August 24, 2006
Posters by Czech Students Bring Back Lost ‘Neighbors’
The Czech nation, in its many incarnations, has figured prominently in Jewish lore and literature. It has spawned the Golem and Franz Kafka, to say nothing of the recent Maurice Sendak and Tony Kushner collaboration, "Brundibar," a play that was staged by the Berkeley and Yale repertory theaters and that took its story of children who vanquish a monstrous adult, a stand-in for Hitler or fascism in general, from an opera written in the Terezin ghetto at the time of the Holocaust.
Terezin was the intermediary camp, known in German as Theresienstadt, from which thousands of Jews were placed in cattle cars on the way to Auschwitz. It remains most famous for the art of Jewish children, who stole material and depicted their lives of deprivation and play in drawings hidden during the war. So it is perfectly appropriate that the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust should be exhibiting the art work of Czech children trying to rediscover their Jewish compatriots in the exhibition, "Neighbors Who Disappeared."
The show, which opened Aug. 20 and runs through the end of September, was put together by Susan Boyer of the Czech Torah Network and Rachel Jagoda, executive director of the museum, who has made it one of her goals to seek out "the other." She has presented exhibitions on the Cambodian genocide and the persecution of homosexuals during the Holocaust, as well as a recent lecture by a 101-year-old Jehovah's Witness who, along with many of his co-religionists, spent time in Nazi concentration camps.
The "Neighbors" exhibition combines non-Jewish and Jewish narratives by featuring posters designed by non-Jewish kids from Czech junior high and high schools, who researched the history of their towns and found out about the plight of Jews, some of whom actually attended their very schools. Each poster in the first half of the exhibition, many of which have an earth-tone background, shows a map at the top which indicates the Czech town that was researched and includes a collage of archived photographs, diary entries, diagrams and other mixed-media forms.
Typically, the students who created the poster provide quotes about how the project has transformed them. In some cases, students reveal their ignorance prior to becoming enlightened about World War II and the Holocaust. One writes, "Today's generation, without any knowledge what it is all about, only laughs at it."
However, the students from Ostrava, an eastern Czech town, overcome this failing and are grateful to get in touch with Jan Mayer, who is shown as a 6-year-old in 1931, wearing a Maccabee shirt with a Star of David on it. The littlest child in the Jewish gymnasium, Mayer, who in the black-and-white photograph scratches his upper lip, later survived Terezin; Auschwitz, where he encountered Dr. Mengele; Birkenau; and the death march.
A recent photo shows the octogenarian with his wife. He tells the Czech students that he made it through the Holocaust due to "a lot of luck," but the students write that he is a man of fortitude.
The second half of the exhibition is a tribute to the Czech children who died in the Holocaust. One colorful poster, with lots of yellow and pink, displays entries from a short-lived magazine, published in 1940 and 1941 by young Czech Jews, called Klepy, or gossip. There are cartoons and other illustrations, such as a superimposed image of a smiling boy who kicks a soccer ball.
But the light-hearted title of the publication and the frivolous images can not leaven the severity of a poem, titled "Reflections -- Statements." An unknown child poet writes, "We have only one life, one small fragment of eternity, and we have this in order to fight the world."
The last poster is by the students of Varnsdorf High School and is dedicated to one of their alumni, the Czech painter Frantisek Peter Kien. Kien, who was deputy head of the art room at Terezin, may very well have taught art to the children whose work was found after the Holocaust and is now exhibited at venues like the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
In this poster, we see a number of remarkable drawings by Kien, including a self-portrait of the young artist, whose thick but tiny gob of a moustache ironically makes him resemble Hitler. We also see a print of an elongated, silhouetted man in a top hat, sitting next to a woman of the night. The image, done in a kind of diabolical green and red, is evocative of the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec and references Maupassant.
If there is a possible flaw to the poster, it is that we see none of Kien's art documenting the inhumanity of the Terezin camp, even though such work is noted in the text. Perhaps the students wanted to show that in spite of the dehumanizing nature of Terezin, painters like Kien and the young Jewish children were still able to enter the imaginative realm, to dream and to produce art that outlasted the hatred of the Nazis.
"Neighbors Who Disappeared" runs through the end of September at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 651-3704.