Uncharacteristically, my mother and I arrived a few minutes late. We missed the introductory remarks, but we managed to find two empty seats together in the large room that was filled with listeners who had gathered Monday evening at the Yeshiva University Museum/Center for Jewish History to hear poets present original writings in dialogue with an exhibition titled “There is a Mirror in My Heart: Reflections on a Righteous Grandfather.”
The righteous grandfather in question belongs to artist Sebastian Mendes, and the exhibition, in the Museum’s words, “offers a personal artistic response to the actions taken by his grandfather Aristides de Sousa Mendes, who, as Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux, France, in June 1940, engineered one of the greatest rescue acts of the Holocaust, saving an estimated 30,000 refugees. Through drawings, sculptures, and an in-gallery performance that metaphorically reenacts his grandfather’s deeds, this exhibition gives visual form to this act of courage and heroism through art.” (Please click here for a detailed press release. The exhibition will remain on view through July 24, 2011.)
Curated by poet Sima Rabinowitz, the “Writers on View” evening featured work generated in response to the installation, literary art created and presented by Matthew Thorburn, Rachel Zucker, Janet Kaplan, Aldina Vazão Kennedy, Terese Svoboda, and Rabinowitz. Students from Stern College for Women read poems written by Willie Perdomo and Tracy K. Smith, who were not present.
Particularly moving were Vazão Kennedy’s two pieces, “Testimony of the Saved” and “Summer Psalms for a Portugese Consul//Serving in Bordeaux, France, in 1940,” and Svoboda’s “Circular 14.” I hope that I am recalling this correctly–I should perhaps have been jotting down notes–but I think it was Svoboda who observed that, unlike much other Holocaust-related writing, the work presented last night invoked lives saved, rather than lives lost. And in listening to Rabinowitz’s multi-lingual, multi-vocal presentation (she had enlisted two others to help her read), I was reminded again about the sheer music of poetry, the limitless power of lyric and cadence and language combined.
I believe that the writings will be collected and presented in some more permanent form–I think I overheard a comment about having them available to view at the exhibition. I hope that they will be circulated more widely. I am, myself, inspired by the story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes, a story that even I–specialist in World War II France that I am–did not know. For more about this courageous man, see this profile from Yad Vashem (where he is one of the Righteous Among the Nations), and spend some time exploring the Sousa Mendes Foundation website.