Out of the ashes
At Kean, poet and artist remember the Shoa
If “Never again!” was a goal fulfilled in our time, poet Susanna Rich and artist Jo Jochnowitz would not be offering their joint exhibition. But both say they fear the lessons of the Holocaust need to be conveyed now even more perhaps than when the two first teamed up 20 years ago.
“Given the way human beings operate, I have no confidence that [the Holocaust] could not occur again,” Jochnowitz said.
Rich, a professor of English at Kean University, and Jochnowitz, who teaches art there, have taken their show combining her harrowing poems about the Shoa and his dark, haunting drawings to colleges, conferences, and community centers all around the tristate region, but this is the first time they are presenting the exhibition on their home campus.
The show, “ashes, ashes: An Artist and a Poet Respond to the Holocaust,” is also a retrospective of sorts for Jochnowitz, who is retiring at the end of this academic year, after 48 years at Kean. He said he chose to show these works, alongside Rich’s poems, rather than a broader overview of his work, “because they are the strongest works I’ve ever done.”
It is sponsored by Kean through its Human Rights Institute, Art Department, and School of English Studies, and will be on view until Dec. 22 in Vaughn-Eames Hall. Jacquelyn Tuerk Stonberg is the curator, and Rich’s long-time collaborator Ernest Wiggins is once again her performance director.
The show opened with a panel discussion on Nov. 12, just days after the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night of savage attacks on Jews and Jewish property often regarded as the start of the Holocaust. The artist and the poet were joined by moderator Carole Shaffer-Koros, professor of English and Holocaust literature; Janice Kroposky, director of the university’s Holocaust Resource Center and its Diversity Council; and Tonya Hall, an administrator and adjunct professor at Kean who did her master’s in Holocaust and Genocide studies.
In their statements and in discussion with the audience, they explored the challenge of making art focused on horrifying events.
Kroposky, who was an instructor in Kean’s course for teachers of the Holocaust, said she is “always looking for new and innovative ways to teach it better.” Text and pictures as powerful as those in the show serve that purpose, hitting home with immediacy. Like Jochnowitz, she warned that in 2015, “we could see very similar events.”
Hall, in her research, explored how poetry and art were used to resist Nazi tyranny. “Those memories are dark, and not for everybody,” she said, “but they should be for everybody.”
Jochnowitz, the American-born son of parents who got out of Poland before the war, grew up immersed in awareness of the Holocaust. His works — of writhing, emaciated figures, of warped structures and eerily symbolic rats and worms and birds — were inspired by nightmares. He drew them compulsively, “instead of going into therapy.”
The poems by Rich, who grew up in a Catholic home and married a Jew, were inspired by the testimonies of survivors, recorded by Kean’s Holocaust center.
When Jochnowitz first read her poems, he was struck by their shared vision. “She left no skin; she took it right down to the bone,” he said. Rich felt the same resonance when she saw his pictures.
“The real challenge” in the face of such horror, she said, “is to stay human and not become numb.” For her that meant digging deep enough to reflect true stories as if they were her own. She did that in poems about a little girl pleading for water from the soldier — a father himself — about to shoot her, about a woman urging her husband to make love to her in a crowded cattle car, and of the ballerina longing to kill her Nazi guard as she strips for the gas chamber.
“For Susanna and me,” Jochnowitz told the crowd, “the problem was that if it gets too graphic, you turn to stone. If it is so strong and so evil, it turns you off.”
They both struggled until they found the required balance. “It is the place of the arts to give us beauty, so that we have something to hang on to,” Rich explained, even when the subject matter is so dark. Their partnership enabled them to reach thousands of people with a visceral reminder of what humanity can do — for evil and for good.
Rich said, “I am grateful to you, Jo, for this collaboration and always will be.”