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Remarkable art exhibit by Shushana Caplan at CSL Public Library from a child Holocaust survivor

On the occasion of Jewish Heritage Month, our Côte Saint-Luc Public Library is presenting a most interesting exhibit by artist Shushana Caplan, who re-creates her childhood memories of being a refugee in Siberia. She uses reproductions of photos that her parents brought with them during the war from Brest, Belarus to Siberia to create her unique artworks.

Shushana’s father had been in the Polish army in 1939, but with the German occupation of Poland, he I knew that his family’s only chance of survival was to leave his hometown of Mezrycz. He and most of his siblings and his wife’s siblings took refuge at his brother’s home in Brest-Litovsk, a Polish city that fell under Russian rule as a result of the German-Soviet Non-aggression Pact of 1939. I met with Shushana last week for a personal tour of her paintings. The story is fascinating and given the scenes we see on television every day related to the war in Ukraine, very timely.

 

Shushana
Shushana Caplan at her exhibit.

 

“I am a survivor,” Shushana says. “For some reason that fact seems of utmost importance to me at this time of my life. Perhaps it’s because I never expected to survive in the first place and certainly my parents never held out much hope for my continued existence. When my mother was pregnant with me, they chose to leave their home, their parents and everything they loved and treasured to escape the Nazi onslaught that was consuming their country, Poland. We spent a month on cattle cars. Many did not survive.


“It was fear that drove them to leave their home, their parents and their comfortable life. Their greatest fear was that the Nazis would destroy everything in their way and as Jews, they feared for their lives. They had heard the stories of how Jews were being treated in Germany, their rights removed, indignities heaped on them and removal to concentration camps. Finally, the news of the violence and destruction of Kristallnacht struck terror in their hearts and convinced them that they had to leave, now.”

Here is my video chat with Shushana.


Shushana says her parents tried everything to convince their own family members into joining them in fleeing to Russia. All their siblings agreed to pack up their families and go. “My mother’s youngest brother, Velvel, his wife and three children, Pearl, Esther and Arelle came with them,” she explains. “My father’s two brothers also agreed to leave. Uncle David and Aunt Pearl had two young boys, Tevia and Gershon that they brought along as well.


“My grandparents refused to let my father’s youngest brother, Nute, join them. As a teenager he was still under the protection of his parents. ‘He’s too young to leave home, ‘they claimed, and that was that. Miraculously he did survive the war, but they didn’t.”

The story of her survival is a miracle.


“I was only one month old when we were deported to the Gulag, the slave labour camps of Siberia,” says Shushana. “Extreme conditions awaited us; freezing temperatures, backbreaking labour and the constant threat of starvation. With a tiny infant to care for, my parents struggled to feed themselves while keeping me alive. There was no medicine and very few doctors. Before the age of three, I had contracted diphtheria, whooping cough, pneumonia twice and even malaria. It’s no wonder they constantly feared that I would die. Many other children had.”


Shushana says that this pervasive sense of doom followed her for many years, even as an adult in the safety of her home in Canada. But survive she did. “As the survivor, I am here to tell the story of our enslavement and the terrible years we spent in Siberia during the war,” she declared. “We survived and made our way to safety. It is my legacy to describe the journey of my younger self, Raizelle, to the next generation, my children, and their children.”


From Siberia, the family ended up in the Ukraine, then Germany. Her father found a way to get into Canada while falsely claiming he was a tailor, a trade that was in need. Ironically, he did find work in that area here at a factory.


Shushana was nearly eight when they arrived in Montreal, settling in the Plateau area of town. And an artist she would become. She received her education in art at the Saidyie Bronfman Centre and Concordia University, where she earned degrees in Fine Arts as well as in Fine Arts Education. Mixed-Media painting is her preferred approach at present, using a base of abstract acrylics with collage. Her work is autobiographical in the sense that it is an ongoing narration of her inner thoughts. Personal memories and fantasies are explored aesthetically, but the actual process of painting is discovery. For her painting is more than simply creating pictures, it is an act of finding meaning.


Shushana resides in CSL and teaches abstract acrylic with collage at our Aquatic and Community Centre

The exhibition represents different stages of Shushana’s life. Her parents carried with them through their travels across war-torn Poland and Russia a package of family photos, some over a 100 years old. Shushana creates “dreamscapes” using many reproductions of these photos; the paintings evoke stories, which she hopes will become a legacy for her family. It is a specialization in art I have not really been exposed to. You must go to the CSL Public Library and see it for yourself. I received a VIP guided tour and a detailed explanation of each picture.

Une artiste et professeur d'art


Shushana Caplan est une artiste et professeur d'art qui a grandi à Montréal, au Canada. Elle est née à Brest, en Biélorussie, en 1940, juste au début de la Seconde Guerre mondiale. La famille a été envoyée en Sibérie pendant la majeure partie de la guerre. Shushana a émigré au Canada en 1948 avec ses parents et son frère Harry.


Elle a reçu sa formation en art au Centre Saydie Bronfman et à l'Université Concordia, où elle a obtenu des diplômes en beaux-arts ainsi qu'en éducation aux beaux-arts. La peinture en techniques mixtes est présentement son style préféré, utilisant une base d'acryliques abstraits avec collage.
Le travail de Shushana est autobiographique. Il s'agit d'une narration continue de ses pensées intérieures. Les souvenirs personnels et les fantasmes sont explorés esthétiquement, mais le processus réel de la peinture est la découverte. Pour elle, la peinture est plus qu'une simple création d'images, c'est un acte de recherche de sens.


Actuellement, Shushana explore ses premières expériences en tant qu'enfant réfugiée en Sibérie et l'héritage de ses parents et grands-parents en Pologne. Ses parents ont emporté avec eux tout au long de leurs voyages à travers la Pologne et la Russie déchirées par la guerre un paquet de photos de famille, certaines datant de plus de cent ans. Shushana crée des « paysages de rêve » en utilisant de nombreuses reproductions de ces photos ; les peintures évoquent des histoires dont elle espère deviendront un héritage pour sa famille

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