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Megan Boysel is a junior-year history major at Iona College and managing editor of the Ionian, the College's student newspaper. After researching Cahana's life and art, Boysel was fascinated by Cahana's endurance in the face of elimination of her birthplace and her family, her spirit of graciousness and forgiveness after subjection to the indescribable depravity of the Shoah, and her determination to have her art serve as a vehicle of memory, healing, and education. She conducted the following interview with Cahana.
Q: How does the fact that all traces of Jewish life disappeared in Sárvár, Hungary affect you?
A: It left me with a shattered feeling because life as I knew it totally disappeared. When I started to correspond with my father who found me on the Red Cross list after the War, his reply to my questions about who was alive among my friends, among our relatives, and among the Jews in Sárvár was always answered in the negative. This shattered feeling never left me.
Q: What was it like for you to return to Sárvár and see that all traces of Jewish society were gone from a place where there had been Jews since the 10th century?
A: The last time I returned to Sárvár was in 1978 when Hungary opened its borders. I was deeply shaken by what I witnessed there. There were no signs of Jewish life. The synagogue was made over as a woodworking industry. The cemetery was closed. No memorial was erected, no signs that they missed us. No remembrance. No one mourned. No one cared. When I came back to America, I decided that I would use my art to make a memorial for those who did not come back from Auschwitz and to remember Raoul Wallenberg, the heroic Swedish Christian who saved 100 thousand Jews including my father.
Q: What do you want the people in my generation to understand about the disappearance of jews from Sárvár and other Hungarian towns like it?
A: It is very important to know that there is good non-Jewish people who did heroic saving things, and that every individual has power to do the right thing. This is why I put Raoul Wallenberg as a central focal point in my art. Life is sacred; every person has value. The culture of a society is built on the fiber of different groups of people. Together we form a strong cohesive society. If one element or group disappears, like in Hungary, it weakens the whole cohesive society.
Q: A town that refuses to recognize its Jewish heritage ultimately loses its soul. How could such a place go about redeeming that loss in today's world?
A: The Jewish people since the 10th century have lived in my town, Sárvár. They contributed morally, culturally, and economically. They contributed enormously to the welfare of our town. Their disappearance from the city will be felt forever.
Q: I heard that you stated: "I will not celebrate Hitler by showing his killing people, but I will show the soul of the people." What does this quote mean to you?
A: My art is about the spirit of the victims-about children who wrote poetry instead of cursing man or God. I don't paint gory paintings that would only glorify Hitler.
Q: After watching The Last Days, the documentary by Stephen Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation, I was amazed that you did not seem angry, but you stressed forgiveness. How does the complex dynamic between anger and forgiveness affect your life and do you show this sense of forgiveness in your artwork?
A: I saw a Holocaust memorial in Paris, France where a child wrote an essay titled "Forgive, don't forget." I thought about that for a long time and made a painting with the same title. Forgiveness means to me not to hate. But in reality I cannot forgive in the name of those who did not survive. I can only talk about my feelings and be constantly vigilant not to hate, because then I would spread Hitler's germs.
Q: Explain what the phrase "God died in Auschwitz" means to you.
A: I don't like slogans, particularly about serious belief stuff. Some things are ingrained in us since childhood and they have great sentimental values that are necessary for survival.
Q: As a Jew in the concentration camp, did you feel that God had abandoned you or that God was with you and that is why you survived?
A: Since I was brought up in a religious home, God's presence was very important in my belief system. My sister, Edith, and I celebrated the Sabbath in the latrine in Auschwitz while we sang Sabbath songs with other children who gathered around us. It gave us strength and courage to endure the pain inflicted on us.
Q: In the camp, where survival was a minute-by-minute endeavor, how did women and children get beyond a sheer survival mentality?
A: Survival, of course, did not depend on us. All of us were afflicted with raging diseases like typhoid or tuberculosis. There were no sanitary conditions or medicines. Survival was a fluke. It did not depend on the individual's strength or wisdom. To speed up our demise, there were constant selections by high-ranking S.S. officers.
Q: Was there an attempt by those in the camps to live for a day when there would be no camps by holding on to some sort of message that they would pass on to another?
A: It was very important for me to visualize freedom, to hope for the day to be reunited with my family. I am sure that others clung to hope.
Q: Did the Shoah challenge your belief in God's Covenant with the Jewish people in any way?
A: I always felt that God's Covenant was with all people on this Earth: to be good, to live a righteous life, to have mercy. I feel strongly that a father-God looks out for all people alike.
Q: Did the religious practice of your parents instill in you any religious beliefs that helped you throughout the Shoah?
A: My father instilled in me religious feelings that helped me in the concentration camp to create an image of hope.
Q: After the Shoah, did your faith change at all?
A: My faith survived.
Q: What do you want everyday, ordinary people of my generation to learn about the Shoah?
A: It is important to learn the many lessons of the Shoah. Today we are a global village. All that applies in one corner of the world applies everywhere. We are truly our brother's keeper. The strong have to help the weak. We have to share our knowledge about medicine to eradicate diseases. We have to share our knowledge about science to make life easier for everyone in the world. We must work to eliminate destructive forces and take care not to harm the innocents.
Q; How do you want the Shoah to be remembered?
A: The Shoah should give us an everlasting lesson: Not to Hate. Hate is contagious; it destroys the one who hates as much as the one who is hated.
Q: How have your experiences with the Shoah affected your artwork?
A: It influenced my art totally. I felt a responsibility as an eyewitness to tell the stories of those who did not return from the Shoah.
Q: I noticed that you have a couple of paintings having to do with the children of Terezin and their poems. What is so important to you about these children's poems?
A: When I came back to America in 1978 from my visit to Hungary, I wrote a poem. In it I questioned why do I go back night after night to my town in my dreams. I questioned if anyone missed the children who disappeared in broad daylight. It was then that I discovered the children's poems from Terezin. They were so positive and totally void of hatred. I understood why we Jews were called the People of the Books. Mothers told their children in Terezin write a poem; don't curse man or God; write a poem. And the poems were found after liberation. A tremendous goodness, like hot lava flowed from these poems. Children wrote: "Don't Hate." This is their message. This is the message from the Shoah. This is the central motive of my art.
Interview by Iona College Student Megan Boysel
Site constructed with permission of the artist.