Spiritual Healing of Memories through Art: Holocaust Imagery and Theology

Karen Dresser PhD

Memory is fickle. Some painful moments in our lives—a childhood transition from one school to another, teenage love relationships—become dimmer as the years pass. But memories such as physical abuse or the death of a parent can reappear continually in the mind. Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander notes that when memories surface, we may be able to reconcile events, bring closure or establish some sense of healing, as did some Holocaust survivors. Jewish theologian Michael Fishbane suggests that when any kind of rupture occurs, causing difficult memories, one’s sense of well-being seems to be torn apart. But, he contends, sensory stimulation through the arts is one path toward spiritual healing and wholeness of memories.

Our students sometimes suffer traumas and setbacks that cause disintegrations in their lives: personal or familial events, or even reactions to global atrocities. We can guide students in a Jewish way by designing lessons that allow them to address memories and brokenness. We can offer spiritual comfort when questions of “where is/was God?” are raised.

Students in my Holocaust Imagery class make personal inquiries about post-Holocaust theology’s notions of God in conversations with their painful life events after reading sections from Cohn-Sherbock’s Holocaust Theology: A Reader. They share personal beliefs about God, and engage each other’s opinions following each reading. After group discussion, students write two-page personal opinion responses to post-Holocaust theological questions such as “Can we still believe in a God who acts in our world?” or “Can a religious ceremony without reference to God still be considered spiritual?” Response papers allow for openings through which students’ own inconsistencies, angsts and interactions with familial, societal, cultural and philosophical strata can be examined and questioned.

Further interrogation occurs when the arts are used as a creative response not only to texts, but to students’ life experiences. Creative activities bring out layers of memories: upsets in daily life, family stories, physical injuries, acts of bullying or loneliness. The grief that students keep hidden under the masks they present to teachers and even friends often surfaces and manifest in student poetry or art. This can be a moment of intense pain and catharsis, and in the moment of uncovering, teacher and student arrive at a pivotal point in the educational process where students can be encouraged to heed sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s command to “[face] the other as a face, not a mask, and [face] one’s own bare face in the process.”

Rambam Health Care (Haifa) professionals Rachel Ettun, Michael Schultz and Gil Bar-Sela use the arts in the process of spiritual healing. Their study was conducted with arts-based spiritual care (chaplaincy) in hospitals; their “model of arts-based spiritual care bridges the experience of the caesura to a renewed sense of meaning, or spiritual reorientation, that can be discov- ered within the reality of illness. Additionally, the ambiguity and playful- ness inherent to creative expression strengthen the patient’s flexibility and resilience.” The study shows that persons experiencing spiritual pain through illness can be guided to interpret traditional Jewish texts against the events of their own lives, followed by art-making, resulting in a freely chosen step towards healing and becoming part of the Jewish tradition. This methodology is equally at home in our text-based classrooms.

One text/creative writing strategy I created is the study of Psalm 88, which presents words of intense human grief, and is the only biblical psalm that offers no hope at the end. Students read this moving psalm along with post-Holocaust theological writings, survivor testimonies, artists’ eyewitness accounts of life in the camps, and 21st century artists’ interpretations of the Nazi years. They further examine what it means to be a Jew after the Shoah. Through student poetry and art-making, personal meaning is made of philosophical questions brought to light by material studied. Many students engage their own life stories as they create ways in which they can write or paint in hopes of healing their own wounds.


The Color Blue (excerpt)
Gilly Blais

When I was a little girl, I loved the color blue.
... in your skies ... in my little sister’s eyes;
in my favorite summer dress ...

when I got a little older ...
I found blue in my bruises – the ones he gave to me.

You let me drown in my blues …
turned your back on my bruises,
then turned your back on my blues ...
I was lost, and when I asked for direction,
the sound of your silence rang loudly in my ears ...

I took a left.
Then another ... and another,
until I ended up right back where I started, drowning in my blues ...
Where were you all those times he whispered,

“The blues ain’t nothing but a color, baby.”

Now, I hate the color blue.

A New Psalm 88 (excerpt)
Elizabeth Evdokimov

When I was two years old I truly believed in You
But where were You when I needed You?
Why did You let him go when I begged You not to?
I loved him with all my heart, So did my mother
I have only a few memories, and photos of perfect family
I still have hope that he is somewhere out there, That it was not his body...


Screaming: After Psalm 88 (excerpt)

Elizabeth Ballin

So I will scream, cry out when the sun goes down
Send my prayers to You with a thousand dollar stamp I can’t afford
I will run on a treadmill to your ear and whisper cries every step of the way
You broke me down God, You afflicted me
I called to you each day, You just didn’t meet me halfway.
Here I am God, Your daughter
I’m asking why You rejected me, afflicted me...

Helpless (excerpt of a performance piece based on Psalm 88)
Tali Freidman

Man: Hello? (Walks towards the shadowy figure whose face is hidden in the corner of the room)
(Shadowy Figure puts face down)
Man: Answer me! I know you are here. I can feel your presence... (Shadowy Figure turns around soundlessly)
Man: I am miserable [wipes tears from eyes, sniffling]. I keep coming to you. I keep praising you. I keep putting all my faith in you, but it’s like you aren’t even here!
(Shadowy Figure leaves room)
Man: Why does everyone believe in you and all of your “capabilities,” when all you’re capable of is making innocents suffer? ... Come here and listen to me. All I want is your understanding. I want your compassion—I beg of you to hear me ... fix me... for I am broken.
(Shadowy Figure peeks head in room with cloak covering face)
Man: Please, come here!...Take responsibility for what you have done to me—to everyone ... Why won’t you show your face to me?...You are destroying everything I stand for and you are isolating me from others and myself.
(Shadowy Figure turns off the lights in the room as Man sits alone, helpless and crying)


Another strategy I developed that works hand-in-hand with excerpts from Holocaust theologies is based on artist Ruth Liberman, a child of survivors. She painted German words she hated on large boxes, shot them at a firing range, and found healing in the act of destroying the words. As I introduce Liberman’s work to students, I ask them to consider a difficult or traumatic event in their lives, to identify words causing or contributing to their sadness, then to create their own Hated Words art. They describe their 
experience in an artist statement, relating how artmaking and destruction of hated words helped them towards spiritual healing. Finally, they intersect the experience and artwork to a post-Holocaust theologian previously studied.
In the artist statement below (excerpts), Mei Lin Kallman relates her artistic rendition of “dramatic” to painful experiences at her former school:


I hate drama and try to stay away from it. In my previous school, gossip was a big deal. Because I was so caught up in the idea of fitting in, I didn’t realize that I was basing popularity on rumors. Before I knew it, I became the subject of the rumors. I had to have closure with this word. Destroying [“dramatic”] gave me a sense of comfort and serenity, and through this art, I realize that it’s all in the past and the events can’t hurt me anymore.

I paint[ed] her tears over the word. It shows that after you cry it out, the word becomes obsolete and washed away and the events don’t really matter anymore. I can relate to [survivor] Alexander Donat’s piece “The Holocaust and Human Perplexity” about not fighting hard enough and not standing up for [one]self. He questions the reality, “How had it all come to pass?” and I could ask myself the same thing. Why didn’t I stand up for myself? Why didn’t I fight back? Donat goes on to say, “We were bitter to the point of self-flagellation, profoundly ashamed of ourselves, and of the misfortunes we had endured. And all those feelings intensified our sense of being abandoned alike by God and man.” I had become ashamed of myself because I started to believe the rumors. I believed that I was nothing and started to hate myself because of petty, untrue gossip. After destroying this word, I have come to terms with who I am. I will handle similar situations better, as this word made me stronger. Never again!


Art inquiry that questions theologies of God, self, lived experiences and the world can lead students to consider educational philosopher Maxine Greene’s examination of mind “as a mode of taking action, of attending [through which] an encounter with a work of art can open windows … outwards to alternative visions of the world … to break with the sense that reality is petrified.” This allows student creativity in the Holocaust Imagery class to move beyond a static place of anger, fear or sadness to a place of fluidity where questions may uncover painful memories, and where theological artmaking has the possibility to bring healing that includes students’ interior hopes for reintegration into spiritual wholeness.


When students integrate their own remembered stories with understandings of God, theological inquiry, and survivor testimonies, they are able to respond in theologically creative ways, despite occasionally declaring agnostic tendencies. The classroom becomes a sacred space for them to dispel fears and create new understandings of themselves in relation to God and the world. They feel safe enough to step out of their own conventions and conformities and create daring and boundary-crossing art and writing through a theological and artistic encounter with God in which their painful memories can find transformation and healing.

To Learn More

Bauman, Zygmunt. Life in Fragments: Essays in Post-Modern Morality.

Cohn-Sherbock, Dan, Ed. Holocaust Theology: A Reader.

Ettun, Rachel, Schultz, Michael and Bar-Sela, Gil. “Transforming Pain into Beauty: On Art, Healing, and Care for the Spirit.”

Fishbane, Michael. “Ethics and Sacred Attunement.”

Freidlander, Saul. “Trauma, Transference, and ‘Working Through’ in Writing the History of the Shoah.”

Greene, Maxine. “The Art of Being Present: Educating for Aesthetic Encounters.”

Liberman, Ruth. “Matters of Interpretation: One Artist’s Commentary.” In Absence/Presence: Critical Essays on the Artistic Memory of the Holocaust.

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HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016