Portraits of Zinkov – An Artist’s Statement

 When the portrait “Survivor of Zinkov” rose to the surface of my canvas in the summer of 1993, I was at first reluctant to delve into why he’d come. His countenance and bearing, more of apparition than of real person, seemed to be urging me toward an exploration into my family’s past, a past I knew little about and had willingly ignored for most of my life.

By this time, my children had grown to maturity and moved on with their lives, and I found myself seeking a groundedness I could hold onto in the way that New Englanders often establish when pointing to their colonial forbearers. Yet, I could not travel further back into my ancestry than to the grandparents with whom I’d grown up. Eventually, the “survivor’s” invitation was one I could not turn down. Even if I might never construct an extensive family tree, I decided I would at least explore my family’s past enough to develop a cultural context which I could inhabit.

Zinkov was the home of my ancestors including three of my grandparents, a town very much like hundreds of other small subsistence farming, trading, and cottage manufacturing hamlets of the Ukrainian Pale. For centuries, Zinkov had been borne along by time-honored traditions and unchanging ways of life. Nevertheless, during the first two decades of the last century, many of my relatives, responding to ongoing difficult economic times and political oppression, had decided to leave their Ukrainian roots behind. Some of them emigrated to Argentina while others chose the United States as their destination; all of them seeking to establish a more prosperous and secure life. However, a number of family members had chosen to remain in Zinkov; I’d been told they had perished in the Holocaust. However, without the aid of any first-hand family accounts, I could not find an immediately clear path to follow in my quest for greater knowledge.

Then, beginning with the Zinkover Memorial Book which was given to my grandfather, Harry Zola, shortly before his death and inherited by my mother Esther who had passed it on to me in the 1980s, I discovered a black and white photograph of some of my kin who had been killed, and also those of many other Zinkovites I felt drawn to. That was the start of the  “Zinkov series” in which I was seeking initially to clarify a personal history, or create one, and so I began to paint them as the best way for me to get to know them. Who were these relatives, loyal to the old country, who had perished?  And who were these other residents of Zinkov, perhaps neighbors or other trades-people known to my family? As my interest in these people grew, my task of gathering additional information was made possible by translations of the Yizkor book’s Hebrew and Yiddish text provided by Murray Sachs, Brandeis Emeritus Professor of Languages and by Sharon Peleg-Bruell, a translator residing in Israel.

With the aid of these translations, the Zinkover Memorial Book was revealed to me as an amalgam of narratives – remembrances, anecdotes, poems, songs, recipes – accompanied by black and white photographs, many quite small and grainy. Beginning with the faces that intrigued me, my own family’s faces among them, I used a variety of styles and colors to express the personalities within I believed I could see and feel. As this process of exploration and reclamation evolved, I frequently found that the photographs and the narratives accompanying them on the same page often had nothing to do with each other. Sometimes there wasn’t even a name with the photo,  merely the words “son of” or “grandfather to” another person not shown. Occasionally, a person I’d painted would be designated “unknown.” However, within this Yizkor’s pages was contained a riveting eye witness account of what actually transpired in Zinkov between 1941 and 1944. It is from that harrowing retelling that I learned of the annihilation of Zinkov’s Jews. I came to understand my mission as one of bringing these people to life, honoring them, whoever they were, by giving to them portraits befitting prominent and worthy personages.

Jewish Children

Along this journey, I have learned much history. Zinkov was not destroyed by a single cataclysmic blow, burned to the ground with all inhabitants gunned down as I had previously believed. Instead, through month upon month of ghetto formation, starvation and  continual “Aktionen” by which the Jews of Zinkov were murdered at or near their homes, or sent to camps for extermination, Zinkov, the Zinkov of my ancestors, was bled to death.

Ultimately then, these paintings of Zinkov’s men, women and children are both remembrance and commemoration, my homage to them and thereby to all the people and towns that perished: They are all, known or never to be known, my rich inheritance, my family. 

Typical neighborhood