A Dignified Background
Oil on Canvas 24x24
Original Image Taken: 1940
The first time I learned about my great-grandfather Godel Mangel was in middle school. We had to create a family tree and present an heirloom for a special class project. My family tree was sparse. It included all the names of my grandparents but only a couple of names from my great-grandparents’ generation and nothing else. My parents were children during the Holocaust and knew very little about our past.
I asked about Godel - one of the few names on the exotic great-grandparent line. My mother told me that he was taken by the Nazis but provided no other details. I then asked if we had any family heirlooms and the answer was ‘no’. Everything we had was acquired after the family immigrated to Canada in 1949 (at that time, our ‘stuff’ was around 30 years old – so nothing passed from generation to generation). For a history lover like me, I felt deflated.
When it was time to present our trees and heirlooms to the class, I worried that my teacher would think that I didn’t put in any effort into the assignment. I recall a boy in my class, Teddy, proudly wearing his great grandfather’s First Nations headdress. His family had been on the land for thousands of years. I was jealous of Teddy - he had a proud history that he could trace. How ironic. As Teddy spoke I saw how much the Holocaust had robbed my family - our names, our records and our possessions were obliterated.
Fast forward to today: thousands of documents are being uploaded, almost daily, on websites dedicated to preserving precious details about who existed when the Shoah started. I searched “Godel Mangel”. Imagine my surprise when a photo (from a Krakow Ghetto identity card) uploaded onto my monitor. My handsome great grandfather, looking humiliated, resigned, terrified, brave and dignified all in the same moment, was staring at me. He was 66 years old. My mom recognized him immediately even though she was 5 years old the last time she saw him alive. She finally shared what happened to Godel. His was one of our family’s “unspeakable stories”.
Grandfather Godel was taken to one of the camps and was a victim of the Shoah’s most sinister of crimes. I heard my mother’s words like sound-bites: ‘they used him for science experiments’ and ‘they injected him with gasoline’. It’s no wonder she didn’t share details about him when I was in middle school. I can barely put words to it now. I suddenly realized that he has no grave and that his story was so close to being relegated to the dustbins of history. I could almost feel his soul lingering in the heavens with no peace. I decided to provide Great-Grandfather Godel with a small monument to honor his life. As best I could, I created this painting out of a photo that was taken in an act of hatred. My studio took on a sacred quality - I was able to reach across time and space and recreate an image of my great grandfather’s face, but this time with love. Every brush stroke felt important. A powerful moment happened when the music on my iPhone looped to the Leonard Cohen song “You want it Darker”. Just as I felt I had captured Godel’s likeness I heard the haunting words of the chorus singing: ‘Hineini - Hineini’ (which means ‘here I am’). My eyes filled with tears.
The background pattern is from my dining room wallpaper - the room where Godel’s great-great grandchildren come together every week to celebrate Shabbat and continue living our Jewish heritage - the real heirloom that has been passed down from generation to generation.
May you find abundant peace from heaven dear Great Grandfather Godel.