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Haim Maor – an Artist of the Second Generation of the Holocaust: From Particularism to Universalism - Prof. Dan Bar-On



Haim Maor – an Artist of the Second Generation of the Holocaust:

 From Particularism to Universalism

The artistic expression of survivors and their descendants became an important route of relating to the Holocaust and its aftermath only recently, perhaps in parallel to their new ability to tell their stories. Earlier, the society at large did not want to know, and probably the survivors and their descendants did not find ways to express themselves openly. I described this process through the ‘double wall’ image: The survivors could not share their experiences during the Holocaust and built a wall between them and their current life. Their descendants and society at large, felt this wall and built their own wall towards the wall of the survivors. When one side wanted to open a window in their own wall, telling something or asking to hear or see something, they would generally encounter the wall of the other side. Rarely could we find instances in which a window was opened in both walls at the same time and place. Haim Maor, through his unique expression in art and words, helped open up such a double window for survivors, their descendants and the society at large.


Being a member of the second generation of Holocaust survivors in Israel, Haim Maor is trying to find his personal way of artistic expression between the particular and the universal message of the Holocaust. As a Jew and an Israeli, his first natural circle was his family and their personal experiences, which have never been transmitted to him as a coherent story. He tries to reach into the fragments of painful pictures, like pieces of a giant puzzle, portrayed by his father and grandfather. He draws their faces, paints endlessly the Auschwitz number of his father and acknowledges the words, which are usually innocent and trivial, but get a demonic meaning when related to the context of the Holocaust. Maor could stop at this level of personal and family experiences of the Holocaust. Many other people, who wrote or painted, relating to that era, did not go beyond this boundary of the particular Jewish meaning of the Holocaust, thereby cherishing their ‘tribal ego’.


Maor, however, went beyond this boundary. He reached out into the Israeli community he was part of. He tried to make sense and understand the estrangement and tension he grew up with, between the heroic Israeli spirit and, the then perceived, less heroic Holocaust experiences of his family. Out of this tension Haim Maor created an amazing image, by far too early to be accepted by the majority of the Israeli public: the silhouette of Auschwitz together with that of Tel Hay, Trumpeldor’s heroic stronghold during the early Zionist stage. He thereby suggests the unbearable parallel between these two forms of ‘heroism’ within the Israeli culture. I see this as his first attempt to move out of the particularistic Jewish expression of the Holocaust, out of the ‘tribal Jewish ego’ into a more universal one. 


But Maor did not stop there. He became friendly with a German woman who worked at his kibbutz. He started to take her pictures, in parallel to those of his father. One could imagine this move as a kind of revenge on the grandson’s part. The Nazis blinded his grandfather, and now the grandson-artist uses the image of this young German woman for his artwork. He could become a kind of revenge-torturer: depersonalizing the German woman’s body image, by transplanting her into the Israeli-Jewish context of Holocaust images. However, in Maor’s work, the German woman became a person: Her name is Susanne. She also has a family and, quite unbelievably, Maor reaches out into her family albums, though perhaps also envying the ones his family does not posses anymore. Susanne becomes more and more important in Maor’s search for answers: Who were the people who did this to my grandfather and father? How come they had such nice daughters like Susanne? Could they do both at the same time? Who is the man, paraphrasing Primo Levi’s rhetoric question, if the same people can be loving fathers and brutal killer’s and humiliating tortures at the same time? Probably, also Susanne does not have satisfactory answers to these disquieting questions. 


Her way to cope with these questions is to retreat from German society into African compliance. The latest picture in this amazing story is their conciliatory encounter in Africa. Now he is a person who goes to see his friend. They can enjoy the flowers in her garden, talk about the special types of food, placed on their plates. The past still acts through shadows on the walls, in the souls. The image of the Nazi eagle still roams in Maor’s dreams, but it touches now her body rather then his family’s heart. They both ask: Can the past ever come to a rest within our personal lives? We do not yet see or hear how did the encounter with Susanne enable later encounters with the son of Martin Bormann, as part of our group of descendants of Nazi perpetrators and descendants of Holocaust survivors. Maor again goes out of his way to interview Martin Bormann junior and publishes the article in an Israeli newspaper. As if saying to his fellow Israelis: “Look and listen what it means to work through the long way from clarifying the particular Jewish lesson of the Holocaust, into the universal lesson of that era.”


I got acquainted with Haim Maor’s work in a very special way. I went to see his exhibition at the Israeli Museum in Jerusalem, “Faces of Race and Memory,” (1988) without knowing anything about it or him. I walked into a room and was asked to consider the pictures on the wall – if they are Jewish or Arian. Something in me revolted and I thought to myself: “There is no such thing, this is a Nazi idea that you can recognize races by looking at faces.” But as I walked along the room, looking at the pictures and paintings of faces I started to recognize ‘this is a Jew’ ‘this is an Arian’. I had to admit that these stereotypes are also imbedded within me. I got caught up in this process. The further I went, the less details of the faces could be recognized. Could I still see who it is if one sees only the nose or the forehead? Towards the end one could hardly see anything. And then you entered a dark room with a chair and a mirror in front of the chair. I sat down and looked at my face, asking myself: Do I look Jewish or Arian? And then I got up and went out into the Jerusalem street, looking at people, mumbling to myself: Jewish or Arian? I was intrigued by Maor’s psychological sophistication in evoking the stereotypes, which reside in all of us. I wrote him a letter, praising him and telling him about my interviews in Germany, with descendants of Nazi perpetrators, which I conducted during that time.


It took me several more years to form the group of descendants of both sides and to invite Haim Maor to join this group. Like Haim Maor, I found out that those who are ready to work through their relationship to the Holocaust are important to each other, never mind if they come from the perpetrators or from the victims’ side. When I look at his exhibits, I see the parallels to the process the group went through. We started off by asking ourselves “When did each of us find out that the Holocaust still has an impact on our lives?” This usually was followed by an acknowledgement of the self- and social estrangement, associated with that impact. Then came up the issue of rootlessness. It was clear for the Jewish members of the group: They had to look and get acquainted with a new culture and language and their family was lost. So they suffered from both physical and psychological rootlessness. But what about the Germans: Why did they speak of rootlessness? They went on living in their extended families, in their culture, sometimes in the same house as before the war. Still, they said that after learning about their father’s atrocities, they felt that their roots were poisoned: They could not use them anymore and had to look for other roots. 


After addressing these issues, other ones followed: Are we allowed to have a life of our own, independent (neither dependent, nor counter-dependent) on the life of our parents? How do we live with so much death around us? Can we identify also the victimizer within us, not only the victim? Can they talk with each other? Who are we if we are neither victims nor victimizers? How much energy do we need to work through our own issues and how much can we devote to those of others? These were such difficult issues to address that it took whole days, even sessions, to work them through in the group. Haim Maor’s exhibits became very much part of this experience: One could find their traces in the group process, and perhaps the interpersonal process between Maor and Susanne, between him and the group resonates back into his art work.


Prof. Dan Bar-On

Ben Gurion University of the Negev