Objects and images, linking memory and history, are a mainstay of museum exhibitions. They are the embodiment of synecdoche, the part standing in for the whole. A photo album, a china set, a teddy bear — even the most quotidian of artifacts — all resonate with special poignancy when associated with stories of persecution and loss.
A traveling exhibition originating at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, in Skokie, a Chicago suburb known for its high concentration of Holocaust survivors, makes these linkages explicit and encourages reflection on how objects acquire and change meaning.
Titled “Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory.” and on view through January 13, 2019, the show pairs more than 60 artifacts from Chicago-area survivors of genocide with large-scale framed photographs of those artifacts by the photo-documentarian Jim Lommasson, who previously chronicled the keepsakes of Iraqi refugees for the museum.
As though displaced from history to the realm of the ideal, the objects Lommasson photographs for “Stories of Survival” — a manual typewriter, a chain mesh purse, a suitcase, dominos, a train set, a Haggadah, handmade playing cards and a ring of house keys — float against a white background.
Restoring context is the handwritten testimony of refugees and their relatives, inscribed directly on the prints. Sometimes survivors relate their own stories of persecution, flight and rescue; in other cases, family members ruminate on what an object represents to them. The testimony ranges from fragmentary memories to detailed narratives.
Faye Schulz associates her grandmother Martha Kahn’s dress purse, kept in a glass cabinet and never used in this country, with an irretrievable past. “At times,” she writes, “I sensed my grandparents’ sadness for the life in Germany they had lost.” The three children of Judy Katz reflect on the meaning of their mother’s patterned red scarf, interpreting it as both a memento of life before the Shoah and a symbol of her survival in Bergen-Belsen.
Like the objects themselves, the show can be approached in multiple ways: It is at once a photo exhibition, an art installation and an unconventional history exhibition. From the standpoint of purely conveying information, it can be frustrating. Visitors must take the time to decipher handwritten accounts not always easy to read; follow a labyrinthine, nonlinear exhibition layout, and search for the objects matching the photos, grouped together in nearby vitrines.
Labels provide background for the more elliptical inscriptions, as well as translations from Arabic and Khmer. But for full transcriptions of individual accounts, visitors must rely on the exhibition catalog, available at the gallery entrance in both print and searchable digital versions.
The photography has, perhaps intentionally, a distancing effect, draining the objects of some of their immediacy. In some instances, we get layers of representation, a photograph of a photograph — images of a child, a long-fractured family or a soldier in uniform.
Mournful music supplies the installation’s soundscape. The show’s design is visually elegant, if not always transparent. And the exhibition offers moments of real power and surprise. The manual typewriter, it turns out, is not just a relic; it was the means by which Beatrice Ring’s family, by dint of assiduous epistolary appeals, obtained U.S. sponsorship and escaped Germany as late as 1939. Similarly, a bullet-pocked wallet suggests how Albert Loeb, a Jewish veteran of World War I, survived a gunshot — only to face Nazi persecution two decades later.
Artifacts such as identity papers, passports and other official documents are reminders of the impediments of bureaucracy, as well as the thin line between life and death. Rodi Waterman Glass, an 82-year-old Dutch-born survivor, contributed a 1942 German document that kept her from being deported to Auschwitz from the transit camp of Westerbork, in the Netherlands. She ended up in an internment camp instead.
During my visit, she was eager to share her story. Her father’s entire family died in the Holocaust, she told me. But her wealthy maternal grandfather, Samuel Keizer, gave massive bribes — all of his remaining fortune — to a Dutch intermediary, who in turn bribed German officials to supply the lifesaving passes to 11 family members. “Everybody was corrupt, and my grandfather was a gambler,” Glass said. “We had the gambling gene. It’s better to be lucky than to be smart.”
Glass’s tale of her ordeal and rescue is juxtaposed with those of refugees from Armenia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, South Sudan, Iraq and Syria. The exhibition purposely elides past and present, conflating a century of genocides in Europe, Africa and Asia, and underscoring our common humanity. The inclusion of recent refugees from Iraq and Syria is a strong political argument against the anti-immigrant paranoia of the age.
Some artifacts transcend both philosophy and politics. A lime-green child’s dress, decorated with lace and stained with blood, belonged to a 5-year-old Tutsi girl, Clarisse Uwonkunda, who was slaughtered in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, along with her 3-year-old sister and their father. The 3-year-old’s clothes and a family photo album are also in the show.
Clarisse’s mother, Immaculee Mukantaganira, found the intact dress in a grave with her daughter’s remains. “Bodies deteriorate. Bones are found apart,” she writes on Lommasson’s photograph of the garment. “Clothes/dresses are dirty, bloody but keep their forms.” It’s a supremely practical observation, and almost too much to bear — the heartbreaking climax of this quietly moving show.
Julia M. Klein , a Philadelphia-based cultural reporter and critic, writes frequently about museums.