- Bittersweet Legacy: Creative Responses to the Holocaust
“Our mothers snipped along the ribs/ of the truth, with room, with room to let out/ in a year or so, since children grow.” This particular stanza of “Sparing the Children” by Barbara Unger caused me to recall the deep, dark secret that was present in my own household as a child of the 50s. My mother was the keeper of this family mystery with my World War II veteran father as her accomplice. Many of these tragic “secrets” would not be revealed to me in their entirety until I was an adult and searching for ways to explain to my children and students what often seemed so unexplainable. In Bittersweet Legacy: Creative Responses to the Holocaust, authors and artists help us begin to comprehend the incomprehensible as they share their Holocaust experiences. Multiple perspectives are one of the keys to the power of this collection; paintings, sculptures, and [End Page 137] sketches mingle with poems, short stories, journal entries, and personal narrative. Thematic chapter headings like “Through the Eyes of a Child” and “Speaking to the Enemy” take the reader on a journey crowded with words and images. This journey of and about the Shoah gains momentum as it guides the reader from chapter to chapter, from one perception to another, establishing a personal link between contributors and the readers.
The organization of Bittersweet Legacy conducts the reader from decade to decade through the unique perceptions of individual artists. The opening chapter, “The American Experience of the Holocaust,” examines the many ways in which news of the Holocaust entered or was kept out of our lives. It speaks of denial, first-hand experiences, and attempts to understand from afar. Vera Schwartz’s free-verse poem, “The Jewish Experience,” describes a visit to Yad Vashem through the eyes of the American child, while “Our Bones Don’t Belong to Us,” a painting by Leah Korica, suggests our lack of control over our destiny. In Chapter 2, “Through the Eyes of a Child,” the reader encounters a myriad of childhood experiences. The Hidden Child by Susan Terris describes the memories of a mother and child hidden by a Dutch family; a linocut entitled Auschwitz #6 combines words with images to describe a child who survived the gas chambers yet remembers the experiments of Mengele close to her workplace in the camp. The third chapter, “Survival,” offers a crescendo of horrific images and words that must be seen and read in order to be fully appreciated. One of the more elaborate works of art in this section is the six-panel oil painting by Chaim Goldberg. While presented here in miniature, the symbolism is no less poignant as the artist represents the trains that moved victims to the death camps alongside images of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
The final three chapters carry the reader into the present and the aftershocks of survival. The chapter entitled “Inheritance” shares many tales of children of survivors. In the free verse peice entitled Belated Kaddish, Cynthia Moskowitz Brody memorializes both those murdered and those who attempted to save them. This moving dedication concludes: “We both carry the torch/ to be passed down/ to our children/ and their children/ so that they will learn/ the true menaning of hero.” Also quite striking in this section are several pieces written by young adolescents during the Holocaust. In My Weeping Willow Laura Zusman shares the feelings of a twelve-year-old girl dealing with the horror of the Holocaust. The tree is strong like her parents, and she writes, “I see Daddy in the leaves./ Each leaf is one of us/ protecting me from Them.”
The complex attitudes of survivors and the children of survivors toward their persecutors form the theme of the fifth chapter, “Facing the Enemy.” Authors and artists struggle to understand why this happened and in some cases examine the possibility of forgiveness. In Speaking to One of Germany’s Sons, poet Elizabeth Rosner experiences modern-day Germany as “familiar ghosts...