From Generation to Generation

Bittersweet Legacy  -- Creative Responses
to the Holocaust

Cynthia Moskowitz Brody, editor of the anthology, speaks.

Daughter of Holocaust Survivors who found a voice to express her painful experiences, through her art.  Author of an anthology and art exhibition.

"When I was small I knew very little, but I knew one thing that many others did not know.  I knew that something had happened that was so terrible that no one would speak about it.  I sensed that other children knew nothing about this mystery and I had no desire to be the one to reveal the information.

The Holocaust had happened to my family and to me.  It was our dark secret. My mother had been in a place called Auschwitz-Birkenau, somewhere far away where she had to sleep on wooden bunks and wondered what she had done that was so bad,  that she could not even have a pillow.  My father had been a prisoner in forced labor.

Both of them had been through too much suffering, had lost all that was important to them.  There was a haunted look about them.  When, at age five, I asked my parents why I did not have any grandparents I was told "because the Germans killed them".  When I asked  for the reason my mother told me "because they were Jewish" - as if this were explanation enough.  The rest was left up to my imagination, but the seed had been planted for unbounded fear that my family was in danger, the world was a treacherous place and that human beings had within them the capacity for real evil.  This haunted me  for most of my childhood. 

As more information came to the surface I began to realize that my parents had outwitted death, by some strange twist of fate, and so I had been allowed a life.  The feeling of responsibility that accompanied such a realization was substantial .  If  statistically speaking, I should never have been born, I felt I must be here to do something very important.  No matter what I did, it never seemed enough for the price that had been paid.  Additionally, the "memories" that I had inherited hung like a weight around my neck and there seemed no way to relieve myself of the burden.

I could not talk to my parents about the Holocaust because I knew this would be painful for them to remember and I did not want them to worry about me.  Although the message of evil had been passed on to me at a very early age, I was still expected to be happy and not spend time worrying.  This double message in addition to natural feelings of protectiveness of my parents led me to keep my true feelings, fears and questions to myself. My friends seemed oblivious to the Holocaust even though most of them were Jewish.  I was on my own in trying to live quietly while this internal monster devoured me. 

Then one day as I entered adolescence, I discovered I could draw and create images where nothing had existed before.  I had finally found something I was good at and began spending most of my time drawing, often when I should have been taking notes in school.

As the years passed I began painting and developing my own style.  Still, I felt the need to express something of importance about the Holocaust, and was terrified to even begin an effort.  I was afraid that once I began, I would be swallowed up in the horrifying imagery.  What I discovered was quite to the contrary.  In allowing the darkness into the light of day I gained control over it.

I could select the imagery and wipe it away in one swipe of the rag.  When I chose to  use words as my medium, I could finally say out loud what no one cared to hear before, and I felt better once the laboring words were delivered.  The poison had begun to makes its way out of my mind and my body, and in so doing had transformed into a thing of beauty.  The very cause of the suffering was the inspiration for creativity - a last attempt at surviving a reality that was unfathomable.

This same feeling has been repeated a hundred fold in the experience of gathering materials for this anthology.  I was drawn to the San Francisco area in June of 1994 knowing no one but my daughter, who was attending graduate school.  Within a few months of arriving I found myself in an intergenerational group for Holocaust survivors and children of survivors.  This was my first experience of sharing my past with anyone who would listen. I also listened.  What I heard were references to poetry, stories, music and art that these people had created in response to their experiences .  What struck me with great force was the fact that, like me, others had used creative means to try to integrate their painful experiences about the Holocaust, and much of that material might never be seen because of  its private nature. I knew in that moment that I had to bring those creative expressions out into the world.  I sensed that they would be extremely powerful and would lend  greater understanding of how the Holocaust affected those who survived it as well as those who inherited its legacy.  What I did not expect  was the realization of how far reaching the impact was on people of many varied backgrounds.  Another discovery was that the subject of the Holocaust continues to burn into the human conscience and consciousness and as a result new images continue to be forged even now, over fifty years since its end.  There seems to be a continuous epilogue to the story of the Holocaust.

Included in this anthology are many different Holocaust experiences.  Some come from American Jews who lost no family members, yet were changed permanently as human beings upon learning of its horrors.  They too needed a place to put their feelings, and I believe they belong here, alongside the works of those who have experiential memories.  The work of survivors, their children and grandchildren are replete with intense imagery and emotion and it is clear that the trauma was transmitted through the generations.  What was also passed on was a sense of survival.  Although the stories, images and themes reflect the pain of this darkest time in history, those who created them have used their own power of artistic thought, drive and determination, to look the monster in the face and transform it into something that can finally be seen, if not understood.

Those of us who, as individuals were creating in a vacuum, unheard and unseen,  are now being given the opportunity to give voice to the millions whose voices were silenced.  They too were only individuals, seemingly unimportant as such, but overwhelming in the company of six million others like themselves.  Those artists and writers who have had the courage to create from their own darkness come together in this book to forge their collective voices into a song of truth that can finally be shared."

To see Cynthia Brody's projects, please look at these web sites:

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.