Two generations render Holocaust memories through art

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The importance of memory is central to Holocaust survivors’ testimonies — the idea that sharing and documenting their stories will prevent such tragedies from ever happening again.

But what about the people who experience the Holocaust secondhand — the receivers, so to speak, of those memories? What does the ripple effect of trauma look like?

“Every Person Has a Name,” a new exhibit at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto, delves into these issues through mixed-media work by two artists: Helen Breger, a Holocaust survivor, and Ewa Gavrielov, the daughter of survivors.

Breger, 94, was born in Vienna in 1918. Prior to the war’s onset, her family managed to escape to Trinidad, where they later were forced into an internment camp as “enemy aliens” alongside other Jews, as well as captured Italian and German seamen.

Excerpt from “Lines” (intaglio etching) by Helen Breger

The family was released in 1943 and stayed in the West Indies another two years, during which time Breger met her husband, an American officer stationed at a USA base. In 1945, the couple, along with Breger’s parents and sisters, immigrated to the United States.

She and her husband lived in New York before moving to the Bay Area, where Breger studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and S.F. State, going on to earn an MFA from the California College of the Arts. She taught art at CCA and U.C. Berkeley, did illustrations for the San Francisco Chronicle, and later added printmaking to her repertoire.

While the bulk of her work does not concern the Holocaust — Breger’s painted nudes, for example, have been exhibited widely — the JCC exhibit is intensely personal, containing scenes from her childhood. The black-and-white prints in this collection, titled “Lines,” render a simultaneously mature and childlike recreation of the artist’s youth. (They also were featured in a handmade, limited-run book last year, designed by Breger with help from two CCA graduates.)

“Art has always played a very big role in my life,” says the Berkeley resident, who lives in a two-bedroom apartment (one serves as her studio). “It always helped me emotionally, if not financially. It kept me from feeling at loose ends at times in my life when I was uncertain about the future.”

The Palo Alto exhibit showcases her recent foray into etching, using a special wax-and-metal technique.

As for the detailed depictions of scenes that took place 80 years ago — including from before the war and from the internment camp, as well as single vignettes such as “Arrival in New York!” — Breger says simply that she has “very visual memories.”

The question of how those memories are transmitted to the next generation is approached with a reflective, sensitive eye by Gavrielov. The Palo Alto artist, 58, was born in Poland and raised in Israel by two survivor parents who chose not to speak about their memories.

“In Israel in the early ’60s, it was just not talked about generally — most of the people who came from Europe wanted to move on with their lives,” recalls Gavrielov, who moved to the U.S. as an adult in 1986. “For a child, the atmosphere could be very heavy, but it wasn’t clear why. But you knew something had happened. You knew everyone was very anxiety-ridden.”

“Ghosts” (pigment on paper) by Ewa Gavrielov

The artist still recalls her father’s insistence that the family never throw away food, even stale scraps, and the radio announcements about people looking for lost relatives. The only direct information came from snippets of conversations she overheard between her father and his sister. Gavrielov’s mother, on the other hand, who had survived by living as a Christian with forged papers, “would never talk … A lot of her family had died, and she had survivor’s guilt.”

As a result, Gavrielov poured herself into research, learning all she could about her parents’ history from books and documentaries. And when she had children — three sons, now 19, 24 and 29 — she committed herself to passing along her family’s history.

“When they were younger, I would try to find them age-appropriate books, and I took them all to the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C.,” she says. “I think they’ve definitely been influenced by my interest in the subject.”

Gavrielov holds a degree in architecture and city planning from the Technion Institute of Technology in Israel, where she worked as an architect until 1986. After moving with her family to the U.S., she studied graphic design at the Art Institute of Boston before settling in Palo Alto in 1988. She began printmaking in 1997 and recently has begun silk-screening.

The prints and collages that make up “Looking Back,” Gavrielov’s portion of the JCC exhibition, were inspired by a trip to Poland in 2010. Visiting concentration camps and the remnants of a once-strong prewar Jewish community, she was struck by an overwhelming sense of absence.

“There’s such a void there,” she says. “Especially being educated in Israel, every writer, every political figure, so much of our culture started [in Poland], and yet it’s not self-evident at all,” she says. “The main thing that struck me was, everything is gone.”

“Every Person Has a Name,” conceptualized and curated by Palo Alto resident and Israeli artists’ representative Simcha Moyal, got its title from a visit Gavrielov made to a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, where a list of the people who died there is displayed alongside their photos. Though she grew up studying the Holocaust, seeing so many names made it feel real in an entirely new way.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a “Holocaust artist,” Gavrielov says if her work helps to pass on the history — even to her own children — she’ll regard it as a success.

“I feel very strongly about preserving these memories, teaching the next generation,” she says. “That’s the main thing. So they don’t forget.

“Every Person Has a Name,”
March 1 to April 11 at the Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. An artist’s reception for Gavrielov’s work will be held April 7. (650) 223-8700 or www.paloaltojcc.org

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.