Monday, February 25, 2008

Scheistmeister von Treblinka

This painting dated August 14, 1985 is an example of Richard Sevigny departing – to a degree - from religious themes to depict deep, historical cruelty.

It was inspired by Jean-Francois Steiner’s controversial 1966 book Treblinka, an “inspiring story of 600 Jews who revolted against their murderers and burned a Nazi death camp to the ground,” according to the jacket notes of Richard’s copy.

Treblinka reads like a thriller. It begins with Jews being shipped to death camps in rural villages in occupied territories. One was Treblinka, where nearly a million were killed. It ends with a violent prisoner uprising in which only 40 men survive.

As the story progresses, with escape attempts, the constant arrival of trains full of prisoners bound for a thousand different kinds of deaths, and the revelation that the liquidation of the camp is drawing near, Steiner offers us a picture of a cruelty that became almost normal to the prisoners.

The episode that inspired this piece reportedly took place after a camp commander, fearing prisoners were conspiring in the cramped bathrooms or perhaps out of pure cruelty, decided to post a watchman in the latrines. Of course, the Nazi guards didn’t merely assign a prisoner to work as a guard. They turned it into a perverse game in which the guard would be called the Shit Master and wear an absurd costume.

Richard filled the background with passages taken directly from the book, starting with a mess-hall conversation between camp guards:

“He will be dressed like a rabbi,” said one.
“He will wear a Russian cap,” said another.
“No, a top hat,” outbid a third.
“Yes, yes, a hat,” shouted the listeners.
“And we’ll give him a whip.”
“And we’ll make him grow a goatee.”
“And we’ll tie an alarm clock around his neck.”

“Cantor or rabbi,” either way it is the same shit.”

The “shit master” had instructions to only let five prisoners enter at once and to make them leave after three minutes.

“Rabbi, how goes the shit?”
“Very well, sir, it stinks.”

Even the Jews could not help laughing at him. “I beg of you,” he would say. “Do it for me, come out!” The prisoners could not help laughing, but it was themselves they were laughing at, it was their religion they were mocking. For the shit master was one of them and his costume was part of their religion.


John Sevigny said...

A brief note on Steiner's book before anybody jumps on me for not mentioning this: over the years, the author came under increasing criticism for writing a "novel" rather than a historical account. Indeed, much of the material in the book was based on interviews, and in letters, Steiner admitted to filling in some of the details with his "imagination." Nonetheless, the book remains as a powerful testimony of the basics of what went on inside the camp, which are probably more shocking than any fiction ever could be anyway.

john sevigny

The Nort said...

I don't remember seeing this remarkable image before, but oddly enough I had a shock of recognition -- there is something of Richard in the face that stares out at us. As they say, there is a little "portrait of the artist" in each work. Perhaps a sign of the degree to which he identified with the plight of the prisoners.

Richard's obsession with the Holocaust goes back to a book of photographs that he became acquainted with while still in high school. Late in his life he began to deliver tirades against the Israeli treatment of the Palestinians. But rather than a reversal of opinion, he saw this as a continuation of his outrage at oppression, regardless of the source.

If he were with us today he might be aiming the sharp point of his wit at what we ourselves are doing in Guantanamo.

John Sevigny said...

I was going to extend the text of the original post to include Richard's mixed felings about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but it was getting pretty long already.

I remember Richard talking at great length about the unfair treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of Israelis, comparing the situation to the genocide of American indigenous peoples in North America. He wasn't the only one who saw it that way. He pointed out that many, many Israelis, such as those involved in Peace New, opposed the violence.

Not long before he died, he had an argument with someone and he defended, as he often did, the State of Israel's right to exist saying, "I'm not anti-Israeli." The person he was talking to said, "Well I am."

But Richard often said that the Jewish people have drawn strength from the fact that they are scattered all over the globe and could never simply be erased from the map, as Hitler dreamed they could.

I think the nort correctly points out that the work like this that Richard did was aimed at the subject of oppression in general, as much as at its specific manifestations.