By Jennifer McDonell
Last week, one of the last messengers of a violent period in history came to the Bobbitt auditorium at Albion College. On Wednesday, Feb. 4, Holocaust survivor and digital artist Miriam M. Brysk presented her exhibit, “Scroll of Remembrance” to Albion students.
Brysk taught at the Texas State University medical school for 21 years. After retiring, she moved to the Ann Arbor area. Brysk has dedicated her artistic career to creating Holocaust art memorial collections. Her presentation detailed her experience during and after the Holocaust and over a half century of artistic refinement. Brysk’s art captures both the history and stories of the lives lost in the Holocaust, and embodies the wrenching sadness she feels for the loss of her family and friends.
Brysk spent a year and a half in the Lida ghetto with her family. Her father was a surgeon and was deemed useful to the Nazis, and that initially spared Brysk’s family from being killed. However, several of her family members were eventually murdered in Treblinka, a Nazi death camp in Poland. She visited Treblinka when she returned to Eastern Europe on a trip in 2002. Afterwards, Brysk became dedicated to telling the story of the many faces she saw in photographs victims and family had left behind or saved from the Holocaust.
For most of the talk, Brysk refrained from talking purely about her own experience in the Holocaust, and, instead, detailed the larger atrocity and how she conveyed it through her artwork. However, when describing her return to Eastern Europe, Brysk’s tone took on a hauntingly personal tone.
“It absolutely shattered me. I felt like somebody had ripped a hole in my chest. I felt so bad. It was so difficult for me to go back to the past, to think of what I had lived through, what my family lived through, most of whom died. And those wounds were opened, and I realized that if I wanted to do Holocaust art that I needed to hurt. An artist has to have passion about something in order to do good work. It isn’t just that we make a pretty picture. You want to do something to say something, to leave something behind. That trip changed my whole perspective, and I needed the tears and the hurt.”
With a calm, clear voice that still bore the accent of her native Poland, Brysk described some of the Nazi’s crimes.
“A part of my story began in the ghetto, where we were all taken out one day to be shot,” Brysk said. “And we walked and walked and finally came to a selection of a group of Germans and they waved my aunt and uncle to the left and they waved us to go to the right. Now, right was the death, and we were chosen to die. We were beaten, forced to walk faster and we could hear the sound of gunshots getting louder and louder. Finally, close to where the killings occurred, the German blocking the road came over to us and told my father [who had a red cross on the outside of his coat] ‘Doctor, go back!’ Apparently somebody realized they still needed him…That is how we survived that day. Eighty percent of the Jews in our ghetto were shot that day.”
Brysk escaped the Nazis by finding refuge with the Russian partisans, a group of Soviet resistance fighters. At less than ten years old, she was forced to live in the forest, where her father ran a field hospital. When Brysk spoke about a photo of the forest, she described the feeling of safety amongst the trees. The trees were kind of friends to her, she said.
Brysk arrived in America in 1947 at the age of twelve. She couldn’t speak English and had no previous schooling. Amazingly, she graduated high school at seventeen years old and attended NYU as a Biology major and Chemistry minor. The Sinclair Lewis book “Arrowhead” inspired her to study to be a microbiologist and cure people. At the time, it was required reading, but it had a large impression on her as a young student.
While studying at NYU, Brysk said she signed up for an art course because she admired beautiful art, but did not know much about it. Instead of attending lectures or reading textbooks, she would take cabs with fellow art students and have class at museums and exhibits in the city. This gave her the chance to see art firsthand because of her ideal location. This marked for Brysk the beginning of her fascination with art.
“It made such a powerful impression on me. And I said, ‘Someday, I too will be able to express my feelings through art.’ And it became one of my dreams in life.”
Brysk continued her education at the University of Michigan, getting a masters degree in Microbiology. After some urging from her husband, she got a PhD from Columbia University in Macrobiotics. Before Columbia, she felt discriminated against as a woman in the academic world, and found that becoming a doctor was a gateway into the professional circuit. During her time there, she bought her first 35 mm camera and built her own dark room. She taught herself to develop black and white and color photography.
As a postdoctoral fellow, she developed her photography skills even more. She taught herself to make color derivative photography. Color derivation is a process that involves copying black and white negatives onto high contrast film and recombining the images through beam splitters using color filters.
In 1998, Brysk began to experiment with Photoshop, and was curious to learn more about digital art. After retiring in 2001, she moved back to Ann Arbor and joined a digital arts group called The Alchemists. After her 2002 visit to the remnants of the ghettos and camps of the holocaust, she decided that she would devote her life to creating Holocaust memorial art.
Brysk uses pictures of actual victims in her collages. She does not want to make pretty pictures, but accurate ones. She wants to tell their stories and put the art in a historical context. Brysk says she added color to the photos because color can turn the figures from shadows marching off to die into the fully fleshed out humans they were in life. Photos from the Holocaust are usually small and damaged, and it is still a difficult process to enlarge them and update the clarity. Much of her art focuses on children and parents. She features photos of mothers chosen to die and the final embraces of a parent and their child.
However, she has left many photos untouched. In particular, Brysk found a photo of herself and her parents in December 1939, right before the Holocaust started. After putting it through a photo transfer, one of them smeared, leaving a foreboding feel to the photograph. She left it as it was for the showcase, because she felt it appropriately foreshadoweed the eerie chapter of what was to come.