When Judy Margles, the Executive Director of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE), kindly met me for a walkthrough of the museum’s current exhibit, she mentioned how much hope there was to be found in the gallery. The show, titled To Bear Witness — Extraordinary Lives, features the stories of fourteen Oregon residents who are refugees and survivors of genocide from all over the world, four of whom are holocaust survivors.
I agree that there is hope to be found in their stories, but as I’ve sat with them over this past week, I’m not sure that hope is the most important takeaway. At least, it wasn’t for me.
I am as guilty as anyone of holding certain atrocities far enough away from myself that they begin to take on an almost theoretical quality. I do this, I think, out of a fear that if I were truly to let in all the details—to really absorb the events and their effects with all of my heart and understanding—that I would lose my tenuous faith in humanity and my ability to carry on. This is not an excuse, mind you. It’s an unearned privilege.
Walking through the gallery, there is no option of separating oneself from the stories of these fourteen people, of creating distance between them and ourselves. The stories breathe the air in the room along with us. And OJMCHE, along with its partner The Immigrant Story, has done these stories justice by presenting each of them in a simple and straightforward way, without extraneous fuss.
Multiple components, in a range of media, tell each person’s story: a photographic portrait; a written version of their oral history gleaned from extensive interviews; and an image created by each person in collaboration with artist Jim Lommasson (more on this in a moment). In addition, the nonprofit NW Documentary created short films about some of the participants that play on monitors throughout the space.
It was the collaborative images that initially drew me to see the show. I’ve been following Lommasson’s work for some time and am a great admirer of his creative practice. In addition to being an incredibly talented photographer, I have always thought of him as a midwife for other people’s stories.
For this series, he photographs an important object that each person brought with them when they fled their mother country—and he does so with such dimensionality that you will believe you can reach into the photograph and touch it. The objects speak, in some cases, to a life left behind and, in others, to a life reassembled in the U.S. Or perhaps it is both at once. After Lommasson has photographed these treasured possessions, their owners complete the image by writing directly on the photograph whatever they choose, wherever they chose, in their own hand. Each composition is unspeakably beautiful.
The strength of the show lies in how all of the different facets of storytelling come together to create something far more powerful, complicated, and nuanced than any of the individual pieces would be on their own. There is something tangible to the experience of reading a person’s story while looking into their eyes and feeling like you can reach out and hold something that is precious to them.
I don’t want to give the false impression that this makes the experience more comfortable or palatable because nothing could make it more comfortable or palatable. These are stories of people who have survived unimaginable acts of violence at the hands of other people. It simply makes the stories more personal, which makes them less avoidable. This is very important. The mechanism we use to distance ourselves from an event we don’t want to think too much about is impossible to implement when we are looking at someone who carries that event inside of them. To distance ourselves from it would be to distance ourselves from them, which we don’t want to do once we’ve seen their handwriting and their prayer book and the way that their face reminds us of someone we love.
I hesitate to include too many images or stories from the show here, because I don’t want to interrupt the experience of you seeing them for yourself. I do, though, want to share part of a story and an image—from Dijana Ihas, who played viola with the Sarajevo String Quartet—that I haven’t been able to shake.
An excerpt from Dijana’s story:
“When the siege of Sarajevo began in early April 1991, residents suffered a lack of heat, electricity, and running water. Food was scarce. Bombs fell nonstop. Undaunted, the musicians in the quartet performed where they could—on the front lines, in bombed-out schools and hospitals, civic buildings, theaters, concert halls and among the ruins of houses of worship. When a grenade killed the first violinist and a sniper claimed the second violinist, Dijana’s family begged her to leave. Yet new musicians replaced the fallen and they continued to play—206 concerts during the years their city was under siege.”
Dijana escaped Sarajevo with her viola and her life, and now teaches music at a university in Oregon. Certainly, hers is a story of unbelievable resilience—as are all of the stories at OJMCHE—from which we can take away hope. But what if, even more meaningfully, we take from these stories a righteous anger that ignites the fire of action, an anguish that gives rise to empathy, and a better understanding of our responsibility as humans to bear witness to each other’s lives.
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They even made the decision not to put any of the photographs behind glass because they wanted viewers to have an unmediated experience with the images so that they might feel closer to their subjects.
I’d love your writing if it were about a shoebox diorama you found at a yard sale, but you always bring us the most amazing art that moves and informs and crushes and lifts us up all at the same time. Then you illuminate it and the artists beautifully. Thank you for all of the above.