The parents of Mindy Weisel were married in Bergen-Belsen, the notorious concentration camp that was converted into a shelter for displaced persons at the end of World War II. Weisel herself was among the first babies to be born there in January 1947. And it was her discovery of drawings of a sunrise, penciled by her father while still in the camp, that inspired her to become an artist.
“After: The Obligation of Beauty” by Mindy Weisel (White Fox Publishing) is a testament to the artist’s lifelong struggle to make sense of the Shoah and, especially, the ordeal that her parents survived in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She placed the number that was tattooed on her father’s arm—A3146—on every drawing and canvas for a full year, a gesture that we can understand as an act of solidarity and an acknowledgment of her own origins.
The most important thing to understand about “After,” however, is that it is not a book about the Holocaust.
“When I started writing this book, over ten years ago, perhaps I would have emphasized my parents’ stories more than my own,” Weisel reveals to her readers. “Yet, I feel that the horrors of the Holocaust are not mine to tell. As much as I believe this tragic history must never be forgotten, I also know that I am not the one to write about them. I am not the one to speak of man’s inhumanity to man.”
Rather, it is her self-appointed mission to find a way to live in the world as it exists after the Holocaust. As such, “After” is a rare example of how to transform the very hardest facts of history into something elevating and redemptive.
“I can speak of seeking a purpose in living: an attempt at a fulfilling and meaningful life in the face of such enormous tragedy,” she goes on to explain. “I have been living a life in search of beauty.”
“I can speak of seeking a purpose in living: an attempt at a fulfilling and meaningful life in the face of such enormous tragedy. I have been living a life in search of beauty.”
What she has found during her search is displayed in the book, both in her sensitive and compelling prose and poetry and in her own artwork, some of which is figurative and some of which is abstract. Now and then, she will share a drawing that consists of an explosive image in a primary color and penciled text that includes her own musings, as if we have been granted the privilege of inspecting the artist’s private diary. Indeed, the book includes photographic reproductions of pages from the artist’s journal, a fat volume with bright red covers where her energetic handwriting captures the same inner spirit that manifests so forcefully in her artwork.
Then, too, “After” is a scrapbook that also serves as a work of historical documentation. We see the drawing of the rising sun at Bergen-Belsen that so inspired the author’s own work. We see the identity card that was issued to her father when he was transformed from a concentration-camp inmate into a Displaced Person. And we see them together, many years later, at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where her father gave talks about his wartime experiences and, by doing so, proved that Nazi Germany had failed in its relentless campaign to erase the Jews from history.
“After” is a scrapbook that also serves as a work of historical documentation.
Her mother figures no less importantly in the author’s life and work. We see a snapshot of her mother in a dress of her favorite color, cobalt blue, and we notice that the same color appears in much of the author’s artwork. And some of images that she shares with us, such as a posthumous letter to her mother that she wrote in the margins of a book of poetry by Margaret Atwood, are multimedia works of art in themselves.
“There is no room left in me for how much I miss you,” she writes to her mother. “The space that used to be full with worry about you, for you, empathizing with all that you had suffered, is now full of longing and grief.”
No less of an authority than her own father sanctioned her choice of art as a way of understanding the tragedy that had befallen not only her family but the whole of the Jewish people.
“Mindeleh, if you live a life, things happen,” he would tell her as she grew up. “Enjoy what you can.”
But he was not the only one to encourage her. Weisel is a cousin of Elie Wiesel, a survivor who insisted, throughout his life after liberation, on demanding that attention be paid to what happened during the Shoah. She wrote to him about her use of her father’s tattooed number in her artwork: “I did not want, somehow, to desecrate, commercialize or disrespect the history of the Holocaust.” And Wiesel answered: “It was time,” he wrote to her. “Do your work.”
She need not have worried. Her work is worthy of respect, admiration and emulation. She has much to teach her readers about the history of the Holocaust, the delicate inner workings of a flesh-and-blood family that was among its victims, and the making of art and literature. Indeed, “After” is a book can be approached as a work of inspiration and instruction that will be valuable to any aspiring or working artist.
“My belief in beauty is an obligation, a duty, a responsibility, a great joy in living it, in creating it, in sharing it,” she writes. “This has been my purpose.”
Mindy Weisel has fulfilled her purpose in her remarkable and accomplished book—sometimes sublime, sometimes tormenting, always elevating.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.