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Saturday, April 20, 2002 Iyyar 8, 5762 Israel Time:  07:03  (GMT+3)
`Vienna came and sat in my living room'
Artifacts once owned by family members who died in the Holocaust are part of a new exhibit by second-generation survivors.
By David Rapp
Talia Tokatly in her studio with bruised porcelain artwork in the background.
(Photo: Photos by Lior Mizra)
Reproduction of "Boy and Rabbit," by Henry Raeburn: From Vienna to Ramat Gan.
(Photo:  )

On September 6, 1951, on the day that his second daughter was born, Eli Zeiler was asked to come down to the port to pick up a shipment sent to him from Ireland. And so that week, the Zeiler family of Ramat Chen brought home a tiny baby girl and a large wooden lift packed with the contents of the Zeiler's home in Vienna in 1939. The lift was placed on bricks in a far corner of the yard, and most of the contents disappeared into the house.

From this Noah's Ark, preserving the remnants of a world now extinct, came the furnishings of the home where the father had grown up: a large grand piano, the bedroom set of his parents, end tables, sofas and many objets d'art.

It was here, amid the little porcelain figurines, the oil paintings and the tablecloths and napkins embroidered by the grandmother she never knew, that the older daughter, Talia, grew up. The reproductions that once decorated the walls of her father's home in Vienna now hung in her room in Ramat Gan.

Today, Talia Tokatly, born in 1949, is participating in an art exhibit in Kiryat Tivon entitled "Lying Within the Skin: Images of Silence and Absence in the Art of Second-Generation Holocaust Survivors," curated by Anat Gatenio. "A few years ago, I began to think about how I was a second-generation Holocaust survivor, without being aware of it on a day-to-day basis," says Gatenio. "I was attracted to artists who dealt with the Holocaust in a roundabout, almost imperceptible way. So I assembled a group of them who are really using the Holocaust as a central motif, but subconsciously, without actually analyzing it."

The unifying factor between Gatenio and most of these artists is their age. "We are in our forties," she says. "We are looking ahead, at our children's future, but we are also looking back at our parents, and remembering a world that is gone."

For Tokatly, whose mother was born in Israel and whose father immigrated to Israel in 1939, concrete memories of the Holocaust are missing. Her father did not experience the horrors of the war, and she never knew the relatives who perished. In other ways, her confrontation with the world from which her father was torn at the age of 16 is chillingly real: At the age of two, the belongings of her grandmother and grandfather suddenly appeared in her house, some of them purchased, others made with their own hands. Tangible, physical reminders.

Talia's father was born in Vienna in 1923, an only son. His parents named him Hans. In 1938, a month after the Anchluss, the German annexation of Austria, his teacher walked into the classroom and informed the Jewish students that they could not come to school anymore. Hans' parents planned to emigrate to Ireland, where his father's brother was living, but Hans decided to settle in Palestine. "Somehow, my father managed to get a certificate," says Tokatly. "He joined the last Youth Aliyah group that left for Palestine at the beginning of 1939." The boat, which sailed from Venice, was called the S.S. Palastina.

Before leaving his parents' house, Hans Zeiler helped pack up a large container of household furnishings that was shipped to his uncle in Ireland. Everything was packed with care, and the German customs official approved the shipment, issuing a special bill of lading.

When the S.S. Palastina reached the shores of Palestine, Hans was taken to Kibbutz Degania, where he was given the name Eli, "out of a list of Hebrew names prepared for the new immigrants," he says. Joining the British army, Eli Zeiler fought in Italy and North Africa.

Zeiler's parents never made it to Ireland. They were arrested in their apartment in Vienna and deported to a concentration camp in Germany. To the best of the family's knowledge, they were murdered in Dachau in 1944. While serving with the British, Zeiler was given a special month-long furlough at the end of the war to search for his parents. He found no trace of them, and eventually returned to Palestine. After a few years, Zeiler and his wife left Kibbutz Degania for Ramat Chen.

World War II did not stop the ship that carried the Zeilers' household effects from Austria to Ireland. The lift reached the uncle's house, and Tokatly believes the contents were unpacked and used to furnish an apartment for her grandparents. When the war ended, the uncle repacked the belongings of his brother who had never reached Ireland, and shipped them to his nephew in Israel.

The objects that surrounded Talia Tokatly as she was growing up have been incorporated in her artwork for many years, quietly and without much fanfare. "I was a silent child," says Tokatly, "and my father was the silent type, too. In my childhood, I did more looking than talking. I lived with all these objects that spoke to me. In that respect, I differ from other second-generation Holocaust survivors. I didn't hear horror stories about my father losing his home, but I had the physical experience of that home. Eventually, he began to tell stories, full of warmth and love, about the house he grew up in."

Not all the objects packed up by the uncle reached Israel. The marble panels that surrounded the fireplace and the elaborately carved front door were in the lift, but the kitchen utensils and furnishings from the children's room never arrived. Hans Zeiler's childhood was stolen en route.

Tokatly's mother was very respectful of the shipment "from over there." While Tokatly says she does not share her awe, being surrounded by these effects has broken down the hierarchy with which household objects are normally approached. "For me, a kitchen towel can be just as valuable as a porcelain figurine because they come `from there,'" she explains. "I can hold in my hand a figurine that my father bought his mother as a gift for some holiday, or touch a souvenir my grandparents brought back after visiting a spa. In my house, a hunter's hat decorated with deer's hair might sit next to a set of dishes my mother purchased in Israel."

Tokatly's use of the objects scattered around her parents' house is indeed irreverent. She copies patterns from her grandmother's embroidery, and porcelain figurines are sometimes incorporated in her work as ready-mades. "These materials are interesting because they teach us something about culture. You learn about table manners, about the way people conducted themselves. It's like excavating your family's archaeology."

For Tokatly, these objects are important testimony, but also a heavy burden. She insists that she is not attached to them - or to her artwork. "I like the idea of my artwork eroding over time. Like a fresco, for instance, that fades. I use the towels from Vienna, and when one of them gets shabby, I shred it and mix it with my other materials so that it continues to exist in a new form."

But Tokatly's attachment to these physical objects appears more complex than that. "These objects chose us," she explains. "Vienna came and sat in my living room. My grandmother's beautiful embroidered tablecloths were brought to this house without any choice on our part. I admit that my relationship with these things is complicated. I have no problem breaking them or using them, but if they were stolen, I would be very upset. I have a little inventory of objects that I've been working with for years."

Tokatly recently created a deck of cards illustrated with the motifs central to her work. The whole deck is imprinted on one side with a copy of "Boy and Rabbit," a painting from 1786 by the famous Scottish painter Sir Henry Raeburn. Tokatly, who grew up with a reproduction of this work in her house, discovered only lately that the original hangs in the Royal Academy of Art in London.

On the cards are pictures of porcelain vases, some of them marked by dark, bloody-looking "bruises," and clothes made from paper, embroidered with various images, among them dogs - which she calls her "friends," because they were her only conversation partners as a child.

Another fascinating piece is her "porcelain rug," composed of squares of porcelain fired only once, before being painted with organic substances that have seeped into them. Bruises, bloodstains on clothing and stains on paper underwear are frequent motifs in Tokatly's work. One of her past works was a blanket made of lint collected from the drier and a porcelain pillow with an indentation made by the sleeper's head.

At the Kiryat Tivon exhibit, Tokatly is showing fragile porcelain ware, all imperfect in some way: broken, blemished. In one corner is a paper shirt with one shrunken sleeve. "Dust-filled Panties" illustrates her sense of discomfort with phoniness. "I can't stand fancy labels," she says. "Children's underwear that costs NIS 100. A coffee cup rimmed with gold that could just as well be filled with atrocious coffee."

Tokatly's work mocks outward symbols of quality. Some of her flawed works are stamped with a prestigious label.

Other paper garments on display incorporate patterns from her grandmother's embroidery, as in her "Paintix" series, where the outline looks like x-shaped embroidery stitches. "When you think about it today, my interests are not that far from my grandmother's. In her own way, she was also an artist," observes Tokatly.

The lift from Vienna emptied out over the years, becoming just an ordinary storage shed. But it was always there, in the far corner of the yard. "Dark and mysterious," recalls Talia Tokatly. She was always afraid to go inside it.

Exhibiting together with Tokatly at the Kiryat Tivon show are Izaak Golombek, Rivka Potchebutzki, Dorit Reinart, Sharon Yaari, Dvora Morag, Meir Natif, Gary Goldstein, Yeshayahu Gabbai and Gilad Ophir, as well as Shosh Kormosh, who died before the show opened.

While Anat Gatenio and the gallery manager, Esti Reshef, have wisely provided all the artists with their own autonomous space, there is clearly an unspoken dialogue going on between them. Like Tokatly, Rivka Potchebutzki's "Dress for the Month of May" explores issues of visual memory and a complex attitude toward materialism. On a dress that has been taken apart in such a way that it cannot cloth the body entirely, Potchebutzki has painted the flowers her mother used to talk about: the first flowers that bloomed in spring. In Poland.

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