Untitled Etju (Esther) Schoenfeld

In the spring of 1944, shortly before his deportation to the Drancy transit camp and then on to Auschwitz, where he was murdered, Benjamin Fondane, a French Jewish poet of Romanian origin, completed his epic work: L’Exode: Super Flumina Babylonis. The poem leaves no doubt that Fondane had a clear vision of the fate of his people who are forever seated by the rivers of Babylon, wherever situated. But alongside that sense of impending annihilation, he bears in his heart the prophetic conviction that words would survive. The predictions of doom did not materialize, the Jewish People was not left beyond memory and the works of hatred did not achieve total annihilation. What reaches us is not merely the poetic cry of protest of a man confronting his end; rather, it is the living memory borne by those who survived the darkest period in the history of the Jewish people – the Holocaust.

The burden of memory is borne daily by the survivors. Over the years, since the period of the great calamity, they have unburdened themselves step by step; some by means of the written word, others by the spoken word, and yet others by means of visual images, in art and film. Each one, in his own manner, has found a personal way of sharing his fate with his close family, those of the Jewish faith, and others wherever they may be. The unique charge granted them, not on the summit of a mountain but rather, in the depths of human squalor, is the commandment: "and ye shall tell thy son" – thy sons, members of the human race.

The legitimacy of the expression of the horrors of the Holocaust, by whatever means, became a topic of deliberations almost immediately after the end of the war. The unique nature of the Holocaust as an event never before created by man or known to him, denies the existence of instruments, likewise human creations, to describe it. The contemporary French philosopher Jean François Lyotard describes it as an earthquake which destroys not merely lives, buildings and objects, but also the instruments used to measure directly or indirectly, making the event impossible to quantify. Thus, those whose profession is the description and recording of history – they likewise were robbed of their yardsticks by the Holocaust. Thus, "in this sense Auschwitz is the destruction of the human experience itself. What is left behind after Auschwitz is the witness-survivor, who testifies to the incomprehensible, the indescribable." 2

The testimonies of the survivors first entered the Israeli public domain during the Eichmann trial, in the course which we were taught to listen to their personal accounts. The annals of the individual were woven into a tight to-and-fro fabric with the stories of the other survivors, thus generating the weave of collective memory of the Holocaust. Henceforth, there would be a worldwide effort to collate testimonies from survivors worldwide, making them also witnesses in the trial of history, by means of their written or spoken words.

But words, in whatever form, are not the sole instrument of commemoration. What befell those for whom words are not a means of expression - those who committed their memories to paper, to canvas, by sculpting in stone or carving in wood, in a language whose syntax is visual?  Relating to the difficulty of creating a work on the motif of the Holocaust, artist Samuel Bak said: "How could I tell of a world that has been destroyed? How could I give form to the pathetic attempt to reconstruct it by inadequate means? And what about reaching out for those elusive and indefinable memories? All these concerns became the concerns of my art." 3

The exigency of fashioning the creative work forces the artist to revert to the realms of memory and burrow into materials that he has sought, on the one hand, to forget, and on the other, to commemorate. Without doubt, this is a demanding and painful process, which in the words of artist Sara Atzmon forces one "to gird on the strength to return to hell. To start painting in trepidation, with convulsed guts… to venture to open just a narrow chink" 4. All of this finds expression in the body of creative work by Holocaust survivors.

Over the course of fifty years since the founding of Yad Vashem, it has diligently collected hundreds of works from the brushes and chisels of the survivors. It is a might body of visual testimony, complementing written testimony, in unison giving powerful expression to the voices of the survivors. Hitherto, this assemblage has been graced neither with comprehensive study nor broad exhibition, to show and explain how the individual, with the means of expression at his disposal, both remembers and bequeaths his memories to others.

The exhibition "Virtues of Memory" opens up this collection of artistic expression, enabling those who were not there to touch upon a reality from its visual aspects. The exhibition presents a powerful language of signs and symbols stemming from the directness of the statement, from the necessity that pushes those who seek to remember, to delve into the depths of memory, unvarnished and unadorned. It is not an effort to recreate reality; rather, it is reality itself, both external and internal, daubed in the hues of personal experience.

The sections of the exhibition represent thematic or visual categories of the works. Augmenting the exhibited artworks are recorded testimonies by the artist survivors, echoing the exigency underlying their creative work. Concurring, verbal and visual expression constitute the overall scaffold of the display. The virtues of memory take shape, face and voice, in an exhibition that is a multi-coloured and multi-layered visual weave. Each work is the voice of an individual; combined, all the works are an ensemble whose powerful expression echoes and re-echoes throughout the exhibition space.

Yehudit Shendar
Deputy Director Museums Division and Senior Art Curator

1 Fondane, Benjamin, L’Exode: Super Flumina Babylonis, La Fenetre Ardente, 1965, p. 13

2 Lyotard, Jean François, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991

3 Bak, Samuel, The Past Continues, Boston: D.R. Godine and Pucker Safrai Gallery, 1988

4 עצמון, שרה, מחצר השטן, הכנסת-ירושלים, 1993