ExhibitsHumanity & Inhumanity › Surviving Auschwitz and Hiroshima: A Jewish Man and a Bonsai Tree

Two of the most iconic and defining images of the 20th century are photos from the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination center by Allied forces and the atomic mushroom cloud over the Japanese island city of Hiroshima.

They epitomize man’s inhumanity to man — with a special animus towards innocent women, children, and old people.


Liberation of Auschwitz


Hiroshima

These twin visions of ultimate horror inspired herculean efforts by the post-WWII Allied leaders. They created the Bretton Woods agreement that gave the world: over seven decades of general prosperity and absence of nuclear war; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which delegitimized the subjugation and murder of ethnic groups; and funding for scientific research that gave the world everything from polio vaccines to the internet.

The world of 2021 seems gripped by both authoritarianism and nihilism. There are potentially frightening conflicts between super powers, and seething internal divisions inside almost all countries regarding distribution of resources and status.

In the wealthy and advanced societies, there is an erosion of family values, an explosion of oldsters, and a general unease about the post-pandemic world.

This angst about the future is expressed and exploited in the mass media. I believe that this global anomie has its roots in the exponential growth of both population and technology.

When I was born in 1950, the world’s population was roughly 2.5 billion people; it is now about 7.65 billion. That is nearly a 300% increase in just over 70 years. At mid-20th century, the personal “info-sphere” of virtually all educated people in the United States was simply a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica, a Zenith Radio, and a black-and-white TV with three channels. It is no surprise that I, like many other Boomers, walk around with a chronic sense of digital information overload in a world saturated with social media and all manner of handheld mobile communication.

Now in my 71st year, I have tried to find true stories and images that give me inspiration for my art and writing. I am especially concerned about the human prospect for my daughter’s millennial generation and those that follow.

My wandering mind recently recollected memories of a slide lecture that I attended at the Rhode Island School of Design around 1970. It prompted me to create this body of new work in a matter of weeks.

The featured lecturer was the renowned photographer and zoologist Roman Vishniac. He had documented both the Eastern European Jewish communities just before the outbreak of WWII and the Holocaust (often at great personal risk to his life), and also produced some the most astounding images in the emerging field of nature photomicroscopy.

I clearly remember how he ended his presentation…

Vishniac spoke of how he had seen so much atrocity, cruelty, suffering, and death in his long life. But he was still busy photographing all forms of life at the age of 73. He positively sparkled on stage.

Vishniac repeatedly affirmed, to a packed auditorium of young art and design students, the ultimate regenerative power of nature and human creativity.

That which dies ultimately brings forth new life and possibilities. He was then about two years older than I am now.

I hope that the following artwork will prompt you to look at the world as it is — in all its messy, maddening, and amazing complexity — and still find the energy and will to creatively contribute in your own unique way.

For me, it was the web photos of Israel Kristal, the Holocaust survivor who lived to 113, and the nearly 400-year-old bonsai tree that survived the atomic bomb blast on Hiroshima that got my creative juices flowing.

Both living entities had deep roots in their respective ancient cultures; both managed to survive concerted attempts at their extermination in the mid-20th Century; and both still managed to find their place in the sun in the 21st century.

Below are links to relevant online resources that I found of help and inspiration:

Roman Vishniac on the web:

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/roman-vishniac

https://artblart.com/tag/roman-vishniac-children-at-play-bratislava/

https://news.berkeley.edu/2018/11/20/vanished-no-more-giant-of-photography-roman-vishniac-finds-a-home-at-berkeley/

https://vishniac.icp.org/exhibition/scientific-work-and-photomicroscopy-america-early-1950s-late-1970s

Books on nature, human nature, and change:

“The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman

“So Human an Animal” by René Dubos

“Global Mind Change: The Promise of the 21st Century” by Willis Harman

Israel Kristal

Auschwitz and Hiroshima: Two Oldest Survivors

Bonsai Hiroshima

Mandala Hiroshima

 

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