Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 4
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
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Art

James A. Michener Art Museum: Si Lewen’s Dark Journey

Stuart Mitchner

It was the destruction of my dream of “America” that, perhaps, caused the most persistent trauma. This dream had sustained my childhood amid the anti-Semitic assaults in Germany, and then finally arriving in my “promised land” I had that dream beaten out of me on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Central Park.

Si Lewen

Anyone walking through Si Lewen’s A Journey at the James A. Michener Art Museum might reasonably assume that the 92-year-old artist had himself been a Holocaust survivor, and that the grim procession of images comprising the exhibit had come out of personal experience. In fact, Lewen’s “most persistent trauma” originated in America almost ten years before he came to Buchenwald with the U.S. Army, saw the condition of the survivors, and inhaled the horror of the crematorium (“its ovens were cool now, the oven doors wide open but still begrimed with the soot and ashes of its recently cremated”).

Unless you choose to begin with Lewen’s video introduction, which shows A Journey in its entirety and should definitely not be missed, the exhibit is presented without commentary. There are no words except the title.

Violated and Abused

The first image is of a man, little more than a stick figure setting forth on the faintly sketched line of a road. Leaving daylight behind, the figure, more fully sketched now, enters a forest that soon becomes deadly dark. Someone beckons from behind the barbed-wire fence of a compound. Above the entrance is a sign that reads Patria Justica. Walking on, he meets several of the inmates of the camp, one of whom is flourishing a severed hand as if it had some emblematic significance. The traveler peers in a window. A uniformed figure sitting at a table on which two plates are laid motions for him to take the empty chair. The visitor sits down, fork in hand. Dinner is served: a corpse, head, torso, stumps of legs. The uniformed man offers his guest the heart on a fork. It’s a small white valentine heart like the one a person attending the exhibit signed after a two-word entry — “thrillingly morbid” — in the museum’s comment book.

The unwilling dinner guest staggers outside and vomits. Lewen’s sketch suggests that he may also be bleeding from a head wound, that he was not merely shocked by what he saw but violated by it, as if his refusal of the gruesome meal had provoked the uniformed man to assault him. The black pool of vomit becomes a pit, a maelstrom sucking him in. Crawling free of the slime, he sees a child skipping rope. In this place of horror, the image seems unreal, a sunny apparition. You might almost think the artist had put it there as a respite for museumgoers in need of something positive and cheerful (“love the girl jumping rope” someone actually wrote in the comment book).

Refusing to share the human meal has sealed the visitor’s doom. The sentence is death by hanging. During the execution a parade passes by complete with banners declaring liberty, justice, honor. The grotesquely elongated corpse is dragged to the crematorium; the feet fill the mouth of the oven. After the cremation, there’s a stunning change. The uniformed guard emptying the bucket of remains might be an action painter. The ashes are not merely scattered or spilled but set flowing, swept into a curvilinear stream, like the tail of a comet. Up to this point everything has been advancing inexorably forward, the direction commanded by that first beckoning hand. Something’s germinating in that swirl of ashes, a hand’s taking shape, reaching out, above it a head, mouth open, to scream, or to cry “I’m alive,” this the moment when you can feel the artist bearing brilliantly down, pulling everything together, tugging the lines like reins, the hand, the open mouth, the teeth integrated, the movement not forward but upward, a pair of wings forming, becoming an enormous bird, the man holding on as it carries him above the rooftops of the camp, the barbed wire, the dark woods, where the bird gently deposits him, and he runs, but it’s all behind him, the road’s waiting, a darker, more boldly drawn line for the walking figure, which is, as it was at the beginning, a mere sketch of human presence, darkness staining the road behind it. The journey continues, according to Lewen’s video introduction, part of “a seemingly endless procession, stretching back to a dark past and forward to … an equally dim future.”

The Hand That Beckons

Once you know the story of Si Lewen’s own journey (his memoir can be found online at www.silewen.com), you begin to understand the force invested in the image of the beckoning hand, first in the woods, then pointing the way into the camp, then the flaunting of the severed hand, and, most vividly, the hand of the uniformed officer as he indicates the chair across the table and invites his guest to dine on death with him. You can also read something more into the imagery of the dinner scene’s aftershock: the vomit like blood flowing from a wound, the sinking into the abyss, the crawling forth, the image of a man abused, violated, beaten down.

Lewen’s own journey began with his birth in 1918 in Lublin Poland, after which he was “smuggled as an infant into (‘civilized’) Germany,” growing up bullied and taunted as “that Polish jewboy,” then to France at 14 when Hitler came to power, and across the Atlantic to New York and the dream of America nurtured in boyhood watching Hollywood movies and playing cowboys and Indians. Then, during his first summer in the promised land, the sunny day in Central Park, a uniformed figure beckons from a row boat, motioning him over. It would be 44 years before he could bring himself to tell his wife what happened after that.

Like the uniformed man at the dinner table in A Journey, the policeman has an agenda. After asking to see the refugee’s identification, which includes a YMHA membership card, the cop has him get in the boat and rows to the middle of the lake, where he takes his money, beats him savagely with a blackjack, cursing him (“Damn Jew bastard”). Then he pulls out a gun, cocks the trigger, points the gun at Lewen and tells him, “If you ever say anything to anyone I’ll find and kill you.” All this happens in broad daylight. People have gathered on the shore to watch the beating. No doubt they can hear the 18-year-old screaming for mercy, for help. When the policeman rows back, the crowd scatters.

In the account Lewen finally shares with his wife, he goes into detail about the prior pleasures of the day, which were informed by art at every step, a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his feeling that the lake in Central Park compares favorably to Krumme Lake in the Grunewald in Berlin (“the birds seemed to sing sweeter” in New York), and how like an Impressionist painting the scene before him appeared. He even remarks on the gendarmes in Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of Grand Jatte, noting the way the lone American policeman blended into the pastoral scene “relaxing in his boat” — in contrast to Lewen’s image of the typical black-belted and helmeted Berlin police officer. Then the Irish cop motions him over, and everything in his life, his hopes, his illusions, art itself, is beaten out of him.

Or so it was in the summer of 1936, when the road ended in America and there seemed nowhere else to go, no refuge other than a failed suicide. In Lewen’s personal journey, however, he found his way, his wife, his art, pulled himself up out of the destructive element, and 75 years later, he’s at the Michener, where he gave a talk last month that can be accessed at www.michnerartmuseum.org. The exhibit of 21 of Lewen’s 70 drawings for A Journey will be in the Pfundt Gallery at the Michener through March 6. The museum is located at 138 South Pine in Doylestown, Pa. For information, call (215) 340-9800 or visit the website.

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