New art anthology transforms Holocaust pain into beauty

The question of how to find the value hidden in a terrible experience has long gripped Cynthia Brody's mind.

Brody is an artist, a therapist and the daughter of two Holocaust survivors.

In a local delicatessen last year, the 46-year-old San Rafael resident finally found her answer, a way to transform the intense emotions and suffering of survivors and their children into something beautiful.

The idea just came to her, she says, "like a bolt of lightning."

She and others had spilled into the deli after a meeting of survivors and their children at the nearby Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center. Brody had just moved to the Bay Area, and this was her first such meeting.

Having never in her life discussed her feelings about the Holocaust, Brody found she couldn't stop talking that day.

During the meeting and afterward, survivors and their children mentioned poems they had written and tucked away, prose about their experiences during the Holocaust, paintings still hidden — unseen — in an attic or closet.

"It was a turning point for me. It struck me that I wasn't the only one using art to come to terms with my feelings about the Holocaust."

The meeting and its aftermath "was one of the strangest, most powerful experiences of my life," says Brody, a New Jersey native.

In her mind's eye Brody suddenly saw an anthology of modern poetry, prose and visual art created by contributors who all were affected by the Holocaust. She also envisioned the collected work being exhibited in museums and schools, and contemplated a film documenting the whole process.

Brody immediately put requests for relevant artwork in major Jewish and secular newspapers nationwide.

"I felt I had found my purpose," she says. "This has given me a sense of control over the Holocaust."

Work began to pour in from all over the United States and Canada. She received contributions from many kinds of survivors, including those who spent the Holocaust in concentration camps, as her own mother did, or in labor camps, as her father did. Some contributors spent the war in hiding, some by escaping to other countries.

She received poems from children, grandchildren, wives and husbands of survivors.

Now, the auburn-haired former clothing designer and painter has compiled a manuscript comprising the work of some 90 writers and artists. The book is designed so that poems appear side-by-side with related examples of visual art.

Several publishers have expressed interest, and Brody has approached local Jewish community organizations about exhibiting the work.

She is confident that her original vision — book, exhibits and eventually a film documentary — will be realized. Her confidence springs from the anthology itself, which she says taps into "an undercurrent of creativity [among survivors] that's powerful."

People like herself who are "involved with the Holocaust personally" often feel constrained, she adds, because they know most outsiders "can't handle hearing about it."

As a therapist, she knows firsthand how difficult it can be to talk about the Holocaust. She also knows, however, how writing "can provide relief," as it lets the authors "finally put the feelings into words."

Brody remembers writing her own first poem, "Auschwitz — Second Generation," which appears in the anthology.

She says she sat at the typewriter crying and didn't stop until she finished. The poem recalls her mother's term in Auschwitz, and ends with the line: "They didn't stamp her skin but she wears her numbers in her eyes."

"First Thoughts: On Liberation Day From Concentration Camp" recalls Holocaust survivor Anette Bielik Harchik's first day as a free woman:

I will crawl out from the corners

of the creviceless space where my body has huddled

for countless days,

and stumble into sunlight.

"There are no piles of skeletons" in the anthology, Brody says. "I want this to be a representation of the the transformative qualities of the creative process. We can't ignore that this happened, but we don't have to be defined by it. We want to relate to the survivor part, not the victim part of ourselves.

"This," says Brody, running her fingertip back and forth across the manuscript, "has its own beauty."