installation is dedicated to the memory of my grandparents
Herman and Helen Lewis and to the memories those who perished
and those who lived through the pogroms of Kishinev in 1903
In May 2000, I traveled to Kosovo with a team of psychologists and
psychiatrists to work with Albanian Kosovar mental health professionals
from the Department of Neuropsychiatry at the University of Prishtina.
The goal was to help develop a public mental-health approach that
could foster strength and resilience in the Kosovar families.
Spring arrived that week. Just one year before, as the trees were
turning green, Serbian military forces entered the small village of
Slovia, population 3,000. Our team of six Americans was introduced
to families that had suffered from the massacre ！ usually the
abduction and murder of the mature men and the boys over the age of
14. I was invited into the living room of one large extended family,
whose members were in a state of postponed grief because the bodies
of their four murdered men had been taken from the village and not
yet recovered. As the members of the family ！ beginning with
the patriarch then in descending order by age ！ spoke about their
tragedy and their modes of coping over the previous year, my gaze
was drawn to the face of a 9-year-old boy who sat, quietly listening.
I thought of my grandfather who was 9 years old when Russians and
Rumanians stormed his town and killed 49 people in a pogrom that lasted
two days. That was April 7, 1903, in the town if Kishinev, in present-day
For years I painted landscapes in my studio in Tribeca from photos
I had taken during my travels around the world as a tourist. When
I started working intensively with torture survivors at Bellevue Hospital
about eight years ago, I became a different kind of tourist. As I
listened to the stories of torture survivors from around the world
！ Kurds, Iraqis, Iranians, East and West Africans, Tibetans,
Chinese, South Americans and Eastern Europeans ！ I began to accumulate
a new set of images of people, places and disturbing events. And as
these images and experiences began becoming my memories, entering
my body, they altered my internal landscape and the landscapes I was
So many of the stories I was hearing were of events that never made
it into the news here in the United States. And like many therapists
who work with these survivors from around the world, I began to feel
overburdened by their stories and isolated from others in my life
to whom I did not want to impose such painful realities. The therapeutic
values of privacy and confidentiality, along with the practitioner's
sensitivity about not compromising the therapeutic endeavor by engaging
in advocacy, often lead to an uncomfortable state of self-imposed
Painting became for me like a dream in which the experiences of my
daily life ！ the confusing sensations and emotions in response
to these stories ！ found visual expression. I decided to follow
this imagery, allowing it to create its own direction. Over the next
year I attempted to find a visual language to represent my experience
！ to represent what could not be contained by language. Little
did I know at the time that many artists have felt that trauma forces
one to create a new language ！ that there is always a substrata
of such experience that language falls short of representing. Even
when such torment is given voice in a language or symbols, the unspeakable
continues to pose a challenge to the symbolic.
I painted a series of paintings that incorporated the responses to
images that came out of my therapeutic encounter with three men who
had been tortured and were now struggling with the emotional consequences
of that trauma. I reached an impasse that was preventing me from progressing
further. My friend and studio mate, Israeli artist Meir Gal, looked
at the paintings. Sheet music was strewn on the floor where a friend
had been practicing jazz drumming. Meir asked me: "Where is your
score behind the music, the narrative behind these images?"
What I was communicating in these vague and quasi-romantic paintings
was ambiguous without my story. I came to realize that I had been
dealing with modern survivors of torture and political violence as
if their stories were foreign to me and my family. Here I was, struggling
to comprehend the testimonies of people from cultures I did not know
and I had ignored the testimony my grandfather had written to me in
letters some 15 years earlier before his death. Meir urged me to go
and hold the letters.
My grandfather wrote me a series of letters about his Kishinev experience,
which I typed and distributed to my family, according to his request.
I did not incorporate or respond to them, and I had not returned to
look closely at these letters during the time of working with survivors.
I began to realize that the paintings I had created in response to
the testimonies of recent refugees had created an opening to allow
me to experience my grandfather's story in a deeply emotional way.
When I returned to look at the paintings, I saw in them elements from
his life. Only later did I see that I had been painting his story
by Jack Saul, The
Forward, April 4, 2003.
* * *
is a psychologist on the faculty of Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and director of the International Trauma Studies Program. He lectures around the world on mental health and human rights, treatment of survivors of political violence, community approaches to trauma, media and the arts. Dr. Saul runs a New York State non-profit organization, Refuge, that helps build capacity and foster resilience in communities that have suffered from war, torture, and other forms of political violence.
For more information, see www.itspnyc.org
I would like to thank the following people for their help and advice in the creation of the artistic work and web installation:
Anne Day Photography
Zohar Nir-Amitin Web Design, PixelPress
Nancy K. Miller