Art of the Holocaust lecture series at the Cummings Centre
by Kristine Berey
Montreal artist Rita Briansky always knew she would come to terms with the Holocaust through her art, but for years she was unable to begin. “In all the years since the war, I knew I would paint something. But I couldn’t fathom ‘six million’. I couldn’t paint something I didn’t experience.”
A trip in the mid-nineties to Eastern Europe changed that. Returning to the town she had left at the age of four, she found she recalled everything up to that point in her life. “I remembered my town very clearly. I remembered my friends, the streets, my backyard , which I visited. I recall my mother packing everything and the ship coming here.”
Recovering her childhood memories also brought Briansky face to face with what she had lost. “I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and one surviving cousin told me what happened to members of our family who were murdered at Treblinka. I didn’t go with the intention of painting but after visiting the camps I came back to Montreal in a state of mourning and had to express it.”
The result was a series of paintings, the Kaddish Series, now donated to the Jewish General Hospital.
Briansky explains that paintings such as hers, painted by people who didn’t experience the slaughter firsthand, are mainly symbolic. Holocaust art also comprises the art done by survivors after liberation, and the art by people in the thick of the horror, who had very little access to artist materials. “Art done on the spot has an immediacy, and like art done from memory, bears witness,” Briansky said.
In the three lectures Briansky will present, she will talk about the art of the Holocaust in general and about her own work, the Kaddish series. The second lecture will be devoted to the art of Terezin, a little town just outside Prague on the German border that she visited on a return trip to Europe a few years later. “It was originally built as a garrison town, a fortress, that became a sleepy town,” Briansky said. “The Nazis found it a very useful locale as a holding place for prisoners.”
The town was used to demonstrate to the International Red Cross that Jewish prisoners were not mistreated, Briansky recounted. “It was really a ghetto and the Nazis called it a “paradise ghetto”, a model town where there was culture. But it was all a sham, and people were shipped to Auschwitz within two years.”
The town was built for 7,000 but averaged 42,000 people at one time, with 140,000 passing through. “One of the most horrific things about it was that there were about 15,000 children there,” Briansky said. “Children under 12 were protected for a time but after 1944 even infants were sent off.” Only 132 children survived.
Artists, actors and musicians were detained in the town. “While they were there they produced a tremendous body of work,” Briansky said.
On Briansky’s visit to Prague, she saw a memorial with 78,000 names of those who perished, inscribed in several rooms, from ceiling to floor. She wonders how, when the Red Cross visited Terezin, they could not have seen what was really happening. “Did they see, did they want to see? I don’t know. But even if they called it a ‘paradise ghetto’, how could they justify having it in the first place?”
Rita Briansky will speak Tuesdays from 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm. The Art of the Holocaust, April 17; The Art of Terezin, May 1 and The Kaddish Series, May 15. Info: (514) 342-1234.