We Don’t Paint with the Ashes of Our Dead

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram, Judaism Editor

Old wounds were opened for Holocaust survivors and those who care about them when art gallery owner, Martin Bryer, placed on show a painting made of ashes of the Holocaust victims’ murdered at Majdanek extermination camp. He initially claimed his decision to have “no moral flaws” but ultimately succumbed to world-wide pressure to withdraw the painting from exhibition. This is the letter that I sent to him:

Dear Mr. Bryer:

In the 1980’s in Vineland, a New Jersey Holocaust survivor went back to Auschwitz on a pilgrimage to visit the ashes of her entire family and reflect upon her experience. While sitting, her hand stroking some loose earth, she came upon a significant piece of jawbone. Distressed to the extreme, she put it into her pocketbook. Back in the states, she came into my office, when I was serving as a Jewish Federation executive, saying she’d not meant to remove it from the site, but in her distress had done so. She placed it on my desk asking what to do now.

Letter continued after the jump.

Our community had the jawbone checked to find out if it was a human or animal remains. Human. I then invited the local Holocaust survivors in for meetings to discuss what to do. We decided to hold a ritual for “the unknown survivor” in the Jewish cemetery and to create a grave for the bone and a monument to be placed there.

I will never forget the initial meeting and our profound weeping – for some it could have been a family member’s jawbone, for others it was the purest of all symbols of those lost in the Shoah — often family whom they remember every day. Did they speak of their own suffering in the camps as we sat there? No. They remembered their children and siblings, parents, grandparents and friends in life.

A process began to unfold. Those attending the ritual planning meeting took assignments to contemplate which prayers to say, to consider who might make a casing to hold the bone for a burial with dignity, who to invite to the ritual, how to word the invitation. Our process was the opposite of yours, Mr. Bryer. Had you witnessed our survivors opening up, many for the first time – only one of the Holocaust oral history archives existed at this time, then maybe you would possibly understand and begin to appreciate how healing and holiness happen. The historic Alliance Cemetery in rural southern New Jersey overflowed on the day of that ritual.

If you, Mr. Bryer, and the artist Mr. von Hausswolff, who is quoted as saying, “The ash has followed me, always been there…  as if the ash contains energies or memories or souls of people… people tortured, tormented and murdered by other people.” wish to speak with me after reading this article, I’d like to gently help the artist work through his dilemma — the pain he’s carried that now is surely amplified through his decisions and those of the gallery owner. And, with his permission, a proper ritual for interring the work can be created so that healing can be renewed.

First though, kindly donate the painting to Jewish community in Lund, Sweden for interment. We Jews neither exhibit, nor sell our dead — with our love and prayers we return any and all bodily remains to the earth from which we all came.”