Review: Painting Czeslawa Kwoka: Honoring Children of the Holocaust

Review: Painting Czeslawa Kwoka: Honoring Children of the Holocaust

by Stan Galloway

The Industrial Revolution made a collaborative workforce the mainstay of civilization, though one might argue that civilization itself has always been built on collaboration. In recent years, the idea that learning should also be done collaboratively has taken root in many educational systems, even though it runs counter to a number of traditional assessment methods. Lori Schreiner and Theresa Senato Edwards have shown that collaboration is also inherent to an everyday understanding of the world.

Painting Czeslawa Kwoka: Honoring Children of the Holocaust joins painting, photography, poetry, and history into an experience that begs for a response. The inception of the book, Schreiner explains, was a newspaper article on Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish prisoner who made documentary photographs, for Nazi record-keeping, at Auschwitz. Brasse’s statement that “the faces still haunted him, especially the children” (7), and the article’s accompanying photographs of a 14-year-old girl, Czeslawa Kwoka, caused Schreiner to respond by painting the girl she saw in the newspaper. Edwards, upon seeing the painting wrote her response, the titular “Painting Czeslawa Kwoka,” a poem in 5 parts, ending with: “You can breathe them in” (36). Not only did Schreiner and Edwards breathe in this story but they also began to look for more. More paintings, more poems, were added as additional documentary photographs of children were brought to bear.

The book is composed of 30 photographs (from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Poland’s State Museum Auschwitz-Birkenau), 27 paintings, and 16 poems. While the photographs were obviously documentary, the paintings and the poems are interpretive. Collaborative learning occurs when people work on the same project “to share and contribute to each member’s understanding of a topic” (“What’s Collaborative Learning?” teAchnology: The Online Teacher Resource. n.d. 5 Aug 2012). Brasse was able to capture an image, Schreiner has given color to the image, and Edwards has given selected images thought. The juxtaposition of these three elements creates a moving bittersweet montage.

The photographs range from the smiling 2-year-old holding a doll to the stark profiles with head brace and identifying numbers. The photographs have little remarkable about them and would seem an odd choice for an artistic project, until one considers the context of them. That these were all young people, aged 2-20, executed in German concentration camps during the Second World War, invests them with greater power.

Schreiner’s paintings do not embellish or fantasize. The biggest difference lies in the addition of muted color. Her choice of color is what creates a sense of interpretation. Zigmond Adler, in the first painting of the book, for example, wears a blue hood (happier than gray, but also symbolically sad) and a red-brown coat. The coat’s checked pattern in the photograph is transformed into a blend of shades, a more natural covering, less obviously man-made, more impressionistic, softened by the heavy strokes. The eyes become nearly indiscernible in the dark ovals of the painting, removing the child’s gaze at the viewer, making the painting more a mask, a barrier, a wall of separation that says, “no matter how much you think you can know me, this is only a shadow.” A second difference is the transference of the photograph’s grain into evident brush strokes. The impression of Schreiner’s style is reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with Straw Hat” or Ivan Grohar’s “The Sower.” The impasto effect is shown most markedly in the painting “Deliana,” which is displayed in blocks, a kind of proto-Duchamp assemblage showing the inherent fragmentation of the image. This brokenness is enhanced by Edwards’ identification of the painting’s texture as “scars” (28) on the young woman’s face.

The interplay of image and word also shows a range of collaboration. The poem “Deliana,” for example, begins by drawing attention to the process that Edwards went through in observing Schreiner’s work as a starting point: “When I saw your painting in the studio”; “I put you in my pant’s pocket”; “digital”; “I print four close-ups” (28), and so forth. Within that narration, though, Edwards’ interpretation interweaves, so that scar colors are “like fruit” and the mouth, “a black bird softening before his death flight.” This prose poem is different from three paragraphs only by strategic tabs providing pauses that might have been created in line beaks or commas in another style. Here the three blocks of text mirror the three blocks of image on the facing page. This painting, of all the paintings, is not reproduced in full, but remains broken up, just as the tab spaces in the poem text break up the lines.

Edwards provides a wide variety of open-form styles in the poetry she uses in this book, allowing the content of the poem to indicate the shape. “Ursula,” for example, is a 12-word knot of words focused on the girl’s eyes. “Suzanne’s Smile,” about a 2-year-old, is formed of unrhymed couplets. “Emanuel and Avram Rosenthal, 1944,” a poem about two- and five-year-old brothers, is written in sturdy three- and four-word lines, most words a single syllable.
In the titular poem, Edwards again provides a narrative of observation, beginning, “In Brasse’s black and white photos, / you are a young girl with a round face [. . .],” followed by the question “What does color bring you?” in reference to the painted version by Schreiner. This poem, the most ambitious of the collection, examines the triptych of paintings created from the documented three-quarter, straight-on, and profile views. The background colors have shifted in each, emphasizing the subjectivity of painting, and drawing Edwards’ response: “In color you move through our minds” and “In color you transform” (34). The poem is about color as much as it is about Czeslawa Kwoka, the last two sections specifically about black and yellow, respectively. This poem epitomizes what Noah Saterstrom, on the back cover, calls an “ekphrastic dialogue.” But the book is less dialogue and more response because it is not clear if it moves only one direction from painting to poetry or in the other direction as well. Saterstrom is right in saying it is impossible “to reanimate [. . .] the images of these departed children,” and it is clear this book is not about that; rather, it allows the mind of the viewer to consider the nature of art in “mourn[ing] for someone whom we didn’t know” (back cover.)

Half of the poems are printed for the first time in this edition. Others predate this book in such places as Autumn Sky Poetry, Holly Rose Review, and Voices Through Skin (an earlier book by Edwards). “Painting Czeslawa Kwoka” and “A Last Look,” in different years, received the Tacenda Literary Award for Best Collaboration. Some of the artwork has been exhibited at Windham Art Gallery, Brattleboro, VT, and Exner Block Gallery, Bellows Falls, VT.
This book “give[s] voice to the voiceless,” says Ivy Alvarez (back cover). It is one voice, two voices, a multitude of voices all in one, asking, out of time, for someone to listen.

-refers from Theresa Senato Edwards’ contributor page

  1. Czeslaw Kwoka was Jewish. She was a Polish woman from the village near Zamosc. Andrzej Kasperek (relative)

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