Israel Berenbaum: Ambassador from the Holocaust
Volume 3 , Issue 2 (Nov, 1989 | Cheshvan, 5750)
When he was a young boy in his native Warsaw, Israel Bernbaum, artist, lecturer and children's author, followed in his father's footsteps. ?I davened every day, went to the synagogue. It was a very Jewish, warm atmosphere at home, with my parents and brothers and sisters. We lived in the Jewish sections, comfortably, not bothered by anyone -- until the Holocaust!?
When the tragedy occurred, part of the family managed to escape to the Ural, where Bernbaum worked as a dental technician, a trade he had taken up while still in Warsaw, and which, as he puts it, saved his life while in Russia and later in Paris.
Bernbaum started painting after the Second World War, but he remembers having always had the ?drive to paint.? He began with landscapes, people, and a variety of other subjects. His keen interest in depicting the Holocaust, and, indeed, his awareness of his artistic ability to do so, came about in a curious way. When Bernbaum eventually arrived in the United States with his? wife and his three young sons, he began studying in Queens College. Being a very ambitious, strong willed man with a creative mind which never seemed to rest, he got his B.A. in 1973. One of the things he had to do in order to achieve this was to paint a picture. His choice was a rather huge painting of the Warsaw Ghetto. ?I had the urge to do some serious work and the Holocaust was haunting me. Although I hadn't been there, I had had contact with some survivors and some Jewish soldiers while still in Russia, and then word got around (through American channels) that whoever had friends or family in Poland should say kaddish ‑ as no one had survived.? The intense face of this friendly man became very serious and sad during our meeting while he gave vent to these feelings.
After that first painting, many others on the Holocaust theme followed. His imagination is remarkable: Although he did not actually see these, his paintings stir the viewer with their vivid depictions of buildings on fire, faceless, merciless soldiers shooting innocent children and people falling to their death. He also uses symbolic devices in his painting; e.g, a heap of rubble from a destroyed synagogue with each little piece bearing the name of one Jew who was murdered by his merciless captors. Then there is a pious Jew wrapped in a tallis, a desperate, crying mother trying in vain to save her child from the brutal murderers. Bernbaum's colors speak for themselves; they are vivid, ?shouting? colors. ?I do not want to show corpses, I want the paintings, as such, to cry,? he says. ?I want people who look at them to become deeply involved.?
Bernbaum eliminates any signs of ?naturalism? in his work; indeed he is deliberately ?primitive.? His enormous success as a lecturer, talking to schoolchildren of all ages throughout the United States eventually led to his equally successful book: My Brother's Keeper. ?Children of the world,? Bernbaum tells us, ?should learn ... as they are the future citizens responsible for our planet ... to prevent another mass‑wrongdoing as the Holocaust.? My Brother's Keeper is a sell‑out and is about to be translated into German. He hopes it will reach a wide reading public. Bernbaum is still getting letters of appreciation and thanks from young people and adults. He recently received a warm letter from a Protestant American. In it, the writer thanks him, saying, ?What you are doing in your way enlightens mankind?.
Judith Helfer lives in Manhattan where she is an artist and art critic.