Blessings May Break from Stone is about the impact that my mother and father’s past has had on my life. My mother, who is Jewish, went into hiding in Budapest during World War II. My father grew up in the ruins of Berlin and was from a non-Jewish family. My parents met in Israel. My mother was a nightclub singer in the Café Roma in Tel Aviv, and my father was a steamfitter in Israel, working with a German company. They married in Berlin and spent three years in India, where I was born. Then they moved back to Berlin, where I spent my childhood.
Growing up in Berlin, I heard stories about the war from my Great Uncle Oscar. He mixed his tales with German myths, fairy tales, and stories about the Kaiser. I was very close to my German relatives, and German was my first language.
I didn’t know that I was Jewish – or know about my mother’s past – until I came to America in 1968 and met my mother’s side of the family.
The Nazis killed my mother’s father, and my grandmother was nearly deported to the gas chamber. One day, the police asked my grandmother to come with them to a train station, where hundreds of Jews were waiting to be deported; however, a limousine pulled up, and a man got out and said in Hungarian, ”All those with Protection Passes, come here.” My grandparents had obtained a Swedish Protection Pass a few months earlier. My grandmother got into the limousine, which dropped her off at her house. Raoul Wallenberg was in the back seat.
Ultimately, my mother and her family hid for 12 months in a cellar in the Budapest ghetto. To help keep those around her alive, my mother, a child of 12 years, would leave the ghetto and pose as a gentile in order to trade linen, saved from the family business, for food.
I first heard my mother’s stories during family dinners in New York. She would talk about the hunger she experienced during the war; my father had similar stories from his childhood in Berlin. These stories, or the reality that they were based upon, became a touchstone for me as I grew up in a very different setting in America. In some ways I experienced my own life as fake, a plastic copy of my parents’ lives, which seemed more real. I came to see their past as an absolute reality that my own life could never approach.
As I learned about my mother’s past, I began to read books on WWII and started sculpting the heads of starved prisoners and soldiers. When I was 14, I used the sand at Jones Beach to create a life-sized relief sculpture of a starving man. Since then, the image of the starved or near-dead man or woman has recurred in my art.
While a medical student in Illinois, I wrote Stories from My Mother, 1994, a play based on war stories told by my family. To write the play, I asked my mother many questions about her childhood. Our conversations helped me begin to picture the place where she had hid, and I envisioned it as a stone box with a red door. I carved a stone box for the play. On each side of the four-foot-long box, I carved, in relief, scenes from my mother’s life. I added a stone doll of my mother as a child with a Jewish star carved onto an armband. I later realized that this was an error. My mother said she had to wear the Jewish star not on her arm, but on her chest.
Stories from My Mother was performed by actors and seven larger-than-life puppets based on my parents, grandparents, great aunt and uncle. The play had five well-received performances in Champaign, IL. A selection of puppets is exhibited in the show.
The Alzheimer’s Madonna, 2007, reflects the memory of my step-grandfather, who survived Auschwitz and bore the numbers tattooed on his arm throughout his adulthood. None of his other family members survived the Holocaust. As a child, his frailty, exacerbated by Alzheimer’s disease, struck me deeply. The Madonna/Venus in my sculpture is holding an old man who is at the end of his life, but she is in her prime. Together, they form a whole and circle around each other in a dance. The young woman, an image of energy and virility, and the old man, a symbol for memory, are bound together as they are in our own psyches, in which the young self and the old self coexist throughout our lives.
A friend of mine who had schizophrenia and was a gifted artist once said, ”The purpose of art is to beautify the ugly.” That can mean many things. For me, it means that through art we can try to come to terms with what scares us or horrifies us in life, uniting the things we think of as opposites into a whole.
Peter Bulow, March 2010