University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Voice to Vision IV

For Every Thing, There is a Reason

43” x 79” Acrylic on canvas, collage, fluorescent Plexiglas

David Feinberg, with drawing contributions from Tibetan survivor Dorjay Sakya, Holocaust survivor Margot De Wilde, and artist Caroline Kent

For Every Thing, There is a ReasonTo start the cultural interweaving of Dorjay and Margot’s stories, Solomon Atta stretched strips of canvas across the piece, crisscrossed in a way to suggest the mixing of Dorjay and Margot’sexperiences. The first marks on the painting were emotional responses to the stories without being narrative. At the Auschwitz camp, Margot had her ID numbers tattooed on her arm with a red triangle underneath them. Margot painted the symbol of the red triangle on the canvas. Dorjay then painted a purple triangle on the piece because he was so moved by Margot’s decision. Both drawing from Buddhist beliefs, agreed that even though they had suffered so much, “everything happens for a reason”.

At the end of the storytelling, Margot, Dorjay and Caroline were asked to choose from various colored Plexiglas strips which ones they wanted to overlap and weave between the canvas strips. Dorjay chose a piece of green Plexiglas, Caroline chose a red piece of Plexiglas and Margot decidedly chose the strip of mirror. For Margot’s imagery, a photograph was chosen from her childhood of her with her schoolmates. Dorjay suggested we use images from National Geographic as opposed to his personal photographs, to avoid the possible repercussions of his friends, many of who are living in Tibet today. A photograph of the Tibetan cavalry was chosen, which Dorjay explained is now under the jurisdiction of the Chinese army.

The art team needed a visual bridge to connect the photographs of the school children and the Tibetan cavalry. As we went through our files of photographs, we found the pewter plate, made in 1640, which belonged to Margot’s uncle of the Swedish King Gustav Adolf riding on a horse. Her uncle bought it because his name was Gustav as well. Her uncle had buried it with other family valuables during the Holocaust. It was retrieved by Margot’s father after liberation and is now hanging in her home. A fragment of the horse on the plate, both relating to Margot’s experience and the Tibetan cavalry, was used as the bridge to connect the pieces. In addition, threads from both sides of the canvas were attached to the horse’s harness.

It Was Meant to be Happened

39”x 47” 2007. Acrylic on canvas, collage, fluorescent Plexiglas

David Feinberg with drawing contributions from Tibetan Survivor: Dorjay Sakya and artists: Caroline Kent, Malorie Binn, Veronica Williams, Lauren Haberly, and Jamie Winter Dawson

Meant To Be HappenedAt the beginning of the first interview with Dorjay, we asked him what his favorite color was. He said he didn’t have one, but when asked to choose from red, yellow, or blue, without hesitation he chose blue. The first image he put onto the canvas was the mountains. Mountains were the one thing Dorjay missed the most about Tibet. As the interview continued, we learned that he was in Lhasa, Tibet during the uprising in September of 1987.

Right outside his hat shop, in the market, the Chinese military arrived in trucks. Shots rang-out as Tibetan civilians became the immediate target of the Chinese soldiers. In the confusion of the event, people could not discern where the bullets were coming from. Tear gas was thrown into the crowds and as people covered their faces the Chinese threw large rocks down on them. Dorjay knew he had to make a decision. He could get involved and help his people, or he could stay behind to care for his ailing mother. For a split second, he paused; he then knew he had to help the injured and dying people right at his doorstep.

A photograph of Dorjay’s mother and father was chosen for the painting. His father is wearing traditional attire and a typical Tibetan hat. All of the artists including Dorjay made drawings of hats that Dorjay still owned from his shop. He then chose from these drawings which ones should appear in the painting. On the right side of the piece, an arbitrary mark was made with blue paint and Dorjay interpreted it as incense. This reminded him of the incense that his people would burn on religious pilgrimages into the mountains. Dorjay wrote “Good Wishes” in Tibetan in the center of the canvas. Below the Tibetan phrase, there is a photograph similar to the house he lived in. To this day, Tibetan houses are being torn down and replaced with modern Chinese-style apartment buildings.

A Triangle For a J

32” x 40” Acrylic on canvas, collage, fluorescent Plexiglas

David Feinberg, with drawing contributions from Holocaust survivor Margot De Wilde and artists Caroline Kent, Malorie Binn, Veronica Williams, Lauren Haberly, and Nile Eckhoff

A Triangle for  JFrom the estimated 1,000,000 to 2,500,000 people who died at Auschwitz during the Holocaust, Margot De Wilde is one of few who survived. Margot tried to escape across the Swiss border by using counterfeit I.D. papers that omitted the J, which was an identifier for Jews. Unfortunately her attempt failed and she was taken to the concentration camps of Auschwitz.

The art team wanted to make a portrait of Margot, but she insisted that we make a portrait of her arm, which contained the tattoo of her numbers. Positioning her arm directly onto the painting it was traced and her numbers were drawn onto the outline.
The upside down triangle below the numbers became the new identifier that she was Jewish. Auschwitz and Birkenau were the only camps where identification numbers were tattooed onto the arms of the prisoners. All other concentration camps had the numbers attached on prison uniforms.

Margot had mentioned that on one side of the tracks sat the bricked village of Auschwitz where she was held and across the tracks was the expanded wooden camp of Auschwitz II (Birkenau).  Unaware of the atrocities to come, at first glace Auschwitz I appeared to be a quaint little brick village and Birkenau in contrast appeared ominous with its rows of barracks for miles. In the painting the two camps are separated by the letter “J” which came directly from the identification card placing the Auschwitz camp above and the Birkenau camp below. 

In the upper left hand corner of the painting, Margo drew a medical device. Her role in the medical unit allotted her to give injections to various individuals without truly understanding the reasoning behind who received them and why. This object has stayed in her mind ever since.

Twins That Never Met

47” x 55” Acrylic on canvas, collage, fluorescent Plexiglas

David Feinberg, with drawing contributions from Holocaust survivor Margot De Wilde and artists Caroline Kent, Margaret Gavian, Rakhi Bisen, Veronica Williams and Lauren Haberly

Twins That Never MetMargot De Wilde had moved from Germany to the Netherlands when Hitler came into power in 1933.  In 1941 Margot had obtained visas to come to America to escape Nazi persecution. The attack on Pearl Harbor December 7, 1941 caused the visas to be invalid. Over a year later she tried to escape by train across the Swiss border, where she and her husband were seized andbrought to the concentration camps in Auschwitz.

Margot and the art team were given abstract shapes on index cards. They were told to observe the shapes and relate them to Margot’s story. Margot had picked a shape that had two lines, which she interpreted as her two lives. One was her life before Auschwitz and the other was her life after. This seemed to be too obvious of a shape. Then Caroline picked out a shape that she liked but she didn’t know why. Margot took a closer look and said that it reminded her of the grass that she ate in order to stay alive. That shape became our starting point. Margot, who had not been able to write or draw with her hands in years, had no difficulty replicating the shape as the centerpiece of the canvas.

The diagonal line through the center of the painting divides Margot’s story from the Pearl Harbor incident (which indirectly changed the course of her life). The grass roots that overlapped the Pearl Harbor imagery were primed in white paint. Margot who worked as a nurse in the camps told us of the medical experiments which were continuously being performed on women in the downstairs of the building she worked in. Margaret Gavian (a doctorial student in psychology) suggested that we should leave the white primer as the actual color of the grass roots as a reference to the down stairs experiments. 

The postcard flying through the air represents an actual postcard written by Margot’s uncle to his family in Amsterdam. He wrote it while being transported with the other captives in a crowded cattle car. He tossed it out of the moving train in hopes that someone would find it and mail it. Margot never saw her uncle again, but after the war she found the postcard with other family possessions in Holland. Someone had found it and mailed it.

Had Pearl Harbor not been attacked, causing Margot’s American visa to be revoked, Margot’s life would have been significantly different. The life that Auschwitz forced her to live and the life that could have happened were “Twins that Never Met”. 

“Yer's first child Hue, born in Laos”

44” x 52”, 2008 Acrylic on canvas, collage, fluorescent Plexiglas

David Feinberg, with drawing contributions from Hmong survivors of Communist retribution: The Lee family; Nhia, Yer, Pa Houa and Sara Lee with artists: Caroline Kent, Jamie Winter Dawson, Rodney Massey and Adam Streeter

imageHue was the firstborn of his family and the last to be born in Laos. But Hue was not Laotian, just as generations before him were not Laotian. His people, the Hmong, have no country that bears their name.

Hue dreamt of one day traveling to America. He also yearned for the Hmong Statethat the Americans had promised. Although he was only five, he served the vitally important role of lingual interpreter.

During a raid against Hmong refugees hiding in the forest, Hue died at the age of 5 from poison gas.

It was Hue’s father, Nhia, who had been recruited to serve in the CIA’s clandestine Hmong Army during the 1970s. When the American’s pulled out of Vietnam the Hmong were abruptly abandoned. Huge segments of their population were targeted for vengeful extermination.

Nhia and Yer survived their young son. They survived years in a dense jungle environment and eventually fled to Thailand, where they would give birth to their oldest daughter Pa Houa.

The painting, “Yer’s first child Hue, born in Laos” was composed over several sessions. The family was encouraged to discuss their experiences and turn their thoughts to the story of their survival. They were asked to choose their own colors and apply paint to the canvas at random. As the story was still fresh in their minds, hand drawn collage, created by family members and the artistic team were added to select areas of the piece.

Pa Houa sketched a portrait of herself blindfolded with her “mind” exposed. She said that this represents how she can only hear and think about the events that occurred before her birth. This portrait was divided in two parts that were place on opposite ends of the canvas that are connected by the red lines representing the paths of their difficult journey.

Yer still retains memory of a little girl from another family, crying because she had to be left behind. She was too young to know to be silent and would have put the lives of others hiding in the forest at risk. They never saw the little girl again.

“Photographs for Abduction: from all the Rooftops, Tibet 1987”

Dimensions. Acrylic, Flurescent Plastic, Mirror, and Collage on Wood

David Feinberg, with drawing contributions from Dorjay Sakya, a Tibetan survivor and artists Stephanie Thompson and Kelsey Bosch

image: Photographs for Abduction: from all the RooftopsDuring the Tibetan protests, photographers were on the rooftops of buildings to take pictures of the protesters to be used for identification. The paramilitary would later come knocking on doors in order to find or ask about the location of those in the photographs. Those who were identified by the paramilitary were abducted; some were murdered.

Photographs for Abduction: from all the Rooftops, Tibet 1987 depicts the scenes of the massacre and rooftop photographers. The use of reflection creates the sense that escape from camera shot is impossible and mirrors act as the interactive medium by which viewers are brought into the scene, their reflections both skewed and not. The orange plastic curves through the pieceas smoke of burning incense up to the Tibetan flag which is hung upside down to symbolize the turmoil.

The skewed perception, orange smoke and inverted flag are the chaos and uncertainty that the Tibetans felt during this time: a time when honesty brought certain abduction.