Hanging comfortably in a small room of Holyrood Palace are the portraits of seven Holocaust survivors commissioned by HRH The Prince of Wales. These important new additions to the Royal Collection come from Buckingham Palace to Edinburgh as part of a project by the Royal Trust to encourage Holocaust remembrance. Seven leading artists record the characters of Helen Aronson, Manfred Goldberg, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Lily Ebert, Arek Hersh, Zigi Shipper, and Rachel Levy.
Facing each other proudly, from the walls of the Queen’s official Scottish residence, the subjects of these portraits were chosen for their individual commitments to Holocaust education. This is a room of community, togetherness, and determination, which in the intended destruction of Jewry, honours the success of their long lives.
In the centre is a portrait of Arek Hersh, who was liberated from Theresienstadt after surviving Auschwitz. He sits for Massimiliano Pironti, who was left ‘completely speechless’ after learning of Arek’s story. He was brought to England as one of the Windermere Children and has since returned to Auschwitz many times, educating of his experiences by leading trips and regular talks.
Painted on aluminium panel, the smooth surface appears to illuminate Arek from within. Massimiliano captures the brightness, strength, and light of his character. Seated between the wooden arms of a chair, there is a radiator behind him; two objects displayed on its cover. On the left, a statue of Moses, who holds the 10 commandments from God written on stone, delivering a reminder of faith and hope. To the right is a photograph of a younger Arek, making this a double portrait of a man who was determined to live, and succeeded in doing so.
Despite virtual sittings, it is clear that the artists understanding of Arek is deep and personal. We see him here protectively caressing his left arm. What we don’t see is the number he was given at Auschwitz, but instead the hands of a man who never lost touch of who he was. His hands occupy as much of the composition as his face. ‘For me the hands are like the face’ says Massimiliano, who’s exceptional skill captures the transparent fragility of Arek’s flesh.
The Holocaust refers to the genocide of 6 million Jews, of an estimated total of 11 million murdered. It was commemorated earlier this year on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when the BBC documentation of this project was aired to mark 77 years since the single biggest atrocity in our world’s history.
A subject to be approached with hesitance and caution, the historic weight of portrait painting makes for a fitting representation of these extraordinary people. Throughout the entire history of art, portraits have presented those of power, and it is in this context that despite attempts to strip it from them during the early years of their lives, our last remaining survivors are reminded of theirs.
Helen Aronson is painted by Paul Benney. Draped in colour, rosy hues warm her right side. Since being liberated from the Lodz ghetto, Helen moved to England where she has dedicated her life to speaking of her experiences and educating young people of the consequences of antisemitism.
Weighted in the bottom left corner of the frame, Manfred Goldberg is painted by Clara Drummond. Set against a light ground which permeates his complexion translucently, he is turned to face us, revealing the eclipse of his Kippah (religious head covering). Manfred travelled to England after being liberated following a death march to Neustadt. He now tells of his experiences at schools and organisations around the world.
Jenny Saville’s portrait of Zigi Shipper is the only grisaille in the collection. Zigi was also made to complete the death march to Neustadt, where Manfred carried him part of the way to ensure his survival. It was there that he too was liberated and has since devoted his life to Holocaust education. With only black and white, Saville demands attention on the expression of Zigi. His character emerges from a surface stained with bursts of ink that bleed over the stripes of his collar, dissolving the experience of his past and emphasising the character that remains.
Lily Ebert, was liberated from Auschwitz Birkenau and is painted by Ishbel Myerscough. Having since lived in Israel, and now London, she too has dedicated her life to Holocaust education and awareness.
A portrait of positivity, Lily smiles and we see layers of blue and orange that radiate life and compliments her determination to live.
Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945. She has spent her life educating young people and campaigning against anti-semitism. Painted softly by Peter Kuhfeld, earthy tones and scattered marks ground her in past memory.
Rachel Levy is painted by Stuart Pearson Wright. Liberated from Bergen Belsen after surviving a death march, she was brought to Northern Ireland, and then to England as part of a group known as ‘The Boys’. This powerful depiction radiates dignity.
We see Lily’s gold pendant, Anita’s photographs, Helen’s silver compact, Rachel’s medal. It seems the artists saw in these keepsakes their sitters’ survival. Acting as mementos of an earlier, happy life, it is both the objects and the subjects that make these works not a study of trauma or what was lost, but rather what survived.
Tasked with both the painterly and emotional handling of these portraits, the artists here undertake the responsibility of the trauma of their sitter experienced both then and now, and achieving an unparalleled realism, provide an educational experience that moves away from the inconceivable statistics too often used to narrate this terrible history. While facts and figures are important, these portraits instead bring the human back into Holocaust remembrance, making for a crucial memorial of this too recent chapter.
This is a project that has found a balance between the freedoms that come with art making and the responsibility of representing the trauma of a complex and horrific history. It brings a context of importance to so many into public view, making a very welcomed addition to the Royal Collection. Instead of confronting the atrocities faced, as is the typical approach through film and ceremonies, we are offered the opportunity to reflect from a place of pride, awe, and astonishment at the strength and determination of the incredible people whose faces stare back at us.
A subject overlooked, the Holocaust is a history that deserves a responsible and widespread remembrance. Not only to honour those who survived, but to remind us of what humanity is capable of. One that relies on education, which is exactly what this crucial project delivers. As its memorial sites suffer destruction, and eastern Europe is framed yet again by invasion, visiting this important display has never been more urgent.
With grateful thanks to Danele Evans for this review.