*On the hard ground of Birkenau a tiny button sparkles, reflecting the unshed tears in my eye. I kneel down and hold my breath in disbelief. The whole area near the cage is covered with buttons.
It has rained violently the night before and the torrents have left the scarred earth of the “Canada” exhibit bare with nothing on it but hard cold gravel and the forgotten remnants of lives long ended. I reach out a hand to pick one up, and my heart almost stops.
It is an exquisite, old-fashioned button, all blue and white with delicate silver lines, almost a flower. Where had it come from? Who was she that chose on that most horrific of days to wear that certain dress? Was she a young girl, or a grandmother? Did she hope, by wearing the pretty blue dress with the lovely buttons, to save her life?
The skies and earth of Birkenau knew that no compassion existed here, knew that long before she stepped down from the train to that terrifying ramp, her fate was sealed. The only relic of her lost life is now resting in the palm of my hand. It holds within its shape all the sorrows, tears and anguish of the Holocaust. It belongs to a world that has vanished so completely. For an instant I grasp it, and then slowly I let it slip between my fingers into the caged exhibit.
And still I feel its loneliness, its sorrow…
We traveled to Eastern Europe in search of the history of our families. Our journey took us to Belarus, Lithuania and Poland. It was inevitable that our road would follow the tragic fate of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe.
Towards the end of our journey we came to the death camps Auschwitz and Birkenau and it was in Birkenau that I saw the blue and white glass button among dirt and gravel.
When the old fashioned and delicate button touched my hand, it was almost like the touch of someone’s hand reaching out, asking me not to forget. At that moment I knew that I will have to recreate the button and its story. It is a story that was unfolded to us during our journeys through streets of cities that have been destroyed in the war and rebuilt, through old villages where life has not changed since before the war, through sinister forests, gloomy cemeteries and desolate death camps. It is the story of the Holocaust that I read and heard about time and again, all through my life, but I had never felt so strongly about the Holocaust as I feel now that I had visited the places where it had happened.
Once again in my studio, the heat begins to seep out of the kiln and into the room. All my tools and all the jars of powdered glass wait in readiness. As the monotonous rhythm of the saw frame cutting through the metal drones on, a silver circle begins to take shape, and I remember how this silver circle is supposed to look, and my hand remembers its feel and its weight. With a hammer I form the flat silver circle into a dome and then cover it with the clearest of powdered glass. I shape the finest silver wires into delicate designs to hold within their lacy shapes valleys of white and blue enamel. Placing the piece in a hot kiln I wait for the enamel to melt and flow so that when the enameled object cools, I will be able to polish its surface till it sparkles like the one in my memory. I leave the dirt of the polish in the curves of the cloisonné button and as if it is the most precious of gems I set the lovely blue and white enameled button in a bezel of silver jewelry. At last I can hold the longed for button in my hand, almost again, and feel the weight of memory press against my palm.
I want to place the button where I imagine its last moment of hope must have been, on the death ramp in Birkenau. And my thoughts take me there. Again I walk under the tall arched gate of Birkenau and into that most horrible place on earth. I walk by the wooden barracks where so many men, women and children suffered so much, down near the crematoriums and the ashes pits. I walk near the memorial to the dead and I come to “Canada”. When the war ended and the last guns were fired, the death camps became museums Everything is still kept there just as it was found. In the far corner of Birkenau an area existed where during the war, the sorting of the Jewish possessions took place before it was transported to Germany. Because this area contained the so called “treasures” of the Jewish people and other sufferers, it was cynically nicknamed by the prisoners “Canada”, after the country that to the poor prisoners seemed like heaven on earth. Today, in a fenced cage, the pitiful remnants of the Jewish possession and wartime treasures are kept in the same area where “Canada” existed. After I let the button fall from my hand and return to its rest among the other buttons and items, I walked with my sister near the railway tracks on our way out of the camp. We could almost hear the shouting of the guards, the barking of the dogs and the screaming of children and women echo in the air around us.
While walking over the terrifying death ramp in Birkenau, the knowledge of how to create the ramp, and the railroad tracks near it, stayed with me. Jagged shapes of copper are covered with a mixture of scrap enamels. I stain the grayish enamel with watercolors. Shadows hang over the surface of the ramp. In between the tracks I place minute pieces of broken enamel and intensify the shadows under them with watercolors. When underfired, the coarse texture of these pieces matches their role and become even more cruel and aggressive. I hold the rough pieces in my hand and shiver; they feel so real.
As I shape the metal, sift the enamels over the copper and silver fragments and watch the kiln so as not to overfire, I keep thinking about the land of Eastern Europe. It is a land that does not have respite from the Second World War, where every railroad track and every house and every street are not just what they appear to be but act as enduring reminders of horrors and atrocities beyond belief. Forests hide beneath the shadows of their towering trees; horrible evidence of mass graves. The scenery of fields of wheat and grass that we see through the windows of our car is by itself an innocent one. But a thought keeps turning in my mind that this is what the Jewish people saw through the cracks of the cattle cars. Their train of suffering and death rolled on and on, with out interference, towards the final station, the last stop in these people life, through beautiful and ordinary fields and forests.
I cut two pieces of copper for the forests to flank the Jewish street on each side and a third piece for the fields. While the fields are painted with watercolors over a white surface, the forests need more elaborate ways to match my thoughts. The copper is etched and covered with transparent enamels. The last of the layers is a clear transparent. When fired, its large granules break into the previous layers, and so reveal what has been done before. Like torn snapshots, I cut pieces of copper and with various shades of grays, browns and ecru I draw on the white enameled surface. Put together, all these shards make up a semblance of what once was the Jewish world. I draw the fields near the village of Rakov in Belarus where our mother lived with her family when she was a small child. I paint the cemetery in Zawriche in Poland and the grave of my great grandfather. With great care I draw in detail the old gray houses in the town of Kovno in Lithuania. It’s a town where horrible atrocities where committed against the Jews. Now lacy white curtains float like ghosts from the past in the windows and cemeteries and synagogues have long been transformed into different entities.
Mercilessly the railroad tracks crash into the row of melancholy houses and run over the torn map of Europe. I place the map under the railroad tracks and above the praying shawl. The Talit has the same colors as the button, white and blue, and its embroidery is done with the thinnest silver wires. I draw the shadows into the folds of the fabric. Over the entire praying shawl I sift a thin layer of clear enamel and fire it for a short time. It gives the piece a soft matt texture. Amidst the dreariness around, the horrors and oppression, the prayer shawl demonstrates that the Jewish traditions and religion stayed defiantly alive.
The map of Europe is made to be so translucent that the traditional Judaic design of curved branches with leaves and flowers can be seen through it. I fire uneven pieces of copper with a layer of black enamel. Next I cover the black enamel with white chalky liquid enamel and sgraffito the design into it. To attain the almost transparent effect I overlay the pieces with thin layers of translucent and white enamels. In some places I leave the black and white design exposed to show the dramatic way in which the map almost wipes out the intricate and rich tapestry of the Jewish world. Every name of city and village that we visited is written on the map and every name evokes within my heart sights and visions and longings to see these places again.
As I write with a fine brush the names of the places we visited, I reach the name of a little town in Poland where in a dark and desolate cemetery we have found, against all odds, the graves of our great grandfather and great grandmother. The loneliness of the graves almost broke our hearts. I stood in the graveyard near our great grandmother headstone for a long time. It was an overcast day that felt as if the skies and the heavy with rain trees around us were shedding tears of sorrow. I felt so close to her whom I never knew, and so sad at her utter loneliness. The rarely visited graveyard symbolized for me the annihilation of the Jewish way of life in East Europe. With that ache still in my heart I painstakingly make the headstone of my great grandmother. First I etch the copper using the resist in a way that the acid will eat the copper around the letters and ornamental theme of the headstone. I paint the etched copper with black underglaze and sift transparent enamel over it. Later a layer of underfired enamel allows the surface of the headstone to feel like a rough stone. I paint the headstone with deep green and brown so it looks dark and covered with moss. With great care I paint each etched letter of her name just as it is written on the headstone. I place my great grandmother’s grave high above the sad earth, in the sky and closer to heaven.
As I want this work to be a memorial to the lost souls of the death camps, I recreate some of the other buttons that I saw in Birkenau and I scatter them on and around the ramp. I set a round piece of amber from Vilna in a silver setting, and red garnets are set to look like drops of blood on the ramp. The other buttons I create to look old and dirty and bent. But I refuse to let the souls of the tortured people remain there, on the ramp. I start to lift them up to heaven transforming them from real buttons into a cloisonné relief and then higher in the sky where they appear just as a faint drawing of buttons until they fade into the clouds on their way to heaven.
The enameled fragments are attached to a piece of velvet in a composition that resembles backdrop scenery for a play in a theatre. I did not set out to create reality but to put together shreds of memories and visual interpretations of how I feel about the effects of the Holocaust on Eastern Europe. A special and unique way of life disappeared forever and the houses and streets still mourn their past dwellers that so cruelly were uprooted and sent away to their terrible death.
With soft silk threads I embroider a design of an Ark curtain on the soft velvet. I want to emphasize again the richness of the Jewish traditions and to contrast it with the sadness of the landscape that I have created.
On the bare wood of the frame I draw with pencil and watercolors scenes that relate to the work and intensify it. I draw the terrifying Auschwitz fence in Poland and the wall of Fort Number Nine – an extermination site in Lithuania. Cold fear exists within its dreary walls even today. A birch tree whose branches get more and more spiritual as they delicately reach towards the sky, stands as a memorial and hugs the frame on the right. Above the work appears the gate to the Jewish cemetery of Chenstochova in Poland with the blue Jewish star on it. Near it are the walls and the graves in Chenstochova cemetery where no name can be discerned through the mass of overgrown ivy. Below the gate, on the velvet, three bricks of enamel are placed as if they were taken from the wall of Chenstochova cemetery. I write on them the Hebrew words usually embroidered on the velvet that hides the Torah books in the synagogue: “This is the gate to God, righteous people will come through.” Down below, on the lower part of the frame, I write about the blue and white button that I held in my hand for a short moment, relinquished to the past, and recreated so it will be remembered forever. *
And I marvel at the coincidence that unearthed a gleaming remnant from the darkness of the past and placed it in my hand.