Life-Affirming Holocaust Painting Draws Attention in Reading

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

What is your reaction to this Holocaust painting by Juliette Aristides?

Now on display in a one woman show Observations at the Reading Public Museum that continues until September 14, the large canvass titled 1945 (Bendheim Remembrance) attracts rapt and immediate attention. Ownership of the painting quietly changed hands during the opening weekend, shortly after Alison Rotenberg brought her husband Dr. Larry Rotenberg MD, a child survivor of the Holocaust, over to see saying: “We’re buying this.” The Rotenbergs plan to temporarily place the work in their Reading, Pennsylvania home, for depth of contemplation and then move it to a more permanent, public venue.

See their interview following the jump, and see Dr. Rotenberg’s article A Child Survivor/Psychiatrist’s Personal Adaption in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry.
How do I know all of this? Full disclosure: Juliette Aristides is my step-daughter, though she was an adult when I married her father, Barry Bub, then a family practitioner in Reading, PA. Juliette was born in South Africa, and while yet in her infancy, immigrated with her parents to Reading, PA. Many family members were murdered in Nazi death camps on both the paternal “Bub” and maternal “Bendheim” sides of her lineage. Her long period of research and work on the canvas was encouraged and funded by a surviving branch of the Bendheim family.

Juliette’s usual theme in her art is “beauty” — making this work all the more significant. When I first saw this painting, it was unframed, leaning against a wall in Juliette’s atelier in Seattle. Tears rushed in as I witnessed this new evolution in Holocaust-related art. Even so, since the painting’s inception I had wondered how this interpretation might affect survivors and their loved ones-both here and overseas.

The couple who will take possession of the painting when the show closes, Alison and Larry Rotenberg were willing to be interviewed for this article. They own several other pieces of her work and have known her since childhood when she was an art student. I ask Alison, a retired realtor in the Reading area, what touches her in the imagery, some aspects are so subtle that they can only be discerned by viewing the 49″×72″ oil on canvas work in person.

“It is evocative of so much. On the right hand side of the painting are the crematoria, the smoke, and perhaps the souls going up. Then the two people–he is looking off to the side with that sort of pained expression, with the striped shirt that was so common in the concentration camps. She is much straighter, looking ahead. She steps out, she’s stepping forward…they’re leaving that all behind and the future is ahead. Or he could be one of the prisons and she could represent the future, for as it is said we can light a candle or curse the darkness. We recently went to the 20th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Larry and our second son went to the original gathering in Jerusalem around 1981. There are fewer and fewer people alive to attend these things. This painting, it’s for future remembrance.”

Dr. Larry Rotenberg was born in Romania, where his family was walled into the ghetto that was set up for the Jews of Czernowitz. In the fall of 1941, not yet eight years old, along with his family and 200,000 others he endured a forced march to the Ukraine in mid-winter where his beloved parents would die of the extreme conditions in a village turned-internment camp. His sisters foraged for food until two sisters and Larry were shifted to an orphanage in Bucharest by way of Yasi in 1944. From there the youth made their way to Western Russia, Poland, Sweden, Denmark and finally to Canada in 1948. This data I’ve taken from his published article which is a poignant valuable piece for all who wish more understanding of the beautiful, sustaining, early life family remembrances, experiences, reactions and emotional development of a young Holocaust survivor. During our interview, he indicated first meeting his wife in Vancouver, Canada. Still, it is the painting that he wants to speak about on our call:

“The work has a degree of both dread and grandeur. Dread of what they have left behind and the grandeur of their future. It reminds me of Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
doth walk in fear and dread.
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend.
Doth close behind him tread.

It sort of summarizes for me what this couple are trying to do, trying to escape from this frightful scene but they can’t quite do it, although they are going into a hopeful future, they still have to take the weight and heaviness with them spiritually and mentally. They will always carry it with them. What is so amazing is that this painting is such a powerful evocation of the spirit of survival of the Holocaust.”

I ask could this image have been received ten, twenty, thirty years ago? Dr. Rotenberg explains:

“The immediacy of the past was still sufficiently there to keep this from occurring. Well, it is so that what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. In a sense this couple carries with them a hope of humanity, a hope of the world. If you go back to the Talmud it teaches that one who saves a life, saves the whole world. This painting captures aspects of that, too. Each human being contains a world that lives within him or her and dies within him or her. Triumph and tragedy are combined in this picture, evocative of the importance of the singularity of human survival.

If you want to be even more symbolic, it is almost like Adam and Eve have re-emerged from being thrown out into the world and have come through a crisis and through the crisis to somehow survive and yet carry the memory. The painting is complex, offering dozens of layers of meaning. The thing about art is that ultimately you like a piece because it speaks to you. It captured Alison and certainly captures me.”

Our call ends, and so I turn to find that section of the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Colerige, a poem my father had me memorize as a youth. Its fullness capturing the essence of our the feelings they’d presented with such unity of vision:

Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

But soon there breathed a wind on me,
Nor sound nor motion made:
Its path was not upon the sea,
In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek
Like a meadow-gale of spring-
It mingled strangely with my fears,
Yet it felt like a welcoming.

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,
Yet she sailed softly too:
wetly, sweetly blew the breeze-
On me alone it blew.

Observations, the solo exhibition of works by Seattle artist Juliette Aristides continues until September 14 at the Reading Public Museum.

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