(April 6, 2015 / JNS) By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
When Irish artist Diana Muller first presented her works in progress—paintings of some of her country’s few remaining Holocaust survivors—to the Irish Jewish Museum in Dublin City, museum vice chair Yvonne Altman O’Connor sensed a teachable moment in the making.
“We consider it very important to teach about the Holocaust, especially as Irish people were somewhat removed from the experience. [Some even] refer to World War II as ‘the emergency,’” an obvious understatement, O’Connor tells JNS.org.
Muller suggested that the museum host a temporary exhibit. Three years after beginning the project, which includes portraits of Irish Holocaust survivors Jan Kaminski, Suzie Diamond, Tomi Reichental, and Zoltan Zinn-Collis, her artwork was unveiled to the public on April 12 at the Irish Jewish Museum as part of a Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) event.
Throughout the process of her journey across Ireland to paint the portraits, Muller kept a blog that detailed historical anecdotes and introspective reflections on her interactions. She admits that her knowledge of Irish Holocaust history was very limited before she started the project.
“I had read the autobiography of Zoltan Zinn-Collis years before, and so I knew about the ‘Belsen Children’ who had come to Ireland with Dr. Collis. But I didn’t realize that Ireland had a policy against accepting Jewish refugees, and that Dr. Collis had essentially smuggled those children into the country,” Muller tells JNS.org.
The Dr. Collis she refers to was an Irish pediatrician who volunteered with the British Red Cross at the end of the war, assisting with the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Only recently, in 2012, did Irish Justice Minister Alan Shatter acknowledge that the “doors to state [in Ireland] were kept firmly closed to Jews fleeing Hitler.” Shatter has called Irish neutrality during the war and the administration of then-prime minister Eamon de Valera “morally bankrupt.” He has described de Valera’s peculiar 1945 visit with a German ambassador, in which de Valera expressed his condolences regarding the death of Hitler, as evidence that anti-Semitism taints that chapter of Irish history.
Muller credits Lynne Jackson, one of the Trustees at Holocaust Education Trust Ireland (HETI), for making the introductions that led to her portrait series becoming a reality.
“I honestly felt a lot of trepidation when I started,” Muller says. “It was only after contacting HETI that I realized just how few survivors actually live in this country. Six at the time, three now.”
When one of Muller’s subjects, Zinn-Collis, passed away, the artist felt a renewed sense of urgency. She began to see her portraits of the elderly survivors as enduring symbols of their triumph. Muller believes the images she has crafted grant an element of immortality to her subjects. As she wrote on her blog in the wake of Zinn-Collis’s death, the portraits are “a slap in the face to the genocide that tried to take them.”
“There’s an old adage that we all have ‘the face we deserve’ by the time we’re 50,” Muller remarks, describing how she transferred perceptions of her subjects to the canvas.
“The idea that our experiences mark us in some visible way is true,” the artist adds. Zinn-Collis, for example, had a physical disability from his experiences in Bergen-Belsen as a child, suffered from tuberculosis, and had a spinal curvature—yet Muller says she “chose not to emphasize this in the painting because I didn’t think it defined him, at all.”
“He had an amazing sense of humor,” says Muller. “He also volunteered for the Samaritans for years and had so much sympathy for suffering people.”
A colorist at heart, Muller was conscious of the elements.
“Interestingly, they all went for navy, light blue, and gray in their clothing choices,” she says. “I used quite a cool palette and brought greens and yellows through. They all had nice gardens and a love of nature. I included some earth tones also.”
Mostly, Muller was touched by the conversations her visits evoked. From survivor Jan Kaminski, she learned about his experiences as a Polish teenager attending Trinity College in Dublin.
“He’s had an amazing career. … [he] was a restaurant owner, and he used to run Ireland’s first-ever nightclub. He also started the Irish Polish Society and met with Pope John Paul the Second during his 1979 visit. He struck me as a really gentle guy, but with huge amount of willpower,” Muller says.
Survivor Suzie Diamond “is a very intelligent, open person,” says Muller, recalling the time they spent together.
“She is the last of the ‘Belsen Children’ who came over with Dr. Collis still living in Ireland. …We talked about her early memories of [Zinn-Collis] and the camp and the journey to Ireland. She was the youngest of the [adopted] children and said that people assumed she was too young to remember, but she remembers very well,” Muller says.
Lastly, Tomi Reichental impressed Muller with his warmth and spirit. “He and his partner met me at their front door with tea and cake,” she says. Reichental, Muller adds, “told me about his uncle, who was an amazing impressionist painter. He showed me some pictures of his family, 35 of whom died in the Holocaust.”
“I never told anybody what I went through,” Reichental tells JNS.org, explaining how he kept silent about his experiences at Bergen-Belsen for more than 60 years—not even telling his wife.
When Reichental was asked to speak in front of his grandson’s middle school class in 2004, however, suddenly the vault opened.
“I realized I was one of the last witnesses for this horrific thing that happened,” he recounts in a short film made in honor of his recent efforts to educate children about the Holocaust. Reichental has since made two documentaries and has traveled back to Germany to meet a former SS guard, an encounter chronicled in the film “Close to Evil.”
Reichental has also performed reconciliation work with the children and grandchildren of Nazi war criminals, and was honored by the German government with the Order of Merit by the German government.
Amid its hosting of Muller’s exhibit, the Irish Jewish Museum has stumbled upon difficult times.
“The current state of the museum is in danger,” O’Connor says, noting that the building is no longer fit for its purpose and that plans to build an extension are in jeopardy due to lack of financial support. “The community is too small [and] fundraising is difficult for the skeleton all-volunteer staff who have poured so much energy into keeping the museum alive for the past 30 years.”
Yet the exhibition of Muller’s portraits is going on as planned. The pictures are on display to the general public for one month. O’Connor hopes that the gallery will inspire renewed interest in the museum’s resources. At the very least, the portraits will make the Irish Holocaust survivors’ legacies particularly tangible for current and future generations.
“To be cheeky, we’re the ones that got away,” says Reichental. “We survived.”