S.F. art student picks up Pieces of her familys past

For three years, Leah Jachimowicz immersed herself simultaneously in the past and present.

As a student at San Francisco’s Academy of Art University, she created a dozen prints and mixed-media collages that represented the horrors of the Holocaust but also paid tribute to her grandparents’ survival.

Her exhibit, “Remnants: The Pieces Left Behind,” is on display through Sept. 28 at the university’s 688 Gallery.

“This is my way of honoring my family and what they went through,” Jachimowicz said. “I wouldn’t be here if my grandparents hadn’t survived and worked so hard to support their children.”

When Jachimowicz enrolled in the Academy of Art in 2005, she intended to study printmaking. But she also wanted to dedicate the three years of her graduate studies to creating pieces inspired by her grandparents’ suffering and survival.

The result is an arresting body of work that communicates the tragedy of genocide while illustrating the fortune of survival.

Jachimowicz’ late grandfather, Nathan, survived the Holocaust, rebuilt his life and supported his family by working as a tailor.

All of the prints, collages and books in the exhibit incorporate a tailor’s tools — spools of thread, fabric, bobbins, thimbles, needles, safety pins, tape measures and buttons — bought new from shops and dollar stores around San Francisco, but made to look old, rusted or burnt.

Taken literally, they are symbols of her grandfather’s career. But the sewing supplies are also a metaphor, Jachimowicz said, representing how her grandfather and thousands of other Holocaust survivors stitched up remnants of lives ripped apart by war and murder.

“There’s been a really strong response from this show,” said Sam Rak, curator of the gallery. When people visit, he lets them look around, then gives them Jachimowicz’ artist statement explaining her family’s history as the inspiration for her work.

“Once people understand the story behind it and the concept, they really respect it,” he said.

“Remnants” was a labor of love for the 26-year-old artist, who spent nearly all of her three years in graduate school creating pieces for the show. She even befriended the janitors and security guards at the SOMA building where her studio is located, so she could convince them to let her work long after the building closed at midnight.

She’d sit at her workspace wedged by a bay window while the Giants’ ballpark stadium lights glowed outside. She’d melt wax and resin crystals, painstakingly cut and glue fabric, glaze buttons and thimbles to make them appear authentic, as though they had survived the Holocaust.

She also designed several prints inspired from the gate at Dachau, which says “Arbeit Macht Frei.” She described her interest in the image as a “morbid curiosity.”

Her father, Albie Jachimowicz, has one of the prints hanging in his San Jose home.

“I didn’t realize the toll [my parents’ experience] had taken on my own children until I saw Leah’s work,” he said.

Albie’s parents, Esther and Nathan, met after World War II, when Nathan was liberated from Dachau and Esther from Stutow. Both had grown up in Lodz, Poland. But they met in a German hospital. Esther was looking for her father, who survived Dachau and happened to be in a bed near Nathan, who was recuperating from a near-fatal bout of tuberculosis.

Nathan and Esther had lost nearly all of their relatives to the Nazis. In six months’ time, they were married.

They moved to San Francisco in 1962 after living in Pennsylvania for several years. They opened Emerald Cleaners and Tailoring on Noriega Street, near 25th Avenue, in the heart of a Jewish neighborhood. Nathan soon earned a reputation for being good-natured, kind and so skilled he could fix anything.

The couple owned the Sunset District shop until 1995, and today it remains, albeit with Asian owners, a reflection of the area’s changed demographics.

Several of Jachimowicz’ pieces feature words or phrases from her grandparents’ stories, which she typed on a typewriter and incorporated into the artwork. One piece incorporates her grandmother’s recollection from an interview Jachimowicz conducted with her a year ago. It reads: “I would say for 20 years or maybe 25, until a few years ago, everything was black for me. I just didn’t want to remember.”

Esther still lives in the San Francisco house in which Albie grew up. She is “extremely proud of Leah’s work,” Albie said.

“There’s no question in my mind that if my father saw these pieces, he would be struck with great pride.”

“Remnants: The Pieces Left Behind” will be on display through Sept. 28 at 688 Gallery, 688 Sutter St., S.F. A closing reception will be held from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 27, with Leah Jachimowicz present to answer questions about her work. For more information, contact the gallery at (415) 346-4549.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.