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Dr. Ronit Steinberg journeys into the confluence of memory and art. She explains how the symbolism of artistic creations craft visions engaging memory, memorializing those who died for the nation and comprehending historical events.
Due to the context of the Israeli calendar and the period of remembrance in which we are currently positioned, I have chosen, this time, to address a work of art in statue form.
The monument, named Memorial for the Last of Kin, ties together Holocaust Memorial Day and the Memorial Day for fallen Israeli soldiers – and is symbolically, erected on Mt. Herzl, on the walkway between Yad Vashem and the military cemetery. The monument is dedicated to the memory of 167 soldiers who arrived in Israel as survivors of the Holocaust, who were also the sole survivors of their nuclear families. These survivors enlisted in the IDF, some of them immediately upon arrival in Israel, and died in combat.
The name of the monument refers to the fact that each of the fallen was the last kin of his family, which did not survive. In addition the Hebrew word for kin – netzer, stands also for a stem and indicates to a new branch beginning to grow. Their arrival in Israel after the horrors of the Holocaust represented the hope of a new beginning, which, tragically, was cut-short in the war.
The statue is composed of the image of a house, that has collapsed into two parts – façade and structure. The motif of the house in the art of Micha Ulman is represented by the basic shape of a square with a triangular roof. This same elemental shape of a house, which is similarly portrayed in children’s drawings, hints at different elements linked to the home, such as intimacy, family, shelter and safety. The house in this work of art, however, is not functional. The façade of the house lies beside it, and the house is open to an attack. Some of it lies above ground and most of it is buried underground. The place that was supposed to be a home has transformed into a grave.
The materials from which the monument is constructed emphasize the imagery of the house and the grave and add spatial context. The statue is made of local limestone, which is used for construction in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. At the same time, gravestones in the nearby cemetery are also made of the same stone. Even if the fallen soldiers did not manage to build their homes in Israel, their deaths have connected them to this place. The broken house does not exist as an actual home, but its symbolism is tied to the land of Israel.
The viewers, who move between the two parts of the monument, look at it from above. The view of the contour of the house adds an additional dimension. The roof of the house looks like the bow of a ship or a boat and the rainwater that gathers at the bottom of the structure highlight this impression. The motif of the ship or boat reminds us that we are addressing the memory of new immigrants who arrived in Israel from Europe. The monument commemorates those who fell while protecting the home that never had the chance to serve them as such.
The names of the fallen are inscribed on the façade of the house and alongside them, appears the inscription: “The house that was there – and is no longer. The house that they could have built here – and will not be built. They were the last kin of their homes – and they are gone.”
This work of art by Micha Ulman is tied to other works of him. The most famous of them is the empty library in Berlin, which relates to the Nazi’s burning of books there in 1933. In both works, the viewers gaze from above into the bowels of the earth. Both are tied to the Holocaust, and in both the familiar appearance of the home or of the library room is disrupted.
Another work of Ulman’s in Germany, contains the form of a ship that is drowned on a river-bed.
With the rise of the water line, it is completely covered and is revealed only with the recession of the water. Here, too, there is a reference to the movement of immigration to Israel, as the artist’s family used to live further up the river. All the members of his family made it out of Europe, to Israel, before the Holocaust.
The monument ‘Last of Kin’ is tied in many varied ways to Jewish and Israeli history, and to the constant combination of sorrow and pain, on one hand, and building and renewal, on the other.
Dr. Ronit Steinberg is a Lecturer in Art History, Modern and Jewish Art. She is the department head and academic advisor for the Jewish Art History and the Gender and Feminism tracks. Dr. Steinberg completed her PhD in the art history department at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her joint book with Prof. Katrin Kogman-Appel, The Visual Arts in Jewish Society, a publication of The Open University of Israel, will soon be published.