Survivors child seeks silver lining in storm clouds of Shoah

"What's so sweet about the Holocaust?"

A handful of puzzled, indignant people have posed just such a question to Cynthia Moskowitz Brody upon learning the title of her new literary and artistic compilation, "Bittersweet Legacy: Creative Responses to the Holocaust."

Brody's choice of title is itself a creative response. In spending the better part of 6-1/2 years culling stories, poems and artwork about history's all-time dark cloud, she has managed to come up with a silver lining.

"When you bring up [the title] with the children of survivors, they kind of smile and know exactly where you're coming from. If you see only the bitter in this experience, just dig a hole and jump in. It's way too overwhelming and negative," said Brody, a Sausalito artist, writer and therapist and the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

"There's sweetness in a lot of things — the tenderness of the love of our families, the fact that Judaism still exists. I work three days a week at the Jewish Home, and every Friday at about 2:30 I ask all the elderly ladies to join me, and we cover our eyes and bless the challah, candles and wine. The sweetness of that legacy is still strong in me and those people around me. That's the sweet part. The bitter part is obvious."

For Brody, who lost 86 relatives in Auschwitz alone, it took the better part of four decades to muster the necessary courage to address the Holocaust through her art. In compiling a book of others' creative responses, she hopes to create a cathartic experience for the artists and readers alike.

Poems, stories and artwork from doctors, students, rabbis and survivors are intermixed with works from well-known artists and poets like Yehuda Amichai as well as 22 Bay Area residents.

Local contributors Chana Bloch, Stewart Florsheim and Elaine Starkman will join Brody at a reading and book signing Sunday, June 24 at Berkeley's Judah L. Magnes Museum.

Brody's quest began in the mid-1990s, when she bombarded "all the major newspapers and all the Jewish newspapers in America" with requests for Holocaust-related art or writing.

"I didn't know bubkes. I didn't know where to procure it from and I wanted everyone's view. I didn't want famous people; I wanted to see the little hidden things. A lot of people who never would have seen [the ad] in the back of Poets & Writers magazine saw it [in newspapers]," she recalls.

"I had a little ritual of going down to the post box and getting a manila envelope or two with stuff that would just knock your socks off. It was the most powerful, personal stuff; it was just beautiful. I could only read maybe one a day. It was very difficult but very therapeutic. Before that, if someone said 'Holocaust,' I'd glaze over and say, 'I can't go there.'"

With images of dozens of Shoah-related paintings and sculptures, Brody claims "Bittersweet Legacy" is the only book of its type to contain large amounts of both art and literature. The stories, poems and artwork are also ordered in an unorthodox manner, arranged not by author but by categories such as "The American Experience of the Holocaust," "Speaking to the Enemy" and "Through the Eyes of a Child."

"I've found in reading other books that by Page 7 I've got to close the book, and I'm saying, 'I can't do this; this is too gory.' I used my knowledge as a therapist to bring people into this slowly. I started out with "The American Experience," so we're one step removed. Then, when you get into the middle of the book, you're hit with the emotionally heaviest stuff."

As a child of survivors, Brody said the Holocaust has been an ever-present backdrop in her life. She hopes her book will be as therapeutic for readers and fellow writers and artists as it has been for her.

"I don't have any tombstones for my family. Where are we supposed to remember them? I figured if I gave this forum to as many people as I possibly could, I felt like I was doing a mitzvah."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.