Survivors daughter paints memories of her mother

For the last four years, the Holocaust has monopolized virtually every canvas Mina Cohen has painted.

For the mixed-media artist from Mendocino, this intense period is far from over, and it won't be until she finishes visually telling the story of her survivor mother, Judith Meisel.

"My soul isn't in other work right now," Cohen said.

She has completed 13 works that document what Meisel went through before, during and after her stay at the Stutthof concentration camp.

"These have been the easiest things I've ever done," said Cohen, who, for the past 25 years has been an abstract painter. "This has been much more focused. I have a pretty good idea of what I want to say and how I want to say it.

"I feel like I have to do it," Cohen added. "As the next closest generation, I feel that obligation to carry it on. This is the most comfortable way for me to tell the story."

The large collages, which mix materials as diverse as photos, shoes, wax, glitter and dried flowers with brief narrative passages of Meisel's experiences, don't go down easy enough to display above the living room mantle.

"I've shown these more than any other work, but the paintings are not readily salable," she said.

Cohen has staged several exhibitions of the paintings, primarily in educational settings. Last week, she was in Washington, D.C., where her Holocaust works were on display at Sidwell Friends School, Chelsea Clinton's former prep school. She was invited to participate in a daylong educational event at the school to commemorate the Holocaust.

Earlier this year, her pieces were displayed at Abington Friends School, a private school near Philadelphia.

"I'm not interested in putting the show in Jewish institutions," Cohen said. "That's the obvious audience. Schools have the perfect audience because, even though it's hard to believe, there's people who still don't know about the Holocaust."

Cohen and her mother, who lives in Canada, met in Abington, where each gave talks. For the first time, Cohen said, her mother "understands what my work is about."

Cohen's favorite work, "Eat for Survival," combines portions of the printed Torah scroll with a hologram of the Statue of Liberty. Primitive ghoulish figures float off to the side, while a deep blue border surround the Torah sections, resembling film strips.

The words, on a muted bluish-green background, are scratched into the canvas. The passage is Meisel's recollection of her own mother, a deeply spiritual woman who didn't survive the camps.

"A soup made from potato peelings was served in a rusty dish," the painting reads. "Sometimes a piece of meat was floating in it. My mother wouldn't eat. The rabbis said it was okay to eat for survival. She encouraged us to eat. She was denying Hitler the satisfaction of forcing her to eat unkosher food. She said they can kill me as a person but not as a Jew."

The story compels Cohen to long for the grandmother she never knew. "She's someone who was willing to starve to death for her faith," said Cohen. "There's not too many people like that."

Toronto-born Cohen, who grew up in Philadelphia, doesn't have as much time to paint as she'd like. She's the mother of two girls, Elana, 15 and Yael, 12, and has three part-time jobs.

She teaches a weekly class at the Mendocino Coast Jewish Community synagogue. This year's course is Jewish history — in its entirety. "I explained Jesus to them in 10 minutes," she said.

Cohen also teaches art appreciation at College of the Redwoods, and she works 20 hours per month as community liaison for the Mendocino school district's project-based learning program. In addition, she volunteers at her daughters' schools and within the tight-knit Jewish community.

"It's like modern day shtetl life," said Cohen. "It's a community that takes care of its own. We care for our sick. We have our own chevra kadishah [burial society], which is highly unusual for a community this size."

When Cohen and her husband, Jeffrey Berenson, one of two physicians in town, first came to Mendocino 15 years ago, their intention was to stay a year while Berenson filled in for a doctor who was on leave.

They went from 10 years of living in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury to the doctor's 1880s farmhouse overlooking the ocean.

"After a few months, we couldn't think of living anywhere else," said Cohen. "Living here feels like permanent Jewish summer camp. It's a safe, wonderful place for kids to grow up. If a cultural event is happening, it seems like the whole community comes. I never go to a place where I don't know someone."

It's the kind of community, she added, "that if I answer the phone and it's a wrong number, there's a fairly good chance I'll know the person they're trying to call and I'll probably be able to give them the right number."

Rather than spend precious time promoting her work, she'd rather be creating it.

If she wants a couple of hours alone with her canvases, she goes into the studio at 6 a.m., before driving the kids to school. Her spacious studio is part of the house she and her husband built in a woodsy area a few miles outside Mendocino.

Cohen said her Holocaust survivor period is about two years from being over, adding that she has just barely addressed her own child-of-a-survivor story.

"I've never felt I needed any kind of healing, but there are things I have to work out," she said. "Those are the paintings I haven't done yet."