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In Search of
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IN SEARCH OF THE LOST OBJECT, AN INSTALLATION                   Page 1 of 3 pages

HOLOCAUST ART

Motivated by my Jewish family's history under Nazi Germany, I began this project in 1990. At the time, I did not think of myself as a Holocaust artist. The community I grew up in was self-defined as a 'refugee' group. My family used that word 'refugee' as though it had been created purely for us.

When they spoke of the scourge that had devoured their life, they either spoke of "Hitler" or "the Nazis". Holocaust, as a descriptor, came much later. The event was so great—I do not feel qualified to understand it. I never consciously set out to make art about "the Holocaust".

A REFUGEE CHILDHOOD

I was only one year old in 1939 when I arrived in New York with my parents, and my father wrote ‘from now on English is the mother tongue’. I was a funny kind of American, surrounded by a whole community who spoke German, but America being what it is, we were true Americans all the same.

During World War II, I had a strong awareness that my father's parents had been caught in Germany. My impression was that their fate was unknown. I sensed that my father's thoughts were always with them, even though he rarely spoke of it directly. I recall praying for their survival during the War, when I was four or five.

 

Rosa © Gabrielle Rossmer

At some point in my adulthood it occurred to me that my survival was a matter of accident—that one little change in the bureaucratic details of my family's history would have resulted in my extermination at a very young age. That is something I did not consciously contemplate during my childhood in the greatest city in the world.

MY FATHER'S MEMORIES

My father had been in Dachau Concentration Camp for almost 6 weeks after Kristallnacht in November 1938. He spoke about it somewhat casually. He was a man of humor and optimism who felt responsible for others. He told that he had been young and strong and tried to help the older men, cheer them up. In passing, he mentioned that he had frostbitten toes in Dachau. And he told of witnessing someone being shot. But he spoke of those days as though they were an adventure that he had ridden out. My father was intellectually engaged with his Judaism, but he was not very observant. And yet he never smoked on Saturday. Often he anxiously awaited sundown on Saturday so that he could light his cigar. This vow of renunciation was made to another inmate at Dachau. If he got out, he said, he would never smoke on Shabbos. He never did, thereby carrying Dachau with him for the rest of his life.

 

VIEWING THE PAST

My relationship to "Hitler" was a little baffling. Growing up, Hitler was the mythic demon and more. I felt we were victims of Hitler, but my life did not show that. In college, where I majored in Political Science, I wrote a thesis on "The Nationalism of Johann Gottlieb Fichte". Fichte had been favored by the Nazis. His nationalism was both idealistic and a precursor of fascism. I wanted to learn more about fascism and about German thought. I was certainly looking for some answers.

When I went to art school at a later date, my art was concerned with formal matters. As a sculptor, I have been interested in the direct connection between the object, materials and feeling. Narrative was never my interest. But in the mid to late 1980's, that changed. In retrospect, I see that as the events of the "Hitler Years" approached their 50th anniversary, there was a widespread internal pressure to confront the story of what happened. Many other artists apparently experienced a similar historical imperative.

FACING THE PAST

My father, Stephen Rossmer, died in 1983 at the age of 77. Later that year the Goethe Institute in Boston invited me to participate in an exhibition of German-American artists. I found it strangely naive that they would designate me this way. I agreed to participate in the show if I could write and include a statement about this identity question. I wrote: "I have always viewed myself as an American Jew from Germany. As a German-Jew, I was a member of a minority within the American Jewish community, which actually strengthened my identification with German language and culture. However, I have never identified myself as German."

For the rest of the eighties my sculpture consisted of abstract constructions. The raw material was wood. But the experience with the Goethe Institute, and then the discovery of folders of documents among my father's papers after his death, as well as my deep sense of connection to my father, impelled me to investigate further. The file folders contained papers and documents concerning my grandparents, my parents, myself, my great uncle and aunt, and my maternal grandparents. These papers were needed in order to emigrate from Germany. There were also some surprising personal documents such as letters written by my grandparents during their last year of life.

 


Bridge © Gabrielle Rossmer


Boston Blues © Gabrielle Rossmer