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Art in the Shadow of Death

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holocaust art feature

Caroline Slifkin describes her work teaching Holocaust Arts to Ashton Sixth Form College (Stamford Park Trust).

I first started working with Ashton Sixth Form College (Stamford Park Trust) in 2006. It was one of the 10 schools and colleges for my Imperial War Museum London Fellowship in Holocaust Education, Holocaust Arts project, ’Art in the Shadow of Death,’ funded by the Arts Council England. Ashton Sixth Form College is an established college offering a broad curriculum to both 16-19-year-olds as well as adults in the community. The Art department offers ‘A’ levels in Graphic Design, Fine art, Photography, 3D design and Textiles with around 200 students in the department. When I approached the Art department staff about my project they were keen to be involved as the staff had concerns that students had little knowledge and awareness of the Holocaust.

In the workshops I delivered, I needed to establish the student level of knowledge and began the workshop with an overview. In order for students to be able to investigate art created by Holocaust victims and survivors they first looked at the works as historical evidence and could see the history of the Holocaust through their eyes, revealing what life was like under the Nazi regime particularly in ghettos and camps. 

It is hard to believe that art was created in camps by people who felt the need to record and express all that they experienced. This need to communicate was so very strong and often created at great risk to the artist. This art could be viewed by students as a form of documentation, witness, spiritual resistance and as evidence from the victim’s perspective.  Many portraits and self – portraits were created which gave the subject a sense that if they did not survive then perhaps their portrait would. The art created by artists in internment counter the Nazi propaganda and rescues the voices of the victims, showing students what they experienced and reminding us of our responsibility to them to preserve a Memory to remember and be remembered. This exploration thereby challenged the process of dehumanisation. Every portrait enables students (as well as the viewer) to open a window onto a moving intimate personal moment, a snapshot in time, and the last chance perhaps for self-expression not as victims but as human beings.

Students can then further understand that these artworks are authentic testimonies from the Holocaust that convey a genuine and personal message of remembrance. The artworks transcend time and place and students are able to view the people portrayed as human beings. Whether these artworks were created by artists who were murdered or by those who survived, they enable students to view a mosaic of individuals from different origins and backgrounds who shared the Jewish People’s common fate during the Holocaust. In the last months of the war the Nazis sought to destroy the evidence of their crimes but these surviving artworks show students what victims experienced and can be considered as visual evidence and for students to now bear witness and remember with their own creative responses.

Through students’ research and investigation of the use of Holocaust Arts, students gained an insight and understanding of the Holocaust. Students were enabled to understand the role of art in society. Through this questioning students were able to investigate human behaviour, and come to appreciate that, silence and indifference to the suffering of others however unintentional can lead to events that allow for legalized discrimination, prejudice, hatred, violence and ultimately mass murder such as the Holocaust.

It was a pleasure to develop a good working relationship with the Art department staff and through discussing and team teaching, I was able to tailor the workshops to the different specialist areas of Graphic Design, Fine Art and Photography with members of staff bringing their own expertise, interests, skills and materials to offer the students. This enabled all students to engage and respond with great sensitivity and create mature artwork.

A further development through my role as an educator on the Holocaust Educational Trust’s Lessons from Auschwitz (LFA). The college started to send art students on LFA each year and these students would then develop personal art projects in response as part of their exam pieces.

Every year the student artwork created in workshops and from LFA, was exhibited in the college social spaces in order for the wider college community to view. This led to us having a larger community exhibition in the college, ‘Ashton to Auschwitz,’ inviting student’s family, friends and the wider community to view the body of artwork created. The exhibition was opened by Holocaust survivor Jack Aizenberg who shared his powerful and moving testimony with the audience.

As the projects grew and became an established part of the Art curriculum, we held a larger exhibition at Ashton Art Gallery, ‘Conflicts and Consequences,’ opened by Holocaust survivor Dr. Martin Stern MBE, who had spoken to students at the college on several occasions over the years. The exhibition was a great success and extended due to popular demand. The exhibitions were a community celebration of artwork created by students and with the hope to broaden the work done to the local community and schools about the impact of using Holocaust Arts to further their understanding of the Holocaust.

One year the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust held a student Holocaust art competition in which some of the Ashton students entered and several students’ artwork were selected as winners.

A student’s ‘self-portrait’ is a large scale piece that was the legacy and result of a visit to Auschwitz through the Lessons from Auschwitz project and taking part in workshops I delivered. The student was particularly interested in this theme as his grandfather had been directly affected by the Holocaust in Poland and had many tales to tell. He was able to bear witness to both his grandfather’s experience as well as those he heard from survivors’ testimony and his own journey to Auschwitz.

Another student’s visit to Auschwitz was a special journey as she inherited a Bear that belonged to a survivor. ‘The bear’ was given to the student’s great aunt by a child survivor who had the bear in Auschwitz. The story is unclear as to how the child and bear survived but the student was able to take the bear with her, back to Auschwitz. The piece ‘The Bear’ is part of a graphic novel the student has created that shows the journey of the survivor through the bear’s eyes. The judges agreed that the artwork is beautifully created, and very emotive. They loved how the student has created the effect of the image wearing away – it seems delicate and transitory. The story behind the bear in the image is very powerful, and personal to the student herself.

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Caroline Slifkin is an artist and a freelance Holocaust educator who specialises in teaching about the Holocaust through Holocaust Arts. A Fellow of the Imperial War Museum London in Holocaust Education, with her project in Holocaust Arts Education, ‘Art in the Shadow of Death,’ delivered to school and colleges with a generous grant from the Arts Council England. A Fellow of Royal Holloway, University of London in Holocaust and Jewish Civilisation. Caroline is a Yad Vashem graduate, who has received Yad Vashem Graduate grants to further develop her work in Holocaust Arts Education. 
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