Book Reviews

Bittersweet Legacy. Creative Responses to the Holocaust.

Edited by Cynthia Moskowitz Brody. Studies in the Shoah. Volume XXIV Lanham: University Press of America, 2001. xxiv + 247 pp. Biographical notes. ISBN 0-7618-1976-2.

Reviewed by Gillian McCann, Ph.D. Candidate, Religious Studies, University of Toronto.

 Art as a Healing Medium: Creative Responses to the Holocaust

"Bittersweet Legacy" is an ambitious anthology of art, poetry and fiction on the subject of the Holocaust and its aftermath. It is part of the Studies in the Shoah series, and according to its editor, Cynthia Moskowitz Brody, was an "attempt at understanding a reality that was unfathomable". This work emerged from meetings between survivors of the Holocaust and children of survivors in the San Francisco area in 1994. The works of art became for many of the seventy-five contributors a therapeutic way to process either personal experience of the Holocaust, or the emotional legacy passed on by parents who had experienced it. Brody defends the title of the anthology against charges that no sweetness could be derived from such a great tragedy by asserting that hope and faith did survive alongside the most bitter fallout of the Shoah.

The works in this collection raise many questions about the emotional effects of the Holocaust, both for survivors and the generations that have followed. The effects of the Shoah upon Jewish religious beliefs, the relations between the Jewish community and the descendants of perpetrators are all also examined in this anthology. The overarching theme of a "Bittersweet Legacy" is the possibility of artistic expression and dialogue as a medium for discussing these complex and charged issues. The challenges involved in this are fully recognized by many of those whose work is featured, and many of the artists did not approach topics related to the Holocaust until later their careers.

The anthology is broken down into sections entitled: The American Experience of the Holocaust, Through the Eyes of a Child, Survival, Inheritance, Speaking to the Enemy, and Chosen. Each chapter is illustrated with photographs of artwork on related themes. The artwork functions extremely successfully in amplifying the poems and breaking up the density of the text. Over the course of the book a sort of dialogue takes place between the two which is mutually enhancing. The art works with many of the same topics as the poems, but also functions as a form of elegy and memorial, often featuring images or photographs of murdered relatives of the artist. A full description of each piece is given at the back of the book, along with biographies of both the writers and artists.

"Bittersweet Legacy" follows a trajectory and chronology that begins with depictions of American Jewish life and effects of the discovery of the truth about the Holocaust. The next chapter includes poems about the experiences of hidden children. The theme of children ties these two sections together, as does the issue of the guilt that haunts those who escaped the worst horrors of the Shoah. Lillian Richman's poem "A Family Reunited" captures the mixed emotions of a Jewish family "made strangers by the unreason of the world" who are reunited after the war. The centre piece of the anthology is the section entitled "Survival" and features poems by or about those who lived through the Holocaust. This chapter contains some of the most harrowing pieces of the entire collection. The next section focuses on the following generations and their struggles to come to terms with a dark and often secret history. The poem "What's Really True" by Beth Aviv Greenbaum is a harsh warning that traumas are passed down the family line and must be addressed.

The following sections examine the implications of the Holocaust for German/Jewish relations, both personal and political, and ends with the shortest section which is entitled "Chosen". This last chapter focuses on remembrance of the beauty of European Jewish culture, and the effects upon religion beliefs that have occurred in the wake of the greatest tragedy in Jewish history. Juliet Zarembski's beautiful "G-D Poem" points to the continuation of faith, writing that despite the vagaries of fate, " I am forever given to you, bound by the same shreds that bound Isaac". The final poem and artwork point to Brody's idea of a bittersweet inheritance. Poet Susan Terris instructs her children to embrace the rich legacy of resilience of their great grandfathers in their own lives. The casein and collage that accompanies the poem called "My Mother, My Daughter-a Tree of Life" is the final image of the book and evokes the continuity of family and tradition through the generations.

"Bittersweet Legacy" is sweeping in the scope of its subject matter, and in this lies both its strength and weakness. The one criticism that could be made of this anthology is that it tries to cover too much ground at once. The chapters on the American Jewish experience and on the relations between Germans and Jews might have been best saved for another volume. Their subject matter is of a different order and tone to that of the other chapters. But this is small problem considering the quality of the overall work.

Anyone reading this collection should be prepared to take time over it, as it demands much of the reader. The issues discussed are challenging, and often taboo, and poetry and art serve as an effective and visceral way of approaching them. Poetry, in particular, is a medium that reveals the inner life the individual and allows for a sense of intimacy between reader and poet. The immediacy and personal nature of each poem acts as a corrective to the depersonalizing and dehumanizing effects of the Holocaust. Some of the poems are so stark and moving that I had to put the book down for the evening after reading them. Many of these works of art do not permit detachment, and the reader is forced to engage fully with the emotions of the artist. As with all effective works of art, many of the pieces create universes of their own and prompt both an emotional reaction and personal reflection. This collection will have particular resonance for relatives of survivors, but can also be appreciated by a wider audience. The issues raised are of universal concern, and make trenchant commentary on themes that are sadly still relevant today. As those directly impacted by the Shoah struggle to process its effects; a parallel effort continues in the western world to access culpability and to effect change.

Of necessity the issues being raised in "Bittersweet Legacy" do not allow for closure or resolution. Some of the topics, such as relations between Jews and Germans in the modern day are only touched upon. As with all pioneering, efforts this anthology lays out a map of some of the terrain to be covered in depth in the future. As Brody states in the introduction, the contributing artists have used their artistic vision to " look the monster in the face and transform it into something that can finally be seen, if not understood." This collection can be used as a starting point for discussion and personal meditation. It is a tribute to Cynthia Moskowitz Brody that she has a larger vision for the role of art. In a society where artistic endeavours are so often seen as merely a diversion, Brody demonstrates that art can function as a powerful tool for transformation and healing, both for individuals and communities.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2002.
All rights reserved.