April 16, 2009

Holocaust survivor makes art from her memories

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Alice Lok Cahana, 80, is a fragile woman. Her son holds her elbow, steadying her as she walks. He finds and buys the bottle of water she asks for. He holds her purse and her coat, operates the elevator in the lobby of the Gerding Theater.

But once she is standing before her massive work of art, inspired by the Holocaust and dedicated to a young diplomat who saved 20,000 lives, her voice and her memories regain their strength.

”Do you know the story of Raoul Wallenberg?” she asks.

In a soft but unwavering voice, Cahana weaves Wallenberg’s story into her own. He was a young businessman who handed out fake Swedish passports to Jews, who used them to escape the Nazis. She was 15, a teenager in a cattle car with no water, watching her grandfather degraded in ways that, 64 years later, are still so painful she can barely describe them.

”There was one bucket in the car …,” and she is lost in her memories.

* * *

Michael Z. Cahana, rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, arranged for his mother, a resident of Houston, and her art to be part of Portland’s Yom Hashoah commemoration, which aims to open up the annual observance to more non-Jews. The tribute to Holocaust survivors will be held in the Gerding, a public space dedicated to the arts, and will include ”Through My Mother’s Eyes,” a performance of Alice Cahana’s words and traditional melodies by her son and his wife, Cantor Ida Rae Cahana, and pianist Janet Guggenheim.

When it came to choosing a speaker for the event, Rabbi Cahana reached outside Oregon’s Jewish circle. Precisely because global Jewish-Catholic relations have been strained in recent months, he invited the Most Rev. John G. Vlazny, leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, to speak. ”The connection here in Portland between us has been amazing,” Cahana says. He wanted the community to see that for themselves.

”Our relationship has been a good one,” Vlazny says. He credits Rabbi Emanuel Rose of Congregation Beth Israel and the late Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Paul Waldschmidt for laying the groundwork.

”There are memories that we share,” he said, ”some of the same traditions and language. We have some different ideas, of course, but we share the same hope for our future.”

Vlazny was a young seminarian in the 1960s when he visited a concentration camp in Germany. He walked through the grounds and saw the ovens where Jews had been gassed.

”It was a profound moment,” Vlazny says, ”when what the Holocaust was really hit me.” Since then, he thinks of a line from Elie Wiesel’s Nobel Prize lecture: ”It is memory that will save humanity.”

That is Alice Cahana’s hope and the lingering pain of her losses.

Born in Hungary, she survived the labor camp at Auschwitz/Birkenau and the death march to Bergen-Belsen. Her mother, sister, brothers, aunts, uncles and cousins were among the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust. She and her father, who had escaped to Budapest and received one of Wallenberg’s fake Swedish passports, were the only survivors of a vigorous and thriving family.

She struggles to find the words to continue her story. The face of her hero, Wallenberg, who eventually was arrested and disappeared, stares out from the massive mixed-media memory of the Holocaust. Photographic images surround his likeness, from a young Jewish woman paraded as she wears a sign that says ”I am a pig,” to the gates of Auschwitz, where, Cahana says, the world learned ”a language we did not know.”

”The German people got used to it,” she says. ”No one said, ‘This is the 20th century. How can you do that?’”

The question still rings in her head, along with the one that echoed through her own mind for the 18 months of her own imprisonment: ”I am just a normal human being. What do you want from me? What did I do wrong?”

Cahana was an abstract expressionist influenced by Mark Rothko when she encountered revisionist historians in the 1970s. Since then her work has focused on the Holocaust. One of her paintings hangs in the Vatican museum’s collection. Her work does not render specific villains or victims but evokes what one scholar calls ”visual equivalents for memory.”

”I cannot forget,” she says as she stands before another of her paintings. Covered in numbers, flames and smoke, all its imagery is organized under the days of the week.

”Somewhere in the world, it was an ordinary day,” she says. ”Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.

”But not for us — not in the camps.”


Pictures

Pictures by Motoya Nakamura, The Oregonian

  1. Alice Lok Cahana is overcome by her memories as she stands before a piece of her art, a mixed-media remembrance of the Holocaust. A survivor herself, Cahana is showing two exhibitions of her art as part of Portland’s Yom Hashoah community commemoration. A likeness of her hero, Raoul Wallenberg, lies at the center of this particular piece.
  2. Photographs of soldiers and Jews are details from Alice Lok Cahana’s mixed-media piece recounting memories of the Holocaust. The work is dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved at least 20,000 lives before his own arrest.
  3. ”I cannot forget,” Alice Lok Cahana says as she stands before one of her paintings. Covered in numbers, flames and smoke, all its imagery is organized under the days of the week. ”Somewhere in the world, it was an ordinary day,” she says. ”Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.”

Nancy Haught: 503-294-7625; nancyhaught@news.oregonian.com