Drawing on the past

There are some events that language fails to explain. Historians may try to make sense of past realities but perhaps in the end it is only the artist who can come close to communicating the intrinsic pain and suffering. The Holocaust is such an event. Artists are still bearing witness to its horrors, responding with brush strokes on canvas, and handprints in clay and stone.

"I think the artist has had to grapple with a set of historical facts and experiences which were probably unprecedented. In history, there are not too many chapters where genocide became an industry, and factories were established for the purpose of killing," says Tess Wise, executive director and board chairman of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Central Florida.

Believing that "art must be integrated into the teaching of the Holocaust," the center has partnered with Orlando Museum of Art to present the acclaimed Judy Chicago and Donald Woodman traveling exhibit, Holocaust Project: From Darkness Into Light. The ambitious retrospective, on display through Nov. 3 at OMA, has had a profound personal effect on Wise who struggled to stay alive in the ghettos and camps of Poland during World War II.

"As a survivor, I responded to it in a way that I haven't responded to anything else. Judy Chicago's imagery and the art she has created came close to simply crushing me," says Wise.

She believes that visual art is the perfect medium to deal with the terrors of the Holocaust, a subject where language often falls short. "This is a chapter in history which defies language, and it defies understanding," says Wise. "It is almost impossible to describe in words the horror and brutality and pain and suffering the Holocaust inflicted on its victims. ... The visual arts touch the strings of your soul `and` speak to you in a language of color, shape, form and in the language of history like nothing else can."

In order to explain the breadth and depth of the exhibit to the general public, the exhibition has been fleshed out with workshops, such as The Holocaust and the Artistic Imagination program on Oct. 6 at Orlando Museum of Art (advanced registration advised; 407-896-4231, ext. 262; $20). Guest speakers will include Dr. Kenneth Hanson, a professor of Judaic Studies from the University of Central Florida. But event organizers are hoping not just for historical and artistic perspectives (a video will be shown examining the work of Chicago and Woodman); audience members will also be able to listen firsthand to the personal experiences of Holocaust survivor Helen Greenspun. Overall, says Jan Clanton, OMA's adult program specialist, the museum hopes it will be a day where "history comes alive for people." On a lighter note, on Oct. 17, the museum hosts Jewish Heritage Day, a family-style celebration of Jewish artistry and creativity.

But in the current global climate in which terrorist attacks have become commonplace, Wise says the need for education about the Holocaust remains more important than ever.

"Had the world not been indifferent when we were the victims during the second World War, perhaps not so many of us would have died," Wise says.

Following the mission to never let the truth be forgotten, the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center will host Sept. 9 through Nov. 27 The Holocaust Through Czech Children's Eyes exhibit (407-628-0555). Sponsored by the Terezin Memorial (a former concentration camp site), the collection comprises a series of prize-winning drawings made by children currently living in the Czech Republic.

Wise is convinced that education about the Holocaust is a crucial antidote needed to ensure a more peaceful future. She's optimistic that the message is slowly getting across: In 1994, Florida became one of the few states in the U.S. to mandate that the Holocaust be taught in all public schools. In addition, Wise says the response to the center, an interfaith, interethnic organization (50 percent of its board members are non-Jewish) has been "enormous."

But Wise says the educational process is also enormous and "never-ending."

"We now talk a great deal about terrorism. ... We see racism. We see anti-Semitism raising its ugly head globally. ... We'll have to make sure that education is the answer."

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