By David Herrstrom, PhDPresident, Jacob Landau Institute
The collection of lithographs in the Holocaust Suite begs its viewers to consider the question of what it means to be human. The artist, Jacob Landau, does not allow the viewer to be just a spectator of the images, but he forces the viewer to enter the images and question what they think they know about being human. The Holocaust is an incubus that sits on the shoulders of humanity; it cannot be exorcised, which forces people to think about the events and oppression that occurred. The Holocaust Suite makes it clear that cruelty is just as much a part of being human as is compassion, but the point of The Suite is that the viewer can choose to be either. Throughout the seven lithographs, Jacob Landau weaves two accounts together: the public one that alludes to the unfolding of the actual historical events, and the private story about the viewer’s experience.
The Suite begins with the Geography of Hell, which starts to tell the historical story of the Holocaust and the beginning of the persecution that took place. The lithograph portrays people attempting to escape the oppression occurring in the workplace and in the streets. The viewer notices the individual human bodies displaying the distress of the persecution. With the horizon line, viewers are able to distance themselves from the scene and the horror of this beginning.
Moving into the second print, The Holocaust shows the actual killing with an ambiguous image of bodies in what appear to be coffins, buried. The captivating gestures of the bodies signal the viewer and bring the viewer in closer, and the horizon line has disappeared. The viewer can no longer push the reality of these prints into the distance; these gestures ask the viewer to respond.
The Suite then transitions to Man’s End, the stage where it becomes apparent that there will be a decision needed on whether to carry through with the "final solution" or not. The viewer is put on the edge of deciding, as the intent has not yet become the action. Personally, the question of deciding arises as the viewer stares into the monstrous fires—whether metaphoric fires of murderous intent or literal fires of the crematorium—and the bodies that are either escaping those fires or falling victim to them. Historically, it is known that intent does become action, and the viewer is reminded of this decision as the Suite progresses into the fourth litho, Songs in the Night.
Here, the viewer is at the center of the Suite, in the depths of blackness at the nadir. Historically, this is the worst of the Holocaust, where the cremation is actually taking place. The viewer notices bodies being put into and taken out of the furnace, and because of this the viewer is plunged into the depths of the night. But, at the same time, it is a song of the night, and on the personal level the viewer is arrested by the gesture of the arm, as if it is a song in movement. The gesture leads the viewer out of this darkness and into the questioning that occurs on the personal level in the next print, The Question. The viewer begins to wonder, “What does it mean to be human?” The killer—man acting as machine—ironically casts a shadow shaped like a cross. However, the victim—placed where the shadow falls—technically should be in the darkness of the shadow but somehow manages to escape it. Here, in this powerful display, Landau restores individuality to the victims by showing them compassion, of which they were robbed by the cruelty faced earlier.
Then, after the questioning comes the promise of The Road Back. Historically, many cling to the promise of “never again, never again.” But what actually happened and what this litho portrays is the failure of the promise, and the satire found in the failure of the most-trusted institutions of state and church to help keep the promise. Personally, the viewer is shocked by the ironically beautiful curve of the body of the oppressor, the one who is killing. And then, as the viewers look further, they realize the road back and the promise consist of dead bodies.
After the promise is shattered comes the despairing in The Mark of Cain. In this last print of the series, the hope for transcendence and the promise is crushed. The viewer knows that historically genocide has not stopped, and this litho symbolizes the repetition of the tragic occurrence. It engulfs the viewer, as the killer looks at the viewer as if asking, “Are you going to join me?” The viewer must once again decide, "Do I give myself into oppression or to compassion? Am I human, or not?" This advocacy of the human is the essence of The Suite.