By SHELLEY NEESE—
While intense anti-government rallies spread throughout Ukraine, the Jewish community of Dnepropetrovsk refused to let the country’s unrest cloud their recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
On 27 January—while President Yanukovych battled with opposition leaders and protestors fortified their barricades—a group of 300 people gathered at the Memory of the Jewish People and the Holocaust Museum to light candles of remembrance.
As part of the ceremony, the museum hosted a special art exhibit to memorialize the Holocaust’s over six million victims.
The museum is housed in the Menorah Center, the largest multi-use Jewish Community Center in the world. Inside the Center’s seven stepped towers are a concert hall, kosher restaurants, a hotel, banquet halls, a youth hostel, and bookshops. The seventy million dollar facility opened its doors last year.
In its year of operation, the museum’s director Dr. Igor Schupak has put a particular emphasis on the representation of the Holocaust through art. The special art exhibit which opened for Holocaust Remembrance Day is called the Auschwitz Album Revisited, and is now a permanent part of the museum’s collection. The series includes forty oil paintings depicting scenes from the black and white photographs from the Auschwitz Album, a 56 page album containing the only surviving photographic evidence of the extermination process from inside a concentration camp.
Although the historical purpose of the Auschwitz Album is unknown, the photographers were most likely SS officers given the task of taking photo IDs of inmates. The existence of the album is peculiar since the Nazis were careful to keep the Final Solution a secret. In 200 photos (all available online through Yad Vashem’s website) the Auschwitz Album documents the arrival of Hungarian Jews from Carpatho-Ruthenia in the early summer of 1944. The photos show thousands of Jews arriving in box cars and disembarking on the train ramp. On their coats are the infamous yellow stars and in their hands they carry tiny parcels.
The photos show the Jews being separated into “fit to work” and “not fit to work” groups. Those “fit to work” were registered, deloused, and robbed of all their personal effects before being lined up and herded into the labor camps. The “unfit to work” included the elderly, children, and pregnant mothers. The SS officers ushered the “unfit to work” to waiting groves behind the crematoriums. They were ordered to wait further instructions until, group by group, they were ushered to the gas chambers under the guise of taking a harmless shower.
In the pictures, the victims’ expressions give no indication that they knew what was about to happen to them—no understanding that these were their final moments.
Dr. Pat Mercer Hutchens is the artist behind the Auschwitz Album Revisited. Pat is well known in Washington DC as a practicing artist and art teacher. One of her many long-time students was the late US Senator, Ted Kennedy. Her husband, General Jim Hutchens, is a retired chaplain from the U.S. Army and current president of the Christian Zionist organization, The Jerusalem Connection International.
When Pat first saw the black and white photographs she began having nightmares. She dreamed she was wandering through the concentration camps with children dying all around her. “I tried to resuscitate one child after another, but nothing I did brought them back to life,” Pat says. When she awoke, she felt compelled to paint. Only through art did she feel like, in some form, she could give the victims life again, preserve their memory, and mark their last breaths.
First, she painted from one of the Auschwitz Album photos which showed a woman holding a child and looking through the train window. Then she painted three women whose hair had been crudely chopped and who were forced to change into sack dresses.
Even after being diagnosed with cancer herself, and enduring three years of chemotherapy, Pat continued to paint. She painted a woman holding a sack of challah bread on the train ramp, a grandmother standing in line for extermination with her grandchildren, an elderly man walking in solitude to the gas chamber, and two rabbis standing together in stunned silence. In many of the paintings, as in the photographs, smoke from the crematorium is seen rising in the background. There are forty original paintings in total.
While Jews have responded through art and literature to the horrors of the Holocaust, The Auschwitz Album Revisited is a unique expression of empathy on the part of a Christian artist. Pat’s colleague summarized the exhibit saying, “Even though the darkness of the Nazi regime is accounted for in these paintings, what comes through in the eyes of the victims, and through the loving hand of the artist, is the essence of the God of light.”
Before lighting a candle at the Remembrance ceremony, the Chief Rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Shmuel Kaminezki, expressed his gratitude for the eighty million Christians in America who, like Pat, stand in support of Israel and the Jewish people. “Knowing we have so much Christian support,” Kaminezki said, “helps the Jewish people and Israel not to feel so alone in the world.”
Inna Rogatchi, curator of the exhibit, noted that, “it is quite natural that this exhibit is happening in this city which is so important in the history of Judaism.” Referring to the many years of persecution Ukranians faced through Nazi occupation and Communist dictatorship, Rogatchi continued, “In recent years, a miracle has happened. The Jewish community is being renewed.”
The renewal that the Jews of Ukraine are experiencing as a community, they long to see for the nation as a whole. After the closing of the Remembrance ceremony, where not a word was mentioned about politics, many of the assembly’s younger participants changed into puffy coats and thick scarfs. They walked past the childhood home of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Chabad rabbi, to the government building downtown.
They spent the rest of International Holocaust Remembrance Day waving the Ukrainian flag.