COMMEMORATIONS OF THE EUROPEAN DAYS OF JEWISH CULTURE & MICHAEL ROGATCHI’S SPECIAL SERIES
FINE ART ESSAY by INNA ROGATCHI (C)
First Published: The Times of Israel, September 6th, 2020
The essay can be read here.
As the European Days of Jewish Culture are commencing the first weekend of September and expanding it through the beginning of the next week, with events in many countries programmed until September 8-10th, we know that this year, so very difficult and challenging one because of the pandemic and its multiple restrictions, many of our colleagues in different countries are approaching the celebrations with double energy, double efforts, and double aspiration to show more, to open doors of Jewish institutions for longer, to appeal to more people to celebrate our culture with us.
In Helsinki and in Rome, in Paris and in Italian Barletta, in Krakow and in Sicily, there are new, specially prepared events, exhibitions, concerts, lectures, with open doors events in many Jewish institutions all over Europe. Being in constant touch with many of my colleagues all over these strange times of covid, I know that they have put so much of their energy and will to share into all these events. The trend can be seen in its unifying character: European Jewish organisations are trying really more than ever to carry on the public events on various themes connected with our heritage. Public is a key-word here for all of us, understandably.
The European Day of Culture is not that long tradition. It was established just 25 years ago in Strasbourg, and from complete novelty it has been progressing in more tangible form into a special event in the cultural and public calendar of Europe. So far, it is largely Jewish communities’ inner events, still. In my opinion, the more we would be able to engage the public outside our communities, the more successful the very message of these events would become. How to do it? To understand it, we really need to clarify for ourselves: what do we celebrate at our annual Days of Jewish Culture in Europe? Our history? Our persecutions, dramas, and tragedies? Or our victories, victories of our spirit, resilience, survival and capacity to survive due to an inherited humanity and cherished love for our families and brethren? Our struggle to survive, or our achievements in arts, science, and education? Are we staying with our past by revisiting archive materials, or are we striving into our future by designing and creating new forms of expression?
Out of our own and our many European Jewish colleagues’ experiences, I know that the answer includes a bit of everything. But in order to get not just our own Jewish circles interested in the annual events of those days in September, but a wide and different public to attend those events, I believe that the working way of doing it should include a paradox in the way of our narrative for the wide not necessarily Jewish audience. When an intelligent paradox is in place, it gets people interested. In our own extensive public work promoting Jewish heritage to large and wide audiences in many European countries, and beyond it, we have many memorable stories to tell. One of them is connected directly to the European Days of Jewish Culture.
A Melody on the Place of Ghetto Liquidation
It was September 2013, just after High Holidays that year. In Vilnius, the IV World Litvak Congress gathered, with a vast program for several days, and full-scale participation of the state’s leadership in the event. The European Days of Jewish Culture had been also extended from its regular first weekend of September, for such an important occasion. There was one solo exhibition in the official program, Jewish Melody by Michael who was invited to create it specifically for the Congress and the celebration of Jewish history and culture.
The timing for the Congress was chosen with meaningful precision: on September 23d and 24th in 1943, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated. Seventy years later, the big official event, with following series of various events were commemorating the efficient, cruel, cold, horrendous extermination of the great Lithuanian Jewry with all its history, culture, education, traditions, contributions, and simply life as such.
It was an uneasy context to participate in. I was curating that project of my husband, and we both, each of us differently, were approaching and experiencing it. Michael was creating his works, and I was waiting for them to be ready, to speak with him, and to work on presenting his works and its message authentically.
My husband did surprise me, and much more he did surprise those many different people who did gather for his Jewish Melody opening, and who visited actively ever since, long after the end of the Congress, as his exhibition had been prolonged several times and lasted several months in Vilnius before it was relocated the following year to celebrate the Day of Jerusalem and anniversary of the Tallinn great New Synagogue and its wonderful community in a joint event with the Knesset to Estonia.
* * *
Back to Vilnius, and yet before that, to Michael’s working on his Jewish Melody series. He was working in his studio non-stop, to be in time for the exhibition in Vilnius, Vilna, as we always call the place we love in our both families. Appearing one evening after a long day of work, he was smiling. I thought that he was happy with the results, but there was more, and different.
‘Do you know what I am actually doing? – Michael asked. – ‘I suppose, I do. You are doing the series for Vilna.’ – Yeah, but what, or how I am doing it? Can you guess? – ‘Nope, and I would love to hear about it, as I have a couple of things to write and to think about hanging, composition, etc.’ – It will be a Melody, – Michael kept smiling. – A Melody, and that’s it. – ‘A Melody? Very nice. A good idea’. I was thinking that it would be a solemn kaddish-like reflections on the unspeakable tragedy of the Vilna ghetto, and for that matter, all and every of ghetto established and liquidated with that barbarian approach to life by the Nazis and their ever-willing local collaborators in Lithuania and literally everywhere else. As it was once mentioned by my good friend, great Karl von Schwarzenerg, “ Among the European countries’ attitude towards the Jews during the WWII, perhaps only Iceland could pledge its innocence, and yet, one cannot be 100% on that, too”.
Michael, as usual, was aware of the line of my thinking. “It is not that melody that you think, – Michael said. – ‘No? What kind of melody then?’– All sorts of our melodies. Our melodies from our normal lives, ghetto or not. I will be speaking about love and memory, memory and love, not about extermination and sorrow. This is how I decided to approach it”, – Michael said.
I felt enormous wave of warm gratitude to my husband – whose grandmother’s maiden name is Litowska, and whose family, as well as mine one (with also proper Litvaks surnames of Pinsky and Chigrinsky ) did lost many family members in desperate circumstances of the Holocaust – for creating this sort of commemoration, and for having this philosophical and psychological stand in his way of artistic response and re-addressing the Shoah.
Of course, an immediate and subconscious reaction of any normal human being, Jewish or not, but twice so Jewish, on the Shoah realities and its consequences, is a horror, sorrow and devastation. But if we would dwell on that only, we would not be able to commemorate our beloved ones, our six – and more, up to eight – million in the way which is closer to how they lived and who they were, and with the strength that our memory requires.
In our both’ opinion, in ongoing process of re-adressing the Holocaust, there is way of featuring it, and there is way of commemorating the victims of it, and those are two different paths. Featuring Holocaust does not allow, or should not allow its fictionalisation. That’s why Elie Wiesel has been so categorically against creation of any feature film on his books.
When it happened, as in the utterly cheap case of The Tattooist of Auschwitz book, caramel-like, third-rate, stupid and ignorant exercise, or absolutely repulsive, pervert The Painted Bird film, we all see the result of the games in the territory where normal people are not gaming. Of course, those are extreme cases of tasteless attitude of ignorants, and wrong approach of amateurs. I know that most of those authors who were and are working in fictionalisation of Holocaust do have a noble motives and are trying their very best. But I would always remember the eyes of my good friend Pauline Wrobel from Australia who has told me how her parents, both survivors who lost entire families in the Shoah, were quietly and hopelessly crying for hours after watching the first Hollywood fiction on Holocaust. ‘They were crying and crying after seeing that film, and I did not know what to say to them and how to comfort my parents – Pauline told me with tears in her eyes good half of the century after that episode that stuck in her memory for good. – I just asked them, Ma, Dad, you are crying because it brings you back to that? – and they’ve told me : ‘No, Paulie, we are crying because they did show that all so awfully wrong. You cannot make a show from that. You just cannot”. And I knew for 101% that Elie was absolutely right about his resistance to any feature film on Holocaust on any of his books, and I knew why.
But in commemoration of the Shoah, yes, one can make his or her own allusions and use one’s imagination in the reverence of memory. Actually, the more personal it gets, the more connected we are getting with our families and our brethren, those who perished in the Shoah and because of other calamities. Personal way of remembrance ensures its endurance and authenticity. Our feelings applied in such personified way are not somewhat abstract and short-live cliches, but they are becoming special song straight from the heart. Everybody’s own niggun, according to one’s family tradition and memories of that.
Michael believes that a melody is a special language in general and especially in arts. He knows how to visualise it artistically, too. He shares our sages’ understanding that singing is so highly and warmly valued in Jewish spiritual tradition. He reasoned it by people’s devotion, but also, importantly, due to the special effort that people singing in a spiritual dimension might make, possibly overcoming one’s shyness, privacy, introverted character. When niggun comes from the heart, it is not that loud one, but it is beautiful in its sincerity. Michael’s own nigguns from his childhood and adolescence are also living on his artworks in its visual form.
What Michael is doing in his art often it is to create a new, visual dimension for the nigguns. He is transferring our tradition with its familiar melodies into the other sphere of art. In Michael’s creations, it encompasses all possible ways and sides of our Jewish life: our chuppahs and our lullabies, our Shabbeses and our gatherings on the Haggim, our daily routines and our dreams, our memories and our aspirations.
It is not that often when an artist who works on his national heritage theme, chooses not to go for landscapes or genre scenes, but to express it all via melodies, to bring music, a very strong, emotional, warm, but also quite difficult ‘tool’ due to its fluidity, to portray life in all its phenomena.
Not surprisingly, in Michael’s Jewish Melody, there are so many Yiddish tunes. His works are portraying Yiddish Tango, Yiddish Lullabies, Yiddish love songs. Our families were immersed in Yiddish culture, and the series is Michael’s ‘postcards’ back to them. But it is not only about the artist’s imaginary dialogue back in time with his family and friends and close people from his past. His idea for creating Jewish Melody as a special series was to commemorate exterminated Lithuanian and Vilna Jewry in the way of speaking about them, memorising them alive, not annihilated.
Who they were, those men and women and their kids? How did they live? Which songs they were singing to their children? What music was sounding at their chuppahs?
Some of the work from this series were discussed in the essay dedicated to the family theme in Michael Rogatchi’s art.
“I wanted to speak about these many thousands of Jewish people, their children and their families alive, not dead. I wanted to memorise them with a smile, not tears. I tried to recreate their world as we know our Yiddish world, not to paint the dreadful ravines in Paneriai ( the forest next to Vilnius where at least 70 000 Jewish people were exterminated during the Shoah)” ,- Michael was explaining his thinking behind the series at the opening of his exhibition in overcrowded hall of the Vilnius Jewish Public Library where the initial exhibition took place.
People who were gathered at the opening in the capital of Lithuania knew the history and realities of our all’s lives there well, with first-hand experience. Many of them were not Jewish. The more meaningful was their perception which was not only highly appreciative, but very deep too.
In his opening speech, well-known scientist and educator, professor Algirdas Gaizukas emphasised: “ Michael’s Jewish Melody is lifted up and is fused with the very essence of human existence. The artist’s metaphors are amalgamated into the deep thoughtfulness of the very meaning of life. His newly created artistic reality is becoming a melody itself. This unparalleled art series dedicated to the memory of the people destroyed in the Vilna Ghetto 70 years ago, has become the melody which is full of light.
This is the melody of life itself, the very meaning of it. To remember the people who were exterminated with the most cruelty and absolutely senselessly, in this highly human, fine in expression, and aesthetically simply beautiful way is certainly a very high and special achievement of the artist, and also a thinker, a philosopher. It is the elegant and very distinguished way of remembrance. I would like to express my deepest gratitude to Michael for this great alternative to our post-Modernist time. I do feel that this kind of art is much needed today, and should be especially appreciated “ ( September 24th, 2013, Vilnius, Lithuania, opening speech, Michael Rogatchi’s Jewish Melody exhibition at the IV World Litvak Congress).
Feather-planet of Jewish music
This commemorative art series includes not only the works which are re-addressing the past and features concrete ways of Jewish traditions in Central and Eastern Europe, but there also more philosophical etudes on Jewish character in general which in Michael’s opinion is expressed with relation to music in the most interesting and authentic way.
“Why are there so many feathers all around in these works? In Jewish Melody, Melodies of Jewish Violin, No Place for Wagner, Trace of Your Smile, and the other works? Because not only Jewish musician stays on a feather instead of a ground, metaphorically speaking, but also he plays with a feather, and his melodies are fluttering around as feathers. His violin is a feather, to me, and his bow is a feather. His music, the world that he creates standing on a feather and playing on and by feathers, creates the world of feathers around: fine, light, gentle, so very special and unique world of Jewish, and Yiddish music and musicians. It is a feather-planet, so to say, to me, and that’s why there are so many of them in my Jewish Melody’ – explains the artist.
We were only happy that one of those feather-planet’ intricate works, Melodies of Jewish Violin, has been selected some years ago for Permanent Art Collection of the Finland’s diplomatic mission’s official residence in Luxembourg.
Some other works from this special series have become widely known and appreciated, as well: the title work Jewish Melody has been reproduced many times in the leading international media and special issues, both in arts publications and for the general public. Michael was requested to do a couple of new editions of that instant classic, and now the one of those works are in the collection of the world-famous theatrical director who keeps it as the closest thing next to him in his study, and the other is the part of notable private collection in Israel. The special enlarged edition of another expressive work, Zion Waltz, was made by Michael for Leonard Cohen. After receiving the work in 2014, Cohen had written back to Michael: “As you know, Michael, I am in the age when I am in the process of giving many of my things away. But not this one. Not this. Thank you!” After Leonard’s passing in November 2016, the work is in his family estate, and it will take part in our new forthcoming international project in artistic commemoration of Leonard Cohen.
Yet another work featuring feather-planet of Jewish music, created a bit later, but belonging to the same series, No Place for Wagner, is with our good friend, great talent of Jewish music himself, Rabbi and Cantor Lionel Roselfeld from the Western Marble Arch Synagogue in London, the same Synagogue where Lord Rabbi Sacks was administering and where he still administrating High Holidays in his eloquent, friendly, warm and deep way. Lionel Rosenfeld has said of the work that belongs to his and his family collection that ‘ not only I love the work greatly, but I am simply ecstatic about its title and would love to write it down on the wall next to the work, if I could, in giant letters’. We love our friends. They do share our attitude often, and shared key principals is truly important ground in one’s life, indeed.
As many as six more works from this series belongs to notable art collections all over the world, from France to New York, and from London to Jerusalem.
When thinking of his own way of commemoration of Jewish lives brutally taken off by the Nazis and their local barbarian helpers back 1943, Michael was also creating the works in which the very way of such artistic commemoration was analysed and thought of. We are here – and we are not here; we are not here – but we are still here. We are serious but the trace of our smiles are present. We are smiling, or were just smiling, but are thoughtful and serious, full of memories, reminiscences and thoughts. Our thoughts are flying as feathers, the feathers of your, next generations’, memories on us. Our eyes are not angry, as we never ever were meaning ill to anyone. They are just thoughtful, with staying imprint of that unanswered astonishment on our own, our families, and our people’s destiny. Especially that one in Vilna. And so numerous places of that unspeakable tragedy all over Europe. We are there, in traces of your memories – and we are here, in the colour of our faces.
We are here -and we are there. We, the Jewish people. We, the Jewish artists. We, the Jewish writers. We, the Jewish guardians of our culture which is a live imprint of our memory. And this is what we are commemorating at the European Days of Jewish Culture every September.
The entire Jewish Melody series can be watched on this musical video-presentation.