Genocide is a Personal Thing

Blog post by Jim Ranahan Ben Uri Archivist / Posted 26th January 2016

Holocaust Memorial and Ben Uri

Meyer  In Memoriam 1942
Family Photograph (in memoriam 1942) by Klaus Meyer

Rarely has a place-name attracted such infamy as Auschwitz. Reviled around the world, it is synonymous with horror and cynical cruelty almost beyond comprehension. Yet the crimes represented by this place-name (and alluded to by Klaus Meyer’s ‘Family Photograph’ above) were comprehended by the perpetrators and by their victims throughout Europe – and are comprehended wherever else they occur. The need to make sense of the enormity of these crimes and their very personal nature and consequences underpins the continuing importance of Holocaust Memorial Day (in Britain) and International Holocaust Remembrance Day. These days provide an annual focus on the constant need for us all to counter humans’ capacity for inhumanity.

Holocaust Memorial Day logo 2016
Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 logo

Ben Uri supports Holocaust Memorial Day in a very practical way, by providing a digital resource for the London Grid for Learning to support Holocaust Studies for students of GCSE History and GCSE Art & Design. This resource can be viewed online and it uses artwork to explore the reality of the Holocaust and its aftermath, in order to minimise the risk of future genocide. Given Ben Uri’s association with artists of émigré backgrounds, there is a natural focus on specific Jewish experiences of and artistic responses to the Holocaust. Indeed, Ben Uri’s foundation by artists who personally witnessed Russian and Eastern European pogroms (or whose families had suffered these) has provided the Gallery with artwork offering an insight to endemic persecution of minorities – the critical action which ultimately underpins genocide. Reflecting Ben Uri’s ethos of building on its Jewish experience to help other migrant groups, the Gallery’s work for Holocaust Memorial Day is on behalf of all victims, whether targeted by race, ethnicity, religion, political belief, disability, sexual orientation or any other decreed ‘qualifying characteristic’.

Meyer Memoriam Back
Reverse of ‘Family Portrait’ marked for publication

Whilst the focus of Ben Uri’s Holocaust digital resource is on the selected artworks themselves, the images in this web article are taken from monochrome photographic reference prints of the artworks, even where the original artwork has colour.Avoidance of colour in an art gallery blog is unusual, not least as the use or non-use of colour is a deliberate act by the artist and must be respected [1]. However, this web piece has an archival rather than artistic perspective and focuses on the prints themselves as evidence of a specific but completely prosaic gallery activity. They form part of the editorial process for the design and layout of images included in a catalogue, with a predominantly monochrome format [2]. These prints and their associated negatives, contact sheets and processing / cropping instructions chart the laborious process facing picture editors in a ‘pre-Photoshop’ age. Their very work-a-day function invests the prints with a particular poignancy, once the actual subject matter of the images carried by them is considered and the personal stories of the artists are understood. A small selection is considered, whose relevance to contemporary circumstances should underscore the core message of Holocaust Memorial Day 2016: Don’t Stand By.

A case in point is the lead image, the original of which is a woodcut and linocut on paper by the painter and print-maker Klaus Meyer. Produced in 1982, ‘Family Photograph (in memoriam 1942)’ commemorates the murder of Meyer’s mother, brother Ulrich and other relatives at Auschwitz forty years previously. Alongside the obvious tragedy represented by this artwork, a further personal layer is hinted at through the time elapsed before this refugee artist (who fled Nazi Germany in 1938) could turn away from his trade-mark views of Hampstead Heath and references to German and English literature [3].

Fraenkel Dr Gaster
Head of the Haham, Dr Moses Gaster by Elsa Fraenkel

This sculpture from 1936 embodies two distinct examples of flight from persecution. Elsa Fraenkel was an established artist when she fled Nazi Germany, arriving in Britain in 1935. The subject of her sculpture illustrated here is an earlier refugee, Moses Gaster arriving in England in 1885 after expulsion from Romania.

Karpf-Still-Life-with-Skull-740
Still Life with Skull by Josef Karpf

Josef Karpf’s ‘Still life with Skull’ introduces a standard artistic motif in the memento mori (remember you must die) tradition, but his personal experience imbues this conventional artistic setting with added poignancy. Karpf was a Polish diplomat who, with his wife Natalia claimed asylum when recalled from London in 1950. They had both survived barbaric experiences, Natalia in the Nazi concentration camp in Plaszow, Josef in a Siberian labour camp [4].

Frankfurther Portrait of a Woman
Portrait of a Woman by Eva Frankfurther

Eva Frankfurther’s work belies her personal experience of the Holocaust era. She was born in Germany and escaped the Nazi regime as a nine-year-old refugee, enduring the trauma of persecution, displacement and resettlement. Her suicide in 1959 is one more tragedy to be added to the roll call of Holocaust and ongoing genocide across the world.

The witness borne by Ben Uri’s collections holds up a mirror to contemporary society. The personal consequences of past crimes are apparent in the stories of the artists as much as in their artwork. The ultimate failure of such crimes in their stated aim of eradication is also apparent in the flourishing work of artists from the victimised and subsequent generations. This is a positive message which can be shared with artists and communities currently vulnerable to intolerance or worse. However, as Holocaust Memorial Day 2016 reminds us, there is no room for complacency. The causes of bigotry and hatred remain, with ignorance, fear and intolerance remaining potential breeding grounds for attitudes that can ultimately result in calamity. Ben Uri consequently is committed to working through education and outreach with like-minded people from all communities to ensure that we Don’t Stand By.

NOTES

1 Please note that artworks in the Ben Uri Collection can and should be viewed in their true state (colour or otherwise) at http://www.benuricollection.org.uk/

2 ‘Jewish Artists: The Ben Uri Collection.  Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Sculpture’ Edited by Walter Schwab and Julia Weiner (1994 2nd Edition) ISBN 0-85331-655-4

3 ‘Klaus Meyer: Obituary’ Daily Telegraph 26/07/2002

4 ‘Natalia Karpf: Obituary’ Daily Telegraph 11/07/2007

Useful Sites

Ben Uri Holocaust Learning Resource

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust

University College London Centre for Holocaust Education

Wiener Library for the Study of the Holocaust and Genocide