Postcards from (Death) Camp Waldsee-1944 August 17, Mon-Thurs 9-5, Fri. 9-3

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I asked a question.... 'Was there any loving in the camps?' 'Oh yes!' she replied, 'my sisters were there, family loves family even in the camps.' 'Oh' I said - ... 'No... I meant the other kind of loving - like in sex.' She was not shocked-she wrinkled up and shook her head-'who could love bones, you were just a bone covered with lice.'" Text scrawled in capital letters with frequent edits and red rectangles surrounding every instance of "love," Stephen Lack's drawing is not the usual Holocaust discourse. "Then she paused and changed a bit, 'Yes!' she said 'there was this couple, they were young and in love... We all helped them... Three days later we all assemble to see them in the yard hanging... Yes there was love in the camps." Lack's piece hangs with many brethren in Hebrew Union College's current exhibition, "Waldsee, 1944." In the sandbox of Holocaust curatorial decisions, "Waldsee" is called a liar and a cheat and tattled upon. Where other Holocaust art uses aesthetics (often gimmicks) to try to tell the "truth" of the Holocaust, "Waldsee" does the opposite: it lies through its teeth. In the summer of 1944, Nazi soldiers invented the fictitious Waldsee, forcing Auschwitz camp prisoners to write postcards encouraging relatives to join them there. Hailing from Budapest and Berlin, "Waldsee" invited 70 international artists to create "postcards," mediating on the prototypes of 60 years earlier. Art produced under the penalty of death-many postcards were written right before entering the gas chambers-the postcards are especially ripe material, with the frighteningly literal danger of snuff films; in these images, everything is at stake. Holocaust art is hardly the pink, 10-ton elephant (think Koons) in the art museum any longer, after exhibits like "Art in Auschwitz 1940-1945" (Berlin) and the Jewish Museum (NY) showed the controversial, "Mirroring Evil." The Holocaust even has official cartoonists: Kubert, Spiegelman, Eisner. But "Waldsee" works insofar as it is postmodern; leaping, fully-armed, from the troubled mind of the "unreliable narrator," as in Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground. Like all postmodern paradoxes, unreliable narrators prove more reliable than their allegedly reliable peers. Mark Podwal's postcard, which features a death camp amid a swastika of train tracks, set on a rectangle with postage stamp edges and "Waldsee" in the German Fraktur typeface, conveys power, bureaucracy (a circular Nazi stamp intersects the rectangle), amid an Art Deco, eerily fin de-something look. But Podwal's most important move is scrawling his signature across the bottom left corner, "owning" the image. With this signature, Podwal's piece serves as a microcosm for all the work in the show. Hanan Harchol's postcard is filled with figures with striped shirts claustrophobically jammed together, but the figures' eyes ambiguously read also as sunglasses. This anachronistic move surfaces in Richard McBee's "Isaac's Terror has never been so real as in the postcards from the Shoah," which tells the tale of the sacrifice of Isaac, with Abraham and Isaac dressed in the same prison garb. Abraham's agreement to sacrifice his son perfectly mirrors the Holocaust victim's move to invite their relatives to death. By asking their own questions about Auschwitz-is there sex in Auschwitz? Sunglasses?-these artists get to tell the tales of the Holocaust that the writers of the Waldsee prototype postcards could not. The show challenges traditional documentary narrative, but where the Nazis forced the Auschwitz victims to write Nazi propaganda, HUC finds a new truth by allowing the artists to compose their own lies. Waldsee opened on July 19, and runs until January 2006. 

Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion, 1 W. 4th St. (betw. B'way & Mercer Sts.), 212-674-5300; Mon-Thurs 9-5, Fri. 9-3, Free 

Menachem Wecker


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu