By Barbara Trainin Blank @traininblank
The most impactful thing in the life of artist Miriam Morsel Nathan occurred before she was born.
That’s true not only for the Silver Spring-based artist, but many members of “the Second Generation,” or “Next-Generation Survivors.”
The children of Holocaust survivors, they often bear certain definitive scars.
“You feel vulnerable. There’s a sense of loss and absence,” Morsel Nathan said, “as well as a heightened sense of anti-Semitism, and a very protective” attitude toward one’s parents” – or family members who survived.
Much of her art has been based on sometimes-incomplete knowledge of relatives who didn’t survive, through photographs or letters, or the memories of others.
“I try to fill in the holes,” the artist said. “I use fragments, various materials and methods.”
A small number of her works of art are part of “To Bear Witness: The Art of Testimony,” an exhibit in Rockville at the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, opening Dec. 23 and continuing through Feb. 21, 2019. The opening reception takes place Jan. 23.
“There are 10 exhibitors,” said Lisa Del Sesto, the JCC’s cultural arts coordinator. “One is a survivor whose daughter submitted her work. The others are Next-Generation Survivors.”
The dates are significant, because International Holocaust Remembrance Day is on Jan. 27.
In 2010, she assembled some of her work in an exhibit called “Memory of a time I did not know,” which had been presented by the Washington D.C. Jewish Community Center (now the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center of Washington, D.C.).
Morsel Nathan formerly directed the Washington Jewish Film Festival and the Morris Cafritz Center for the Arts at the JCC.
Unlike some survivor families, Morsel Nathan’s parents shared their wartime experiences. “My mother spoke directly; she didn’t sanitize,” she said.
In 1939, fearing deportation by the Nazis, her father left at her mother’s insistence.
“He said he’d be back in three weeks,” the artist said. “But he kept moving for seven years.”
HIAS, the refugee-relief agency, eventually placed him in Sosua, a settlement in the Dominican Republic.
At the 1938 Evian Conference, Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo offered to accept a certain number of Jewish refugees.
Denied a transit visa by the United States, Morsel Nathan’s mother was trapped and deported to Terezin, which served both as a ghetto-labor camp and concentration camp.
She survived, but lost close family members in the camps, as did Morsel Nathan’s father.
“Survivors’ children tend to feel the precariousness of life and a strong sense of attachment to family and friends, Morsel Nathan said. “Dinner conversations tend to inject [memories). Ordinary words take on different meaning, such as ‘selection.’”
Some newly-arrived Jews at extermination camps were selected for work, while others were usually gassed as soon as possible.
Wanting to give visibility to those who were lost, Morsel Nathan felt herself particularly drawn to her Aunt Greta. She was told that she resembled Greta physically and in personality.
The artist drew inspiration from a photo of her aunt, creating her dress in several colors.
Initially, the JCC approached survivors themselves – jointly with the Holocaust Museum – but extended the search. Sadly, survivors are slowly dying out, as did Morsel Nathan’s parents.
“To Bear Witness” includes collages, photographs, and paintings,” said Del Sesto. “Each artist has contributed a few pieces – all very different from each other,” said Del Sesto.
The exhibit takes place in the Goldman Art Gallery of the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, at 6125 Montrose Road, Rockville. For more information, call 301-881-0100 or visit www.benderjccgw.org.