Lisa Rosowsky was raised in a cozy house in Needham, encouraged by attentive, academically minded parents — and haunted by a sense of things unsaid.
In the exhibition “Blood Memory” at Brandeis University in Waltham, Rosowsky explores family and loss from the viewpoint of a child of the Holocaust generation.
“It’s about everybody’s family memories and everybody’s hard losses. It’s about family secrets, which everybody has,” said the Framingham artist.
“Blood Memory” is an expression Rosowsky had heard others use to describe sensations like her own. “They feel like they are carrying memories from generations before them that they never met,” she explained.
The mixed-media exhibition, in the Kniznick Gallery at the Women’s Studies Research Center on the Brandeis campus, first impresses you with its beauty and elegance: a soaring angel, her white gown sweeping across the floor; a translucent quilt imprinted with vintage photos; a hand-stitched Victorian mourning garment.
Step closer and you’ll feel a jumble of emotions: sadness, anger, even amusement.
The angel’s wings are barbed wire. Spelled out in coil is “Tod Macht Frei” (“Death will set you free”), a twist on the words above the gate to Auschwitz that put “Arbeit,’’ or work, as the salvation for its prisoners. The angel’s head is shaved; her body is emaciated. Rosowsky describes her as a combination of “peaceful blessing witness” and “the angel of death.”
Rosowsky, 48, learned about the death camps in Hebrew school. She knew that the parents of her French-born father had died in the Holocaust. When asked about his experiences, her father would say, “I don’t remember anything. I was too young.”
The reaction is not uncommon among survivors of the Holocaust period. They sought to shield their families and themselves from what they had endured. But interviewed recently at age 77, Andre Rosowsky did recall a lot about his childhood, including how his life was spared by a fortuitous doctor’s appointment. But before we get into the father’s memories, let’s return to the daughter who brought his story out of the shadows.
A middle child, Rosowsky said she was the only one of her siblings to be preoccupied with the past.
“It’s just this felt thing ever since I was a child, almost preverbal, of hiding,” she said. “It’s not supernatural, but perhaps unconsciously transmitted to me through my father.”
When she was in her early 20s, Rosowsky visited with her great-aunt Raya, who raised her father after he came to the United States in 1946. An older sister of Andre’s mother, Raya had immigrated to California just before the war. At the end of Lisa’s visit, Raya pulled out a manuscript, a 40-plus-page autobiography that Rosowsky’s father had written as a school assignment.
“It was like a thunderclap,” Rosowsky said of her reaction to the 11-year-old boy’s recollections of German tanks rolling into France, his parents sending him away on the eve of their deportation, and being sheltered by relatives and strangers the rest of the war.
Rosowsky retyped the manuscript and had it printed and bound for her family. As her father’s memories marinated in her mind over the next 15 years, she focused on raising her two daughters and her career as a graphic designer and professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
‘It’s about everybody’s family memories and everybody’s hard losses. It’s about family secrets, which everybody has.’LISA ROSOWSKY
A decade ago, she inherited a large collection of gloves from Raya. They sparked the earliest piece in the exhibition, “The Raitzyns,” a quilt imprinted with photos of her father’s family. His mother, Tamara, was the youngest of 11 children who, with their widowed mother, had immigrated to Western Europe during the Russian Revolution. Rosowsky worked some of Raya’s gloves into the piece: black ones to indicate relatives who had perished in the Holocaust; white ones for those who had survived.
In the center of the quilt is a photo of a smiling young woman, a beret perched on her bobbed hair. That was Tamara. Behind her photo is a black glove. She was just 37 when she died.
One piece in the exhibition likely to draw strong reactions is “Toile des Camps.” At a distance, it looks like a traditional toile chair, the kind typically decorated with pastoral scenes or Grecian columns. Rosowsky reupholstered a chair with material printed with a repeating pattern: drawings she made of iconic images of infamous concentration camps.
The idea for the work came from Krakow, Poland, which Rosowsky visited last year as she marked the 70th anniversary of the deportation of Parisian Jews by retracing her grandparents’ final journey. Krakow, the closest major city to Auschwitz, does a brisk business selling Jewish-related memorabilia.
“I felt a little squeamish about the commoditization, the selling of trinkets,” Rosowsky said. “I wanted to do something about that uncomfortable feeling I had.”
In the middle of her show is a dress Rosowsky made from a 1901 pattern of a French mourning outfit. Draped over the garment is a veil with a faint montage of photos from death camps. The title of the piece is “Designated Mourner,” taken from the name of a play by Wallace Shawn. It is the role Rosowsky has assumed. She sized the dress to fit her.
Andre Rosowsky views his daughter as “sort of the family historian.” In his home’s sun-splashed family room, he spoke frankly, thoughtfully and in surprising detail of his childhood, but with a measure of detachment. “I sort of sealed it over many, many, many years ago,” he said. “I think about my parents, but not about the Holocaust.”
Rosowsky last saw his parents in the midst of “La Rafle,” when 13,000 Parisian Jews were rounded up and herded into a sports stadium. For most of them, it was the first stop on the way to Auschwitz. When a pair of police officers arrived at the family’s apartment, his mother was at a doctor’s appointment. The officers told his father that they would collect the entire family the following morning. While the officers were upstairs, Rosowsky’s mother arrived. She was intercepted by the landlady, who hid her in a back room until the officers left.
Afterward, Rosowsky’s parents talked and his father left on an errand. He returned with his boss, who was not Jewish.
“How well I remember the sight of my poor mother packing . . . not knowing where she was going,’’ Rosowsky wrote in his autobiography, “not knowing that this was death, as grim as a coffin!”
Besides clothes, she placed family photos in her son’s valise — some of which would become part of her granddaughter’s artwork. Andre’s father then “sat down wearily” and told his son he hoped he would be a good boy and become a worthy man.
“Not realizing what had happened I stared in perfect astonishment while mother and father both kissed me on the cheek,” he wrote.
The next thing the boy knew he was accompanying his father’s boss on the subway. He eventually ended up in Pau, near the Spanish border. There he lived in a house with two of his mother’s sisters and their families. The adults kept their fears to themselves.
“How they managed to keep a straight face through all this I don’t know,” Rosowsky said in the interview. “They knew that their brothers and sisters had been deported.”
When the Nazis occupied southern France, Andre Rosowsky spent a summer on a remote farm owned by a Catholic family. After the war, he returned to Paris, where he was reunited with his frail grandmother. He learned that his parents and his mother’s five brothers had all been sent to Auschwitz. Even after starting a new life in America, he “cherished the idea” that his parents had somehow ended up behind the Iron Curtain and were unable to contact him, he said. But as he grew into adulthood, Rosowsky abandoned that hope.
Eventually, he obtained a copy of his father’s death certificate. The cause was listed as “heart failure,” typical for inmates worked to death. His mother was presumed to have died in transit to Auschwitz or in its gas chambers.
Rosowsky said he found his daughter’s Holocaust-related artwork to be moving, not painful.
“She has taken the Holocaust on as kind of a personal mission, which I didn’t particularly encourage her to do,” he said. “But that was her way of working through it.”
“Blood Memory: A View from the Second Generation’’ runs through March 7 at the Women’s Studies Research Center, 515 South St. For more information, visit www.lisarosowsky.com or www.brandeis.edu/wsrc.Steve Maas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.