Beauty out of Horror

Holocaust survivors shared their experiences to inspire a University professor’s artistic creations.

by Jessica Weaver

When University art professor David Feinberg first came up with the idea of interviewing Holocaust survivors and letting their experiences influence art, he had no idea where the project would lead.

Though the subject matter is difficult, Feinberg said, in art one delves into things without knowing the conclusion.

“This one leads way beyond my preconceptions,” he said.

The project includes a documentary, 20-minute video, paintings and collages. It opened Sunday and will be on display through January at the Sabes Jewish Community Center in Minneapolis.

To influence his art, Feinberg interviewed Holocaust survivors Joe Grosnacht and Murray Brandys.

In summer 2002, Brandys and Grosnacht met with Feinberg and the project’s crew, which included undergraduate and graduate art students, the director of the University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, a videographer, photographer and other artists.

Starting the project was difficult because of the topic, Feinberg said.

“My wife said, ‘Are you sure you want to go on with this?’ ” Feinberg said.

Vince Caro, a project videographer and musician, said Brandys and Grosnacht’s senses of humor lessened the difficulty. The two were in two of the same concentration camps but did not meet until a synagogue opening 10 years ago.

For years they worked at the same place and saw each other driving. But they never discussed their experiences together until the project, Feinberg said.

“They both knew what the experience was like, and they didn’t have to talk about it,” Feinberg said.

The crew was reluctant to dive in as well, and Caro said it was hard to take the project home and think about it. He said the project’s importance kept him motivated.

“I think I realized how important this was when I saw Joe’s tattoo from Auschwitz and realized these were real survivors,” Caro said. “I’d never met survivors. I realized the significance of the project, the importance of telling their story.”

The survivors also created parts of the artwork.

On one collage-style painting, Grosnacht drew six seats on a train, with one person seated. He said the five empty seats represented his five brothers who did not return. On two other paintings, the men signed their concentration camp numbers instead of their names.

After Feinberg created several paintings with Brandys and Grosnacht, Stephen Feinstein, the director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, suggested Feinberg continue the project with two women. Feinberg is now working with Holocaust survivors Sabina Zimering and Lucy Smith.

Smith and Zimering created one painting for the current exhibit, which has distorted photos of an antique streetcar, a sugar bowl, Nazis shooting a chicken and red paint.

The project crew helped inspire the paintings by placing antique objects in front of the survivors.

Zimering was drawn to the streetcar because it reminded her of the war. Smith picked a sugar bowl because when she was in hiding she was so hungry she ate half a bowl of sugar.

The depiction of Nazis shooting a chicken represents a pet chicken Smith had that was killed, and which Smith accidentally ate.

Stories such as the chicken tale started out light but had a deeper, darker meaning, Feinberg said.

Students in the undergraduate research opportunities program worked with Feinberg on the project. Feinberg said he encouraged them with the impact their artwork could have.

“We can make this into a powerful statement,” Feinberg told them. He pointed out that difficult subjects sometimes need to be addressed in art.

Undergraduate art student Laura Krueger said the artwork creates a universal photograph for the people who lost all their belongings during World War II.

Krueger and Katie Novak, another undergraduate art student working on the project, said it is rewarding to meet the participants and learn their stories.

Feinberg said he hopes the exhibition will go on tour. Zimering recently wrote a book, “Hiding in the Open,” about the Holocaust that the Minnesota Historical Society is turning into a play. Feinberg said he hopes the exhibition turning into a play will be shown when the play opens in St. Paul in March.

The organization producing a new play about Sabina Zimering’s memoirs is the Great American History Theatre.