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Untitled, 1971. Collection Simon Wiesenthal Center
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Chose life – if you and your offspring would live – by loving the Lord your God, heeding his commands, and holding fast to him. 1
– Deuteronomy 30:19-20
Chose Life! The Deuteronomist's command to the ancient Israelites as they rededicate themselves to the Covenant, the Covenant between the living God and the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, is radically enfleshed by the life and artistic works of Alice Lok Cahana. Cahana herself avers that God's Covenant is with all peoples; her theological stance in this regard only strengthens one's perception of her as a daughter of the Covenant. Emerging from the smoke and ashes of Auschwitz, literally walking out of a gas chamber, artist Cahana embraces life and love and is a beacon illuminating the central command of Torah to love the Lord and to teach that love through one's every activity.2
The Soul of the People commits to canvas, board, and paper Cahana's choice to choose life. Her exhibit, a survivor's exploration of the Great Catastrophe, the Shoah, teaches the hard facts of the Nazi pogrom while at the same time inspiring hope for the future of humankind. Iona, a Catholic College in the tradition of Christian Brothers and American Catholic higher education, brings a long tradition of Holocaust education to its role as host institution for this fascinating and compelling exhibit. Commemorating the Shoah on a Catholic campus is a fairly uncommon practice. Iona's commitment to educating for justice, peace, and service fueled it's recognition that ignorance regarding Hitler's "Final Solution" as well as any concomitant prejudice towards the Jewish people must be eradicated among its students. Consequently, in the Eighties, Iona's program in Peace and Justice Studies instituted educational opportunities to mark the annual worldwide observance of Yom Ha'Shoah.
Thus, The Soul of the People represents Iona's fourteenth year dedicated to Holocaust education. The exhibit, and supporting special events, has its origins in the Brither John G. Driscoll Professorship in Jewish-Catholic Studies which assumed responsibility for Iona's commemoration of Yom Ha'Shoah in 1999. The Driscoll Professorship, endowed in 1999 through the generosity of Mr. And Mrs. Jack Rudin '86H, is dedicated to cross-disciplinary explorations of the tumultuous history shared by Jews and Catholics.
As the Driscoll Professor, I was invited to give a lecture at Temple Israel of New Rochelle in December 2000. At the end of the lecture, I invited people to offer their perspectives about Jewish-Catholic studies on a Catholic campus. During the ensuing dialogue I learned about the art and survival of Alice Lok Cahana through her son, Senior Rabbi Michael Z. Cahana. It was immediately clear to me that the goals of the Driscoll Professorship required that it provide the College and the surrounding community with the extraordinary artistic and educational opportunity represented by artist Cahana's efforts to create nothing less than a soaring, living testament to the lives of those who perished, those who survived, and those who risked their own lives to save others.
Alice Lok Cahana first visited Iona College in April 2001. During our tour of the Br. Chapman Gallery and in subsequent conversations, Cahana expressed her deep desire that an exhibit of her art would be an educational moment for students. At one point, she said, "I will do anything to help students gain a total awareness of what they can do in the world." Cahana's art overflows with a generosity of spirit that is void of hate and bitterness. From "Arbeit Macht Frei" to "Children's Poems" to her scrolls, her art eloquently expresses the healing power of a single voice whether it is that of the champion of Hungarian Jews – Raoul Wallenberg, a child of terezin, or her own.
German theologian Johann Baptist-Metz writes, "To preserve the remembrance of Auschwitz, of the Shoah, so that it never happens among us again, we need to support our consciousness with something I call an 'anamnestic culture.' This is the dowry of the Jewish spirit….There is something in the Jewish spirit for all of us, above all its gifts for anamnesis….It is not only the survival of Christianity and Judaism that is at stake with this anamnestic culture but rather our very humanity." Courageously, Alice Lok Cahana has chosen, through her art, to engage in anamnesis, an often painful process of making dangerous memories palpable in the present moment. Dangerous memories subvert ideologies of intolerance because they cry out for justice while proclaiming the inherent dignity of human existence. Cahana's art stands as a testimony against those who would deny the Shoah . Cahana's art mourns the lives lost and the centuries-old cultures eradicated from cities such as her native Sárvár, Hungary. Cahana's art celebrates the abiding belief shared by Jews and Christians that human beings created in God's image are good. Humanity can and will Choose Life!
I will not celebrate Hitler by showing his killing the people but I will show the soul of the people. -Alice Lok Cahana
1 Translation from Tanakh (Jewish Publication Society, 1985)
2 See Deuteronomy 6:6-9
Elena G. Procario-Foley, PhD
Driscoll Professor of Jewish-Catholic Studies
New Rochelle, NY
Catalogue for the exhibition "No Kaddish for the Children," a retrospective on the work of Alice Lok Cahana edited and written by Stephen Feinstein and shown at the Florida Holocaust Museum, St. Ptersburg, Florida (March 13-August 15,2004) is available from the Florida Holocaust Museum. Order a catalogue.
Cahana's story also appears in the Academy award winning documentary, THE LAST DAYS, done through the Survivors of the Shoah Project.
Site constructed with permission of the artist.