Painting Czeslawa Kwoka, Honoring Children of the Holocaust
Paintings by Lori Schreiner, Poems by Theresa Senato Edwards
For most of us, looking at photographs from the Holocaust would be painful and difficult, something to turn away from. But when Lori Schreiner had a chance encounter with such a photograph on a back page of the New York Daily News it changed her life. She found in the photograph of a Polish Catholic teenager, Czeslawa Kwoka, a compelling call to give witness. She would spend time over the next four years in response using palette knife, fingers, and paint to the photographs of Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish political prisoner who documented those coming into Auschwitz, and photographs from the archives in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland.
Painting Czeslawa Kwoka is the result of four years of work, a collaboration with poet Theresa Senato Edwards. At the time of its inception, 2007, both students were at Goddard College's low-residency masters program. Over the ensuing years Schreiner would produce 24 paintings based on the photographs of Brasse and the Holocaust museum archives. Sixteen poems accompany the paintings. Additionally, as part of the project Schreiner and Edwards gleaned what information they could about the children from records at these museums.
What Schreiner seems to have been striving for, and indeed achieved, is less a copying or even transposing a photograph into the medium of paint than an attempt to let the spirit of the child come through. Says Schreiner, "It was a profound experience. I would be present with the photograph and be open to their energy." Features are sometimes blurred but the paintings and the subject have a powerful presence. They are amorphous yet powerful, like someone to whom you are strongly connected perceived in a dream.
The paintings are satisfyingly tactile, the application of paint sometimes caressing, sometimes slashing and gouging the image into existence. In other paintings the features are wiped away as if the artist must negate the details to find the essence of the child.
Painting Czeslawa Kwoka has gone on to win the Tacenda Literary Award for best book from BleakHouse Publishing. Beside the book signing at River Gallery School, there will be book signings and readings forthcoming at St. Mark's Chuch in New York City, noted for its literary history, and at American University to be part of a class using their book as one of the texts.
Though I wish the book were a larger format, taking its place in the world with a presence that is commensurate with its emotional impact, Painting Czeslawa Kwoka: Honoring Children of the Holocaust is a remarkable document of a remarkable and brave journey.
The tears began, as if in slow motion, from behind the eyes then slowly down my cheeks until they came to a halt on my shirt where they will remain wet drops of memories. My memories that still, 65 years after the Holocaust has ended, are as real as when I heard them as whispers in the refugee camp in Germany. After so much time I still remember the stories and will always be the little boys Emanuel and Avram Rosenthal (p 24). Even if the horrors are too great to deal with, remember we must. Painting Czeslawa Kwoka is a touching tribute, a visual blessing, a treasure of colors and words, a gift to a broken world by two amazing women. Books that teach us to remember with such grace and heart are the glue that brings us together in the hope that this will never happen again.
To read the review at Referential Magazine by Stan Galloway, click here.
Excerpts of reviews posted at Amazon:
Painting Czeslawa Kwoka, Honoring Children of the Holocaust is a heartbreaking look through the eyes of two artists at the souls who suffered and passed away during that most awful of human events. The paintings and the words combine to tear at your heart. I found it impossible to read through this book without crying. Nevertheless, it's important to savor art like this, lest we forget how easily human nature turns toward darkness. The paintings and poems in this book illuminate the suffering of these dead children with light. It doesn't make their passing any less useless, but it at least serves as a heartfelt memorial. We will not forget.
You know, going in, this won't be easy–that you might feel the agony of the children in these photographs, paintings, and poems–that you might "be there," too, as a witness to the atrocities they suffered–that you might sink into the grief of their deaths caused only because they were Catholic kids, Jewish children, mixed races, or Jehovah's Witnesses who, during the Holocaust, committed the untimely crime of being born. But if you can bear to risk this sensitive, artistic rendering of their sweet and stoic faces, you will surely stroke their shaved little heads with your eyes, embrace their thin little bodies with your warmest thoughts, and extend their too-short lives with your timeless remembrances.
The images and words from this little gem of a book took me deep into my heart where I felt the pain of the children commingle with the pain of my own lost inner souls and something in the connection brought me closer to wholeness. Thank you for this beautiful collaboration.