Report by Barbara Saunders on the
15 May Friday Night Dinner with Guest Speaker Irene Wise
Facing History: Portraits and Identity.
On 15 May ’09, more than sixty people gathered in Sutton Shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. In the Shul hall seven tables had been attractively prepared complete with Shabbat candles, which ladies lit shortly before the service began. The beautiful Kabbalat Shabbat service was led by Chazan Reverend Meir Lev, (formerly of Bournemouth Hebrew Congregation) whose soaring cantorial singing held us spellbound. Vases of fresh flowers adorned the windowsills of the exquisitely colourful stained glass windows, so that everything combined to provide a spiritual feast.
After the service, people trooped eagerly into the hall for Kiddush, followed by a tasty fish meal, dessert, fruit, sweets and hot drinks. This was an opportunity to socialise, catch up with old friends and perhaps make new ones, to eat and be satisfied. The meal concluded with Birkat HaMazon.
Rica Infante, Chair of the New Shul Committee which had organised the event, then introduced our after dinner guest speaker, Irene Wise. Irene is an artist, illustrator, designer and educator, who lectures at Roehampton University and the Imperial War Museum and is also Creative Educator at the British Library.
Irene immediately involved her audience in exploring a booklet of portraits by a series of thought provoking questions. The details of the pictures were on the back of each page, so we were invited to try to identify who the sitter and the artist were and to look carefully at each picture. There were famous sitters, such as Henry VIII and Cromwell, but other subjects were ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. We looked at official portraits, sanctioned photographs by a German soldier of the Warsaw Ghetto and illegal portraits of Jewish and political prisoners in concentration camps, where even procuring materials risked death.
By the end of the talk, Irene had shown us that a portrait has many different functions: it might pander to the vanity of the sitter by emphasising his/her power and influence. It serves as a record to posterity of how the sitter looked, so it is a historical document. A portrait provides evidence, bears witness, is a proof that someone existed.
Every portrait is of someone who almost certainly died before the end of the war. The photos remind us that each person who died was a fellow human being and that their loss is a tragedy. They are a proof that this actually happened and that it cannot be denied.
Irene’s talk was all the more poignant coming on the anniversary of the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto on 16 May 1943. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the largest single revolt by Jews during the Holocaust. It opposed the Nazi’s effort to transport the remaining Ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp. Launched in January 1943, the most intense part of the rebellion took place from April 19-16 May 1943. Jurgen Stroop made a birthday gift to Hitler of the crushing of the resistence, burning each building to the ground with flamethrowers and blowing up basements and sewers. These events were fictionalised in numerous films and novels, such as Leon Uris’ book “Mila 18” (1961).
The Commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization, Mordechai Anielewicz, was 24 years old when he died. (Note: Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, north of the Gaza Strip, is named after him, while near Akko, north Israel is Kibbutz Lochamay HaGetaot, Kibbutz of the Ghetto Fighters. Stroop was hanged in Poland.)
Irene concluded her talk with the deeply moving words of the poem “Zog Nit Keyn Mal” (Never Say)
“Never say this is the final road for you,
Though darkening skies may hide the days of blue.
The hour that we longed for is so near –
Our step beats out the message – we are here.”
Rica extended a vote of thanks to Irene and thanked Melanie Gold for all her hard work in organizing and preparing the food and also the bevy of ladies who supported her in the kitchen and to all the other members of the New Shul Committee.