Book Review | ‘Facing Survival’ and ‘I Want You to Know We’re Still Here’

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book coverFacing Survival

David Kassan

USC Fisher Museum of Art

In his collection “Testimony: The United States (1885–1915), Recitative,” Charles Reznikoff took real courtroom testimonies describing all manner of crime — from petty theft to infanticide — and refashioned them into poems. Line breaks were inserted, but the original words were hardly touched. “Testimony” is in the tradition of found poetry, work that tweaks and reorders existing text so that the original is seen from a different angle.

The result is brutal, haunting and frequently beautiful poetry that paints a bleak
picture of the period that it describes. One example:

“He picked up a stick of wood and said

‘By Jesus Christ, I will knock your brains out,’

and told her to leave the house.

She answered she would go when she was good and ready.

He said, ‘You will go before you are ready,’

and shoved her towards the door.

She caught hold of the door casing,

and their little girl began to cry.”

Reznikoff, a Brooklyn-born lawyer and the son of Jews who fled Russian pogroms in the early part of the 20th century, does not moralize, nor does he even comment on the events that the poems describe. But with the slight reorientation of our experience of the text, he takes a grim, violent story and turns it into something different. The spirit of the event he describes, if not the literal truth, becomes more evident.

It is that sort of move — an artist using his medium to add to something that could not be conveyed by a simple recounting of reality — that is mostly missing from David Kassan’s “Facing Survival,” a collection of paintings from his recent exhibition at the USC Fisher Museum of Art (presented by the USC Shoah Foundation and The Kenneth T. and Eileen L. Norris Foundation).

“Facing Survival” is made up of portraits of 15 Holocaust survivors, and one multi-
paneled painting of 11 survivors. Selma Holo, executive director of USC Museums, writes in one of the museum catalogue’s introductory essays that Kassan painted his subjects only after painstakingly recording each of their stories of survival. The USC exhibition included some of the survivors’ spoken and transcribed testimony.

Testimony comes up again and again in the essays. In Kassan’s paintings, survivors are “as you have never seen them before,” the artist John Nava says. Kassan “understands that testimony in its essence is being,” writes Stephen Smith, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. Testimony, Kassan himself writes, “is an effective weapon in countering hate group propaganda and racism.”

The paintings are, on the whole, simple and realistic. Subjects stand against dark backgrounds; skin sags, wrinkles and reveals the veins beneath. As a display of skill, it is impressive.

But it seems to come at the cost of the medium’s many advantages. What Kassan’s done in the majority of his portraits could have just as easily been done with a camera. There is no reframing of the survivors in a new way; they look wise and they look world-weary, qualities that many of us would already associate with them. It’s not clear what these straightforward portraits add to our conception of testimony.

Holo describes her initial apprehension about going to see Kassan’s paintings as a general aversion to realist painters, who, “although highly skilled,” often produce “mere reportage.” Though she finds herself disabused of that initial assessment, I do not.

Where Kassan succeeds is in the portraits where he uses use the tools of the medium to his advantage. An excellent portrait of Andrew Holten shows a deep crease across the middle of the subject’s face, giving it the quality of a bent photograph, found tucked away in a drawer. His shirt blends with colors from the background; Holten has memory, and is memory, a quality shared by all of us but heightened in the historical survivor.

One painting of a survivor wearing a clean version of a concentration camp uniform is genuinely astonishing. The uniform looks brand new, almost clown-like, or as if it’s just been picked up from the costume store. It’s a portrait of dignity that had to be reclaimed in order to live life as a human and not as a prisoner.

It is in those portraits, and even in the studies of subjects’ floating hands printed in the back of the book, that Kassan finds a genuinely novel testimony, one that reorders survivors ever so slightly to reveal a deeper truth about them, without sacrificing their literal experiences.

book coverI Want You to Know We’re Still Here

Esther Safran Foer

Tim Duggan Books

Speaking of testimony and reportage: Esther Safran Foer’s forthcoming memoir, “I Want You to Know We’re Still Here,” tells the story of her journey to fill in the missing parts of her family tree. It is a story with some surprising turns and satisfying conclusions, ably told. The word that came to mind reading this memoir was “competent.”

But like Kassan’s paintings, “I Want You to Know We’re Still Here” leaves you wanting a little more than competence.

Safran Foer is the former CEO of Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington, D.C., a massive shul and cultural center. Her sons — Jonathan, Franklin and Joshua — are all prominent writers, the first as a novelist, the latter two as journalists.

On the second page, Safran Foer introduces the engine of the book: Her mother, Ethel, the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust, mentions that Safran Foer’s father, Louis, himself the lone survivor of his family, had once had another family, a wife and a daughter, who were murdered by the Nazis. Louis ended up killing himself in 1954, overcome with what he had seen, and Safran Foer never heard a word about her father’s first family.

“I didn’t know it then,” she writes of learning this, “but this was the beginning of a search that would define the next phase of my life.”

She decides that she will embark on a mission to Ukraine to solve two mysteries: who had hidden her father during the war, and who was this sister she never knew — her name, for starters.

The rest of the book does not need to be anything more than competent to satisfy the stakes that are set out right there. The drama of the story is obvious; the memories it will dredge up for reader and writer are emotionally affecting on their own.

But where Safran Foer has the chance to deepen the memoir into something else, she declines.

For instance, Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Everything Is Illuminated” is based on his unsuccessful attempt to find out who hid his grandfather, but his mother apparently has very little to say about this. She belongs to a social milieu that allows her to ask for travel tips from an FBI agent who had been involved in the case that inspired “The Silence of the Lambs,” a former national security adviser to Bill Clinton and Leon Wieseltier; this is unremarked upon. She worked for George McGovern in 1972; how did her family’s Holocaust experiences shape her politics? You can only guess.

It’s probably ungrateful to ask more of someone who is already sharing her painful family history. But you can glimpse what this memoir could have been, when Safran Foer describes her relationship with her mother. In those brief moments, the central question of a memoir, especially one about family history — who am I? — is answered most thoughtfully.

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