BRATTLEBORO—For most of us, looking at photographs from the Holocaust would be painful and difficult, something to turn away from.
But when Lori Schreiner had a chance encounter with such a photograph on a back page of the New York Daily News, it changed her life.
She found the photograph of a Polish Catholic teenager, Czeslawa Kwoka, a compelling call to give witness.
Schreiner would spend time over the next four years responding to that image by applying palette knife, fingers, and paint to interpretations of historical photographs.
Those photos come from sources that include Wilhelm Brasse, a Polish political prisoner who documented those coming into Auschwitz; the archives in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.; and Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland.
Now, Schreiner’s art is collected in Painting Czeslawa Kwoka: Honoring Children of the Holocaust, the result of four years of work, a collaboration with poet Theresa Senato Edwards. The book was published in April by Unbound Content LLC.
At the time of the project’s inception, 2007, both were studying in Goddard College’s low-residency master’s program.
Edwards now teaches and tutors at Marist College and serves as scholar-facilitator for the New York Council for the Humanities’ Conversations Bureau Program. She submitted the project for her senior thesis, which consisted then of four paintings of Kwoka and the five-part poem they inspired.
Over the ensuing years, Schreiner would produce 24 paintings based on the photographs of Brasse and the Holocaust museum archives. Sixteen poems accompany the paintings.
Additionally, Schreiner and Edwards gleaned what information they could about the children from records at these museums.
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While the project is far-reaching in its subject matter and message, it was birthed locally.
Schreiner’s paintings were created at the River Gallery School under the tutelage of Ric Campman and Lydia Thomson.
She recalls that Campman, the school’s cofounder, exhorted her, “You have to get these out!”
“He had never said anything like this to me before,” she said. “He died a month later.”
Thompson relished having the paintings up on the school’s walls as the project progressed.
“From the first time I worked with Lori on these paintings, I realized that what she was doing was important and deep. What was coming through was authentic and direct,” Thompson said. “I felt it was a privilege to have these paintings happen here.”
Thomson described the experience stepping back from the work in progress.
“We were both speechless,” she said. “It was a surprise to Lori as much as me.”
For Schreiner’s part, she said she loved being able to put the work up as she worked, sharing the project that way.
Each finished painting was sent digitally to Edwards for her poem response.
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Schreiner has not so much copied or even transposed a photograph into the medium of paint. She has let the spirit of the child come through.
“It was a profound experience,” she said. “I would be present with the photograph and be open to their energy.”
Features are sometimes blurred but the paintings and their subjects have a presence. They are amorphous yet powerful, like someone to whom you are strongly connected perceived in a dream.
The paintings are satisfyingly tactile, the application of paint sometimes caressing, sometimes slashing and gouging the image into existence.
In other paintings, the features are wiped away, as if the artist must negate the details to find the essence of the child.
I asked Schreiner why she thought this project took hold of her as it did.
She discusses memory at the cellular level. She grew up in a family that left Germany in the 1930s: her mother from a family of German Lutherans who came over as political dissidents.
No one spoke about the past, said Schreiner, but she grew up with a silence that had its roots in shame.
Three of her relatives in Germany were killed by American bombs, though most got out.
“My great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a politician,” Schreiner said. “They were against the Nazi regime but they loved ‘the homeland.’ There was great internal conflict.”
Her family has been very supportive of the project, said Schreiner, and many family members came to a book signing on Holocaust Remembrance Day this past April, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
“It has been very healing for my family because of all the shame and loss,” Schreiner said.
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In a sense, Painting Czeslawa Kwoka is what Schreiner has been working on her whole adult life.
A social worker for 31 years, for the most of this time working with children and families, she thinks she “came to this work out of my own evolution in my personal work, my family history, and my understanding of the impact of trauma.”
The evolution of the larger project also has local roots.
The first paintings and the poem were finished shortly before the initial stages of Words & Images, a show at Windham Art Gallery, a collaboration between the gallery and Write Action, a nonprofit collective of regional writers. (Schreiner belonged to both.)
The timing was perfect for Schreiner and Edwards to display their thesis project to the public for the first time.
“The Words and Images show was very encouraging: we received many positive responses, and people told us their personal stories that the work evoked,” Schreiner said.
“We continued to put it out in pieces and kept getting good responses,” she continued. “We said, ’Let’s see how far we can go with this.’”
Painting Czeslaw Kwoka has gone on to win the Tacenda Literary Award for best book, from BleakHouse Publishing.
Besides the book signing at River Gallery School, there will be signings and readings at St. Mark’s Church in New York City, noted for its literary history, and at American University, where a class will use the title as one of the texts.
Though I wish the book were a larger format, taking its place in the world with a presence that is commensurate with its emotional impact, Painting Czeslawa Kwoka: Honoring Children of the Holocaust is a remarkable document of a remarkable and brave journey.