TEREZIN SPEECH MAY 13 – MARK PODWAL
I am extremely grateful to the Terezin Memorial to once again exhibiting my art.
I am honored that Dąbrowa’s mayor, Artur Gajlewicz, and Dorota Budzinska will speak in video presentations.
My prints on the history of anti-Semitism, first exhibited here at the Terezin Ghetto Museum, were shown in 2015 at the Czech Embassy in London in an exhibition arranged by Rabbi Andrew Goldstein. At the opening reception a young woman asked how could I draw art on the Holocaust considering German philosopher Theodore Adorno’s famous dictum, “Writing poetry after Auschwitz is impossible.” Adorno meant that after the Holocaust, artistic expression became inadequate to describe the reality of the world; that art cannot express the reality of the industrialization of the murder of millions of people.
The woman’s question surprised me and I don’t recall what I said to defend my art. Afterwards, I read that Adorno later changed his mind, conceding, “it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz one could no longer write poems.”
Later, thinking about Adorno’s quote, I felt my answer should have been, “What is impossible after Auschwitz is not poetry but anti-Semitism.” And yet, according to a 2019 poll by the Anti-Defamation League, approximately one in four Europeans holds anti-Semitic views.
With the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, education is essential to reject bigotry. Dorota Budzinska, a schoolteacher from Dąbrowa Białostocka and her colleagues from Poland must be praised for their work educating against anti-Semitism. Five years ago, Dorota connected me with my Polish heritage when I was invited to speak at a conference she organized on the Jews of Dąbrowa, the shtetl where my mother was born. The visit to my mother’s birthplace led to the creation of these exhibited works. Recently, Dorota received a grant from Forum for Dialogue for a mural to commemorate Dąbrowa’s Jewish past provided I design the mural. The mural’s title is "May their memory be a blessing."
The traditional saying “may his/her memory be a blessing" does not simply mean we should only recall the memories of that person. Rather, we should look towards the future expressing the hope that the person's memory and the acts they performed will inspire others to carry on their legacy of performing good deeds.
Dorota once told me that someone had said since her generation was born after the war, they did not manage to save a single life. I answered that she has saved a whole Jewish community.
Holocaust scholar Robert Jan Van Pelt’s book, “An Atlas of Jewish Space,” with 138 of my illustrations, funded by the Babyn Yar Foundation, is dedicated to Dorota in addition to Robert Jan’s dedication.
Seventy-three kilometers from Dąbrowa is Białystok, which adds its name to Dąbrowa to differentiate my mother’s birthplace from many other towns in Poland named Dąbrowa. In August 1943, twelve hundred Jewish children from Białystok arrived here in Terezin. It was rumored that the children would be sent to Switzerland to be exchanged for German prisoners of war. The Białystok children were separated from the rest of the inmates and held in relatively good conditions. Yet several weeks after their arrival, the children and their chaperones were transported to Auschwitz where all were immediately gassed.
With anti-Semitism increasing in Europe, creating art after Auschwitz is indeed necessary. Particularly, art exhibited here where before the pandemic about 300,000 people each year visited to learn of the horrors that anti-Semitic beliefs can lead to.
My original drawings, exhibited as prints in three United States museums, in Białystok, and Grodno, will remain here in the Terezin Memorial’s art collection. I cannot imagine a better home; where the heartbreaking art of those imprisoned here attest to the saying that although history may not repeat itself, it rhymes.