The ART WORKS OF PAINED MEMORY – Essay by Inna Rogatchi



January 28, 2019

The  Times of Israel 

The full text of the essay published in The Times of Israel can be read here

Michael Rogatchi (C). Ghetto Song V. 2017.

For many decades, there was an artistic silence on the abyss of the Shoah, understandably. The shock of the generation that had to witness the Shoah did paralyse the creativity, expectedly.

Of course, there were people who were drawing in the camps, and in some of the camps which were in France, for example, there were even art exhibitions organised of the doomed people who were so incredibly brave to try to be above their and their brethren’ sentence. Not to speak on all sort of culture activities in the ghettos.

My dear friend great Simon Wiesenthal did show me his drawings which he made in Mauthausen, on the spot. Some of them were collected and published just after the end of the WWII, as a small booklet in 1945, and then, fifty years later, in 1995 the more posh version of the album has been reprinted in Austria in commemoration of the 50th anniversary ending of the WWII. That is all. Wiesenthal’s on-spot made drawings expressing his feelings at the time are virtually unknown. I am working on filling the gap at the moment.

I saw many things about the Holocaust, camp huts, ‘Dusche’ rooms, ovens for people. I saw shoes, rings, books, spectacles, human hair. I saw everything that is preserved as a material culture of the Holocaust for us to see and to learn. To try to understand, and to get it into our psycho in order to build a barrier against non-humanity. I saw it all, and I had mandate myself to get it without scream, and mostly without cry. I believe that our cries are an extra-joy to the barbarians who conceived, planned  and executed the Shoah, to all and every of their collaborators. And to all of the multitude of their faithful successors today. So I do not cry on these matters. 

But there is one thing that I cannot force myself to see. Nothing has changed in my perception of it since I saw it for the first time in 1993, over a quarter of a century ago by now. It is the children’s drawings made during the Shoah, would it be in Theresienstadt, or anywhere else, from the similar collections at Yad Vashem or at the other great institutions of memory. We all have our limits, and to see the children’s drawings made by the most vulnerable victims of the Shoah is beyond my capacity.  I does not know more powerful anti-Nazi statement than those hapless pictures, but it truly is very hard to be able to see it for many.

 The Works of Pained Memory

There are some great contemporary masters who grew up as the children Holocaust survivors, and who were still living inside the capsule of it for many decades after, in their art, as well.

Samuel Bak is painting the Holocaust all the time producing a vast amount of artistic evidence and statement on it. His works are comparable with Goya’s art depicting war, in its message of screaming protest. And naturally, his work is perceived largely as a personal statement of the artist who is survivor himself.

Alfred Skondovich, the other artist whose art on the Holocaust I am bringing out in my writings and  presentations, demonstrates the other tendency, which is the opposite one to the Samuel Bak’s attitude: Skondovich was so affected by what he was seeing as a youth in Bergen-Belsen that he kept everything that he ever painted on Holocaust secret. His wife has founded it by chance just a few years before the artist’s passing in 2011, and his Holocaust collection of over 70 important works is still virtually unknown even to the specialists.

David Labkovsky who also was a survivor did paint his beloved Vilna in ruins with such force of tormented soul, immediately after the end of the WWII, that his works as if brings the time and its atmosphere back to us intact. The same can be said about the works of Raphael Chwoles, also  survivor. In every work of Chwoles one can see the drama caused by the tragedy of Shoah even if there no Holocaust or war depicted in his great works.

But largely, the art was numbed after the Holocaust. And it was natural reaction. Elie Wiesel did not utter a word about anything Holocaust or war-connected during full ten years after the war’s end. I understand every minute of his silence. I feel the necessity of it. Although the Wiesel’s Night is the one of the most cinematographical prose ever written on any subject, Elie  was categorically against any of many efforts of making a film on his greatest book. He was sure that ‘the Holocaust is impossible to picture’.

In the Mirror of Shoah

We know that up until mid-1980s, there was no such thing, such phenomenon, such tendency, school, direction in the contemporary art as the art on Holocaust. The artists whom I have mentioned and any others were rather exception from the rule.

The logic and the essence of the process of creativity would explain it. Additionally to captivating the moment, documenting something, registering one’s emotions and thoughts, art is essentially about creation. Creation – in a normal world – is a positive activity. It brings joy to those who are busy with it. What joy could Shoah bring? What impulse for creation the abyss can produce?

But as we know, there are the artists today who are painting their reflections on the Shoah. What make them to do it? I can speak with some degree of authority of the artist whom I know well as a person, too. He is my husband, Michael Rogatchi. Michael’s many family members perished in the Shoah. He knew the other camps and its system personally as well, as he was born in the Gulag, and the family lived in exile many years after. He went to school via the emptied camp, he saw there strained animals, and met strained people who had nowhere to go. His family apartment was just 200 metres from the camp. I saw it in person, and even decades later, it chills one inside profoundly.

Michael’s first big international exhibition was organised in Poland, he wanted it this way. It was in Krakow, Oswienciem and Warsaw, in all places where the Shoah has left its deepest scars. It was important for Michael to bring his art there, and to start his big international tour from those very places. Why? Because it is where our memory still pulsates, all the years after the Shoah. Because the small bones which he did find on the ground in Auschwitz were similar to the small bones which he and his friends did find in the step in Kazakhstan in the 1950s and 1960s. But in the case of Auschwitz, it were the part of the bones of our Jewish brethren who were exterminated day and night, methodically, systematically, with a clear purpose, barbarically. 

I was impressed to see that my husband who is always self-controlled and has experienced many terrible things in his life, found it difficult to speak on camera while in Auschwitz. Nothing in one’s life, in no one’s life can prepare one to what a human being is seeing at any of the Nazi concentration camps.

By the time we were filming him in Auschwitz, Michael did create his series on Holocaust. He did it throughout the 1990s, and it was almost completed  by the beginning of 2000s. He did only a couple of more works on Holocaust in mid 2000s, and some recently, but they also were based on his sketches and thoughts back to mid-1990s. The name of the series is In the Mirror of Shoah. Thus, it is a self-examination, too. And one should not be surprised on the pattern, I think – if anything, the essential lesson of Shoah is self-examination of every person who ever thought about it. 

I would always remember my conversation with the Holocaust survivor, Polish Jewish woman living in New York, at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, my favourite place of prayer, except the Kotel. She came just for Yitzkor, and was very nervous not to miss it. We spoke afterwards. When we came to speak about the Michael’s art works and that ones on the Shoah, I mentioned quietly: “one does not produce many of those’. It was a long, long pause. And then the elderly lady with a number on her hand told me like not from this world: “No, one certainly does not”. I knew where she was at the moment. And I felt weird to be next to her but without that experience.


In Michael’s works on the Shoah, the main thing for him is to content the emotions. His works are marked by special, elaborated laconism. He believes that it is the most appropriate way to deal with pain which does not leave – because this pain would never diminish for a bit, neither would it leave. Many special stories can be told about practically each of those works. On the people who were staying a night long in front of the Final Solution work in Krakow, on the scores of people who had become as if frozen in front of the Faces of Holocaust in museum in Ukraine, on the perception of Shoah by the non-Jewish people who believe that it tells not only on the past, but on the present, too, on the Simon Wiesenthal’s reaction when Michael has presented his The Way to him, on how The Train, The Western Wall and the other paintings has become the tissue and ‘the characters’ of the film in The Lessons of Survival, and on the special and rare sensation of entire enlightening around him that Michael have had in Krakow when walking through completely empty and extremely sad former Jewish Ghetto area, and extraordinary Echo of Kazimierz painting that had been created  out of that rare happening.

Michael Rogatchi (C). Echo of Kazimierz. 2003.

From the experience of first-hand witness, I can say that an artist paints the Shoah only when he or she cannot do otherwise. And just because of this principal fact, it is a very special direction of art that includes a great deal of philosophy and psychology, as well.

A Time-Call for Contemporary Arts on Holocaust Forum

The Holocaust museums are largely following the tradition of Yad Vashem that focuses on the Holocaust-period everything, art including. It is fair in many cases, certainly it is fair with regard to Yad Vashem as it goes with its principal concept. But it is also sets the condition of the serious gap in public perception of the contemporary art that reflects Holocaust. Many of my distinguished colleagues, both art historians, psychologists, and historians are looking and speaking about it more and more loudly nowadays. We all feel that we has come to the stage when public and society would only benefit from more detailed exposure and more serious discussion about such special theme as art and the Shoah. And that art categories should certainly include additionally to paintings and drawings, sculpture, music, literature, cinematography, photography, videography, and everything else. We feel that it is a time call for that, if you wish.

For the Time and The Place

In the video present, there are also fine art photography and fine art photography collage works. They are mine. They are referring to the places of the utmost atrocities during the Holocaust, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania. Later on, the collection was added with the works from Hungary. I have a strong feeling that the less Holocaust survivors we are having around us, the more motivated I am to do more and more art works which would help us to remember. It is as if my eyes are seeing the places and their scars from Shoah more tangibly every next year.

Inna Rogatchi (C). This Kind of Forest. 2014-2016.

We have created this video as our artistic dialogue.  Working in different techniques and genres on the same theme is mutually supportive. When the genres are as close, as the paths of visual art, paintings and drawing, from one side, and fine art photography and collage from the other, the dimension of paintings provides depth for art photography, while art photography sets the context for paintings.As the result, the volume is synthesised and  the effort and the theme gets a deeper prospect.  

In our family, we do not need a certain, designated one day in a year to remember the Shoah. We both were brought with our both families’ sleepless crying nights over loved ones whom our families did not manage to save from the Nazis and their so very willing collaborators in Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Germany, Austria and France. We remember everyone  of the Six Millions every minute of our lives. But on this day, the world is set to bring the conversation about it out. And it is certainly sobering and much needed practice which we support by every mean we can.

Inna Rogatchi (C). Danube Step. Budapest. 2016.

For the Name and The Place short art film, musical video-essay, had been created in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of Yad Vashem.  Would it be 70, 80 or more years since the Shoah have had place, we always will be looking in its Mirror.