The new book “After: The Obligation of Beauty,” which is a featured selection at the Book Festival of the MJCCA, explores the artistic legacy that Mindy Weisel has created as a child of Holocaust survivors.
Weisel was born on January 7, 1947, in the Bergen-Belsen Displaced Persons camp in northern Germany. Her birth was one of the first to be recorded in the camp after the war years.
Before Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British Army in 1945, it was estimated that more than 50,000 people, most of them Jews, had died there. Among those who perished in the death camp during the closing months of the war was Anne Frank.
But Weisel’s father survived, first Auschwitz and later a Nazi death march. He had arrived at the infamous concentration camp on the same transport from Romania as his cousin, Elie Wiesel, who would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Weisel’s mother also survived the horrors of that infamous camp, and on that winter day in 1947, with the memory of death ever-present, she brought a new life into the world.
In “After: The Obligation of Beauty,” her impressive new work, Weisel reflects on how being the firstborn of Holocaust survivors has shaped her life.
As she describes it, she was particularly moved, as she was growing up, to discover a drawing her father had made soon after his liberation in 1945. It was a pencil drawing of the sun rising, full and bright, on a new day. The simple drawing was the only work of art that he ever made.
The discovery of that drawing during those formative years of her youth fired her determination to become an artist. At that moment, she writes, she decided to devote herself to putting into her art the complex emotions she felt as a sensitive child of Holocaust survivors.
As she emphasized in an interview from her home in Jerusalem, at some point, you accept the past. “Every day to this day, you ask yourself, why was I born? Did I do enough with my life? It just plagues you. But then you do get to a point where you come to terms with this. And that’s why I started the book. I stopped wishing for a different past.”
As the title of the book implies, it is what you make of your experiences that counts. For Weisel, what comes “after” is less about the re-creation of tragedy and more about the affirmation of life.
“The book also that changed my life when I was 16 was Victor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’ where he said, ‘we have the choice of how we’re going to live.’ And I wanted to live fully alive. I did not want to live half-dead.”
Weisel’s first major series of paintings was based on the number that was tattooed on her father’s arm when he first arrived in Auschwitz: A3146. For an entire year in 1980, she started each of her paintings with that number, and then covered the canvas with words. The words were part of the stories her father had told her of his survival, of those he had loved and lost, of what he had experienced during that darkest of times. Then she covered over the words with paint, seeking during the creative process a search for some light in the tragedies of the past.
In the abstract expressionist works that she created, it was her goal, as she describes it, to discover what is in our experience that is beyond words.
Those 36 paintings, created over four decades ago, led to an exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York and the glowing reviews that helped launch Weisel’s career as a painter, a writer and a teacher at Washington’s prestigious Corcoran School of Art. Later, she used the lace she found in her mother’s possessions after her death to do another series of notable works. Again, trying to find in the brushstrokes that filled the canvas, the light that was struggling to emerge.
Today her works hang in the Smithsonian, the Hirshhorn Museum, Yad Vashem, and the Israel Museum. An exhibition of some of her prints is now up at the Marcus Jewish Community Center in Dunwoody.
In her large body of work, Weisel has never stopped looking for the light and the beauty, as she puts it, that emerges from her art.
“I think that the moment you experience beauty, all else falls around you and you have that experience. I think we have a responsibility and an obligation to be aware of the gift of that moment of beauty that is the gift.”
It is that search for the gift of beauty that so moved Stuart Eizenstat, the famed Atlanta-born Washington lawyer, diplomat and writer. On Oct. 13, Eizenstat, who also penned an afterword to her book, will interview Weisel at the MJCCA book festival.
In his commentary, Eizenstat describes Weisel’s “ability to speak about ‘the survival of beauty,’ the ‘will to live with beauty’ by someone who fully absorbed the unbearable traumas her parents endured in the Shoah, who sought beauty and meaning ‘in the face of tragic history.’”
Mindy Weisel will appear in a livestreamed conversation with Stuart Eizenstat at the MJCCA Book Festival on Oct. 13, 8:00 p.m. EST.
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