Monday, May 2, 2016

Art and the Holocaust: a Potent Mix in Contemporary Fiction (no. 46)

 by Larry Witham


NOVELIST ALYSON RICHMOND explained in an author interview that she wanted to write a work of fiction “where I could explore an artist’s experience during WWII and the Holocaust.” The result is her The Lost Wife (2011). It is the first of three Holocaust-and-art novels by three different authors who share a desire to twin these powerful topics.
            Soon after Lost Wife came Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Treasure (2014) and B.A. Shapiro’s The Muralist (2015). Novels about the Holocaust, the Jews, and the visual arts have a rich pedigree. But these three female authors have joined the topic with historical romance. They are deeply familiar with Jewish tradition and Holocaust studies.
            All stories of war, love, and loss pull the same heart strings. In a novel about the Holocaust, this effect is created by introducing a single character in some depth, or two characters who fall in love before or during the times of trouble, and then have one of them die or disappear. The story is typically about one of the lovers, friends, or family in search of that lost trail.
            Richmond, Waldman, and Shapiro have evoked this sense of loss in different ways.
            In The Lost Wife, it is a young wife, presumed consumed by the Holocaust, who appears later. Waldman's Love and Treasure has an American Jewish soldier in Allied-occupied Austria fall in love with a postwar Holocaust survivor, who then disappears in the quest to found Israel (plus, there’s also a story of a Jewish suffragette in Hungary who is lost in the Nazi camps).
            In The Muralist, Shapiro gives us a young French-Jewish painter who not only revolutionizes modern art in New York City, but disappears at age twenty in Nazi-occupied France looking for her family. Fortunately, we learn at the very end, she was hidden from the Nazis by what the Jews will later call a “righteous Christian”; he runs a village bakery, and will marry her. Now a French baker’s wife, she will paint as a hobby, raise a family in obscurity, and die peacefully—unknown to art history.
            All three novels take an opportunity to summarize the horrors of the Holocaust in general. Even so, the focus is on the particular: a single country, the wartime politics (Jewish migration and the founding Israel, for example), and the most salient art events (such as the Nazi art mines in Bavaria, art looting of Paris, or the “Hungarian gold train”).
            Naturally, Holocaust novels focused on deportations and camps take us more directly into the horrors. These three art-and-Holocaust works must share space with the wider topic of art and artists, and by this means each novels earns its unique flavor.
            Richmond turns to the authentic history of artists who tried to continue their work in Nazi occupied Prague. She enters this world by making the young “wife” an art student, who survives in a camp by use of her artistic talents.
            In Love and Treasure, Waldman recreates the world of the cosmopolitan Jews of Vienna and Budapest before the war, a time of their great financial, intellectual, and artistic achievement. Much of the novel orbits around the real story of the “Hungarian gold train,” a Nazi storehouse of the wealth—gold, jewelry, art, silverware from synagogues, etc.—confiscated from Jews by Hungarians allied with the Reich.
            Shapiro, who like Richmond had written a previous novel set in the art world, has chosen the New York City art scene between the wars to introduce her heroine, Alizée Benoit. A French migrant, Alizée is part of the WPA mural project after the Depression. In this way, she entangles her life with famous artists in the “New York School” of emerging Abstract Expressionists. By way of the federal arts project, she also makes contact with Eleanor Roosevelt to plead the case for allowing European Jews to migrate to America (at a time when an anti-migrant policy prevailed).
            Any novel about the Holocaust must, of course, be categorized as tragedy, which in fiction can find a redeeming story line in love, devotion, or as these three novels suggest, “the power of art” to raise beauty above the ugly side of human nature.
            As a postscript, it is worth noting that these three exemplary Holocaust-and-art novels have what might be called more distant cousins: novels about art that have ties to Jews and WWII, but do not make the Holocaust central. Two recent offerings under this rubric are Ellis Avery’s The Last Nude (2012), and Jojo Moyes’s The Girl You Left Behind (2012).
            In the first, described as “mainstream lesbian” fiction, Avery tells the story of the Paris-based Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka around 1927. The plot focuses on Tamara making love to, and manipulating, Rafaela, a seventeen-year-old female model who is a Jew from Brooklyn. Tamara—it seems—saves Rafaela from the Holocaust when the Nazi’s later invade France.
            The Girl You Left Behind looks at art looted in both world wars. The story mainly harks back to World War I, when a Frenchman’s painting of his wife was confiscated during the brutal Prussian occupation. It then explores to “reparation” industry in London, the legal movement to return art to Jews who were victimized by Nazis in the next war.
            As with all such novels, there’s an inescapable mandate to responds creatively to the exhortation of Eli Wiesel—author of the pioneer Holocaust memoir Night (1960) and followed by the related novels Dawn (1961) and The Accident (1962)—to “never forget."

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