MARCH 22, 2018 – NAHANT – In a perfect world Ute Gfrerer and Lisa Rosowsky might never have met. In that realm, Ute would not have had to learn that her father fought for the Nazis in World War II, and Lisa’s father would not have become an orphan in France.
More than 70 years after the last concentration camp was liberated, memories of the Holocaust are still in the forefront of survivors and their families, and soldiers who found themselves in the middle of war. Rosowsky, a professor at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, learned about her father’s ordeal as a child, and has created art exhibits that honor her father, and his parents – who were swept up by the Nazis in Paris and sent to Auschwitz, and never seen again.
Gfrerer, an Austrian native and acclaimed opera singer, has spent much of the last six years performing the songs of Jewish composers Kurt Weill and Norbert Glanzberg, who were deeply impacted by the Holocaust. On April 7, Rosowsky will display her art, and Gfrerer will sing the songs of Weill and Glanzberg during a special performance of “For Our Fathers,” at the Nahant Village Church in Nahant at 8 p.m. The program will conclude with a question and answer session.
“These songs are unknown and I feel like I’m the ambassador of the songs and lyrics. Each song has a story behind it, and each story has a fate of somebody who was affected by the war,” said Gfrerer, who lives in Nahant, and has performed on opera stages in Zurich, Hamburg, London, Tokyo, Amsterdam, and other major cities.
Gfrerer has carried a sense of despair about the Shoah since she was 13. That’s when she first saw a film about the Holocaust in her native Austria. She knew that her father, Hermann, had fought for the Nazis, and wanted to learn more about what happened to the Jews, and his role in the war.
“When I asked him about the Holocaust he went into denial. He said he didn’t know anything about it, and nobody knew about it,” she said. At 15, she visited a concentration camp with her school and was horrified about what she learned. “I remember coming home with a lot of material about it and throwing it in front of him to the ground. I said, take a look – that’s what happened, and how can you say you didn’t know about it? I was so disappointed he was not in the Resistance. For a while I was ashamed to carry his name even.”
The father and daughter eventually reconciled when she was 18. As she was preparing to leave to study in the US, he broke down and wept. He told her that if he could go back and change his life, he wouldn’t have fought for the Nazis.
Rosowsky grew up in Needham, aware that her father – Andre, a chemist and cancer researcher at Dana Farber Cancer Institute – had suffered as a child, and lost his parents during the Holocaust.
“I cannot recall a time when I didn’t know that something had happened to my father’s half of my family – I lacked grandparents on that side, after all – and my father was extremely reluctant to talk about his childhood or his parents,” she explained. “He always said he didn’t remember anything. My mother protected him from his trauma, I think, and in her own way discouraged us from ‘bothering’ him with our questions. I do have a vivid memory of learning about the Holocaust in Hebrew school (probably second grade): they showed us horrifying film footage of the liberation of the camps, with the skeletal prisoners in their striped pajamas. I think after that I began to put the story together, but there were big holes in my knowledge until I was practically an adult. I think I always sensed that there was something a little broken about my father, who threw himself into his work almost to the exclusion of everything else.”
Rosowsky went on to study at Harvard and Yale, and after she married, and had two daughters, she took a sabbatical from teaching and started working on new art projects. What followed was a nine-year period of Holocaust-related work for the Framingham artist. In 2014, she presented her “Blood Memory” exhibition at Brandeis, which featured a luminous quilt embossed with vintage photos, a hand-stitched Victorian mourning garment, and a barbed wire set of angel’s wings that spelled out in coil, “Tod Macht Frei” (Death will set you free).
Gfrerer and Rosowsky were introduced last year, and soon conceived their show. For the women, reconciliation is a common theme that hovers over the performance. During the show, which includes images of Rosowsky’s art, and Gfrerer’s song, the women discuss their relationships with their fathers.
“To me, one of the most significant aspects is how rare and special it is to see two artists from ‘opposite sides of the fence,’ who have spent so much time working on – and working out – the silence that pervaded their respective childhoods. It is healing to do the work separately, and healing for us to have done it together,” said Rosowsky.
“People tell us how moving it is to see how we have woven together the two sets of experiences, and the two media – voice and visual art. I hope that people who see the performance will appreciate how the arts can heal, can summon memories and make something good from them. Maybe it will encourage them to break their own legacy of silence and share their own family memories.”