THEY DIDN’T KNOW WE WERE SEEDS Carol Wylie
The Sidney and Gertude Zack Gallery November 2020
In April of 2016 I attended the Saskatoon Holocaust Memorial service. As survivor Nate Leipciger spoke of his horrifying experiences in a Nazi death camp, and his ongoing efforts to educate and shed light on these atrocities, I was struck anew by the extent of abuse the human spirit can endure. Holocaust survivors are elderly and dying. Indeed, one gentleman who was part of this project has since passed. There will soon be no first-hand accounts of this dark historical event. After hearing Nate speak, I felt I needed to somehow acknowledge these extraordinary people who endured and survived unbelievable mistreatment. Holocaust survivor Robert Waisman, who meets with Indigenous survivors and talks about his experience at Buchenwald, speaks of “a sacred duty and responsibility” toward helping residential school survivors heal. He states, “we cannot, and we should not, compare sufferings. Each suffering is unique…I don’t compare my sufferings or the holocaust to what happened in residential schools. We did it [survived] – so can you.” The struggles and generational trauma of Indigenous peoples caused by the residential school experience seems to resonate with Jewish holocaust survivors. Indian Affairs Superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott, in 1910, called residential schools “The Final Solution,” preceding Hitler’s similar pronouncement regarding the “Jewish problem.” Separating families, cutting hair, taking away names and assigning numbers were methods of dehumanizing and othering. Interestingly, both groups of sur- vivors have connected around strategies of survival and healing. This was part of what motivated me to include residential school survivors in this project. The other part of my motivation came from my place as a settler in Saskatchewan, whose history is notorious regarding residential schools. Making space to hear that history and those stories was part of my personal steps toward the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls for action. By expanding this project to include residential school survivors, I hoped the act of listening and bearing witness would deepen my understanding of the Indigenous experience and trauma right here, where I live. The project title is a quote from Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos: “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” My hope is that this work will give viewers a chance to encounter a survivor they may never meet. One personal story often has more resonance than statistical abstractions, no matter how appalling. As numbers of holocaust survivors dwindle, and in anticipation of the same eventual loss of first-hand accounts from residential school survivors, these portraits will remain as a legacy, echoes of individual strength and courage. The painted portrait is a true meeting of two subjectivities, requiring a unique commitment and sustained effort, building intense familiarity and intima- cy with the face of another. Sketches, photographs, and interviews with very generous survivors who were willing to collaborate on this project resulted in this series of eighteen portraits. This number is significant in Jewish tradition as representing the Hebrew word “chai,” which means “life.” Empathy involves understanding the pain and joy of others as being equal to our own, leveling us within the human experience. This project explores trauma, ongoing recovery, shared pain, and the indomitable human spirit, as well as an enduring hope that, through truly hearing one another’s stories and accepting deep in our bones that we are connected, humanity will someday be characterized more by its compassion than its capacity for cruelty. Carol Wylie, 2020
Martin Baranak Toronto. ON
Martin is one of many survivors involved with the March of the Living. The March of the Living is an annual educational program which brings students from Canada and around the world to Poland, to understand the Holocaust by going to where it happened. On Holocaust Memorial Day (Yom HaShoah), participants march silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest and most lethal Nazi concentration camp. I greatly admire the courage of those, like Martin, who risk facing their trauma head on for the education and betterment of others. After the war, some desperate times in Italy living on the street, and finding his way eventually to Israel with another boy (the only 2 boys to survive out of 4000 Jews), Martin happily discovered that his mother had survived the war and was living in Canada.
“None of us are normal.”
Louise Halfe Saskatoon Area, SK
Louise is an award-winning Cree poet. Her Cree name means Sky Dancer. When I visited her rural home to interview her, we chatted, but did not speak about her residential school expe- rience. When I left, I took one of her poetry books with me. Her experience spills out in her poetry. It was within the pages of that book that I found the heart-breaking text included in Louise’s portrait.
“My grades were below my belt”
Lina Kichnevskaia Edmonton, AB
I met Lina at Jewish Family Services in Edmonton, where part of the mandate is to aid Holo- caust Survivors. She is originally from Belarus and was a Medical Doctor. Tatiana Kastner, JFS’ gerontological social worker, translated Lina’s Russian to me and my English to her as needed. I asked Lina if going to medical school was difficult in those days, as a woman. She responded that going to medical school was difficult in those days as a Jew.
“I didn’t see the light for a long time.”
Belinda Bourassa Saskatoon, SK
I first met Belinda as a student in one of my art classes. I did not know at the time she was a residential school survivor. She is very artistic and does beautiful beadwork as well as drawing. When Billie came to sit for me, she spoke of the painful damage to her sense of identity caused by residential school. It stole her roots and left her unsure where she belonged.
“I walk two paths: one white, one red.”
Kayla Hock Saskatoon, SK
I have known Kayla for a long time, having lived in the same small town west of Saskatoon for twenty years. I knew her daughters through our time in B’nai B’rith Youth (BBYO). I always knew Kayla was a survivor, but she never spoke of her experience. Even when I visited her for purposes of this project, she did not speak of it. It was never my intention to re-traumatize any- one and would never ask them to ignore their discomfort. Her experience lives in her face. After the project was finished, however, Kayla shared her experience as a survivor in a public talk at a Saskatoon theatre, showing incredible courage and making all who know her immensely proud.
Cecile Smith Speers, SK
When I first met Cecile, she was working at a Saskatoon community school with a large Indig- enous population; a school that made great effort to ensure students connected to Indigenous and Métis traditions. Cecile helped organize Métis dance groups. She found great comfort and healing in reclaiming her traditional Cree spiritual traditions and practices, from which her residential school experience had separated her.
“They broke me. 30 year healing journey”
Vilyam (William) Sheyvekhman Edmonton, AB
A Holocaust survivor I met at Edmonton’s Jewish Family Services, our conversation was trans- lated by Tatiana Kastner, a gerontological social worker. William was a very warm and lovely man who made me smile as we talked about our grandchildren, and he shared his philosophy regarding being a grandparent: children are the investment and grandchildren are the return.
“Memory is embedded in my body.”
Augie Merasty, Educator: 1930-2017 Augie is the only survivor whom I did not get the opportunity to meet in person. I was in the process of arranging to travel to Prince Albert and see him, when I got the news he had died. I felt it was important that Augie still be part of this project, so I got permission from one of his children, Arlene, to paint him. For years he pestered Saskatchewan author David Carpenter to hear his story about residential school. Finally, when David heard about Augie’s experiences, he helped Augie get his memories published in a book called The Education of Augie Merasty . Augie’s burning need to tell the truth of his time in residential school lives on the pages of that book. The book educates us.
Helen Yermus Toronto, ON
Helen was a Lithuanian Jew. She told me that 94% of Lithuanian Jews perished in the war. As she shared her stories, I became aware that she suffered from survivor’s guilt. Her traumatic experience as a young girl, and the separation from her 6-year-old brother, never to see him again, left her questioning why she survived. Just before I left her condo, she showed me a wall of photos lovingly depicting her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. “This” I said to Helen, “is why you survived; to give life to this wonderful family!”
Gilbert Kewistep Saskatoon, SK
Gilbert works for the Saskatchewan Health Region. I was introduced to him by a mutual artist acquaintance who works with patients and art at one of the local hospitals. Gilbert is another survivor involved in telling his story as a means of educating people about residential school atrocities. Gilbert spoke poignantly to me of the generational trauma and effects of his residen- tial school experience. He described a pivotal moment in his life when he was overwhelmed and had to decide in which direction he would go; deeper into a self-destructive pattern or make a conscious choice to break that pattern. He felt the future of his son depended upon his choice. He found the strength to change the course of his life and his children’s potential fu- ture, breaking that cycle using sheer will and courage. Much of this strength came through re- connecting with Indigenous spiritual traditions and rituals. Gilbert and Eugene suggested they smudge the Seeds paintings before their first exhibition, favouring the project with positive intentions, collaboration, and compassion. We gathered at my studio for this deeply moving ceremony. It was the perfect way to launch the completed project into the world.
“We are not the savages they said we were”
Alex Leyderman Edmonton, AB
I met with Alex at Jewish Family Services in Edmonton. Gerontological social worker, Tatiana Kastner, translated. Alex’s English wasn’t strong and my Russian is non-existent.
Judy Pelly Saskatoon, SK I met Judy through Gilbert, as she also works for the Saskatchewan Health Region.
Robbie Waisman Vancouver, BC
Robbie shares his experiences, for purposes of education, at Holocaust Memorial Services across the country. I was able to meet with him while he was in Saskatoon to speak. Earlier in the project, when I met with residential school survivor, Eugene Arcand, he told me “you have to meet Robbie Waisman!”. They had already crossed paths and Eugene counted Robbie as a friend. When I was leaving my interview with Robbie, Eugene was just stopping in for a visit, demonstrating a wonderful connection between these two survivors of different atrocities.
“ We heard gunshots and the truck came back empty ”
Eugene Arcand Whitecap Dakota First Nation, SK
When Eugene entered my studio the day of his sitting, he was jovial and huge! A former hock- ey player, Eugene towers over me and is quite an imposing. He is deeply committed to educa- tion around the history of residential schools and sharing his experiences in that interest. He also has a connection to the Jewish community, being acquainted with Robbie Waisman and having taken Cree classes with Jewish Saskatoon community member, the late Chan Katzman. Eugene jokes that Chan was better at Cree than he was for a while! Eugene had one caveat in agreeing to sit for this project. He always carries with him a photo of his classmates at residen- tial school, as they are close to his heart. To grant permission for me to paint him, he asked if I could include them in some way. I collaged the very photo Eugene was carrying that day into his portrait so they will accompany the portrait everywhere.
Simon Lazar Edmonton AB
Simon was one of the survivors I visited at Jewish Family Services in Edmonton, where geron- tological social worker Tatiana Kastner translated his Russian and my English so we could chat.
Johnny Marcelane Saskatoon, SK
Johnny recorded some Dené greetings for the museum where I work, which is where I first met him. He is also a painter and has some of his work available in the Art & Design store at the museum. Johnny is a very popular local personality whom almost everyone seems to know. He is extremely upbeat and optimistic, despite experiencing challenges and loss.
“Follow your dreams.”
Bill Glied: 1930-2018 Bill participated in extensive education through Holocaust Memorial Services and the March of the Living. I was able to meet with him in Saskatoon when he came to speak in 2017. He was a very gentle person, adamant about the need to educate, remember and honour the memories of those lost in the Holocaust. He tells those bearing witness at Auschwitz to Birkenau during the March of the Living, that they are the memorials for those who have no monuments. Bill passed in 2018. I am grateful to have had the good fortune to meet him and paint his portrait.
“You are standing on the ashes of my family”
Margaret LaRoque: Saskatoon, SK
I went to Margaret’s apartment to meet with her as her mobility made it impossible for her to climb the stairs to my studio. She was a lovely person. She did not share memories of her experience with me directly, and I would not push. I understand how painful it can be reliving a memory through sharing it. Sometimes silence is equally powerful.Page 1 Page 2 Page 3 Page 4-5 Page 6-7 Page 8-9 Page 10-11 Page 12-13 Page 14-15 Page 16-17 Page 18-19 Page 20-21 Page 22-23 Page 24-25 Page 26-27 Page 28-29 Page 30-31 Page 32-33 Page 34-35 Page 36-37 Page 38-39
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