Volume 18 Number 5
Breaking the Silence
01 October 2005

Mary Lean and Andrea Cabrera meet an artist whose work has given a voice to Holocaust survivors, and their descendants.

Seven chairs stood in the exhibition hall: three wrapped in pieces of clothing, one embossed with fossils, one burnt and charred, one holding a thick book, in which visitors could write their responses.... From them emanated the voices of survivors of the Holocaust, or their children and grandchildren.

‘I have become persuaded that true deep and focussed listening can have a profound effect on both the speaker and the listener,’ says the creator of the installation, Francisca de Beurges Rosenthal. ‘A common thread within my work is an attempt to enter into that world of silence, which so frequently results from an avoidance of suffering and inevitably leads to distortion of reality.’

Rosenthal’s installation, Sh’ma (a Hebrew word, which means ‘listen with understanding’, drawn from an ancient prayer for the dead), was first seen at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1996, and has since visited Britain, Germany and Poland.

The issues of the Holocaust—and of the silence produced by trauma —are personal for her. Her parents met in Morocco during World War II. He was German and had been a member of the Hitler Youth when he discovered that he was of Jewish origin. Her mother was English, and returned to Britain when Francisca was born.

Rosenthal spent the first four years of her life in a children’s home, and then lived with her mother and stepfather in Quatar, where he was opening a hospital in the desert. ‘My mother, having been abandoned by my father, threw a lot of anti-Semitic stereotypes at me,’ she says. When she was ten, she was sent to boarding school in England, spending her holidays with her natural father.

Her choice of media—sculpture and voice—derives from those early years in the desert. ‘There were no other children,’ she says, ‘I used to build things with sand and rocks.’ Tuning in to the crackling sound of the BBC left her with ‘a strong impression of the power of the human voice’. From school she went to interpreters’ college in Germany, and then to South Africa where she met her husband. They went to the US, and it was only when their children reached their early teens, that she decided to go to art school.

‘In art school, I had to start looking inwards,’ she says. Her father— who was unable to speak about the traumas of his own upbringing— had abused her sexually. Her first two installations focussed on her own story and on sexuality. Then in the early 90s she was invited to do the exhibition at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in New York.

The first person she interviewed for Sh’ma was an 82-year-old Auschwitz survivor, a psychiatrist who worked with survivors and their children. She asked him what was the most common presenting problem of the second generation. ‘They grow up in a vacuum of silence and it’s crazy-making,’ he said.

It took Rosenthal a year to transcribe the interviews in long hand, and then select extracts. Among them were the words of the man who could hardly bear the weight of the blanket with which he fled; the woman who could not use her mother tongue to describe her experiences; the mother who did not want to tell her children how their grandparents died for fear of teaching them to hate; the woman who said, starkly, ‘My parents died because they were Jewish’.

‘Without exception each one told me how glad they were to have talked to me. When people have been very badly hurt, others tend to shy away from their pain. One woman, whose father had been taken away and thrown down a well, told me she had only been asked her story four times in her life.’

The process was healing for Rosenthal as well. ‘You isolate yourself when you come from an abusive background,’ she says. ‘This was a way to become part of the world. Interviewing these people helped me to make some sort of sense of my father’s behaviour towards me; some forgiveness could enter in. I had spent many years in therapy, and before he died we had finally reached a profound sense of closure.’

She used chairs, she says, because ‘chairs represent absence and presence’. Around one she placed shoes filled with sand, pointing in different directions, to suggest the tension between living in one country and longing for another which so many of her interviewees felt. From the ‘fossil chair’ came the sound of tectonic plates moving under the oceans, like distant canons. ‘It was a way of speaking to the fact that the planet survives, the individual survives.’ One chair was wrapped up like a package, ‘because Jews have always had to be prepared psychologically to pick up their luggage and flee overnight’. When we met her at an IofC conference at Caux, she was working on a new project—interviewing Jewish, Muslim and Christian women about what it means to live in the US.

‘In everything I do I hope to learn a little more myself,’ she says. ‘But I also hope to create a listening space for other people, a way to make connections and not be so fearful. Compassion is the pathway towards healing, and listening can remove the veil of silence, which makes us strangers one to another.’