Art from Ashes Is a Triumph of the Spirit

Article excerpt

Like politics, tragedy is local. It cuts to the heart, to the soul of thought, especially when it wears the face of a friend.

And so it is with Alice Lok Cahana. Alice is a survivor of Auschwitz. She is like the Ancient Mariner, who has a story of awesome horror. I am the wedding guest who must hear every word of her tale as she bears witness.

Alice is an artist whose paintings are on exhibit at the Klutznick Museum of B'nai B'rith, coinciding with the April dedication of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. Like the phoenix, she recreates life from fire, art from the ashes of experience.

Alice was 15 when the Nazis ordered her mother, her sister, Edith, 17, and two younger brothers into the marketplace of Sarvar, a small town in Hungary 120 miles from Budapest, where her father had a large carpet weaving factory.

Her paintings are filled with empty windows testifying to the silent observers, "friends" and neighbors, who watched the Jews march toward the cattle cars and said nothing.

"No one came out from the houses, no one demonstrated or screamed or protested," she says. "It was just another ordinary day."

When she passed her own house, the "new owners" were already occupying it. Her dog charged out of the house, barking. "I pleaded with the dog silently to go away."

Her paintings are filled with images of jagged railroad tracks leading to a blackened sky, oppressed with tattooed numbers rather than shimmering with stars, fusing experience and metaphor, the journey of life and the rigidity of death. Art is also distilled emotion, angry charred surfaces craving beauty. Letters from the alphabet penetrate a canvas, letters that once made up the names of victims, letters that once formed the rhythms for religious prayers. A tiny shape intersects one of the railroad tracks. It's a child's shoe. Art imitates brutal reality. Across town in the Holocaust museum, an exhibition of 4,000 shoes bears witness to those who walked to the gas chambers. James Ingo Freed, architect of the museum, visited Auschwitz and, as he tramped through the mud of the concentration camp, the soles of his shoes picked up bits of human bone. …