George Santayana and David Ben-Gurion shared a common concern – can humans remember?

Santayana’s now clichéd concern with “those who cannot remember the past … ” impelled Gurion to sign on for first Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) in 1953. His efforts to avoid being fodder for the last half of the quote, “condemned to repeat [history],” proved lamentably necessary.

Into the midst of the fray artists wade in, offering employment for either good or evil (let’s assign deliberate forgetting to “evil” – a spiritual form of Alzheimer’s). Some of their creations will be used for 2012 Yom HaShoah services on April 19 to remember things that we’d like to collectively forget – but shouldn’t.

Polish photographer and Auschwitz survivor Wilhelm Brasse is the best starting point. Forced by Nazis to chronicle prisoners (many of them children) before their awful fates at Auschwitz, he risked his life to keep the huge collection of photographs from destruction (including the one above).

Brasse is still alive but hasn’t been able to make himself take a photograph since 1945. At 94 he travels to Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum giving testimony and speaking to visitors there. His legacy of 40,000 condemned faces powerfully personalized a number of deaths that is otherwise simply inconceivable to a sane person.

Last December Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana won a spot in the 2011 Polish Pavilion of the Venice Biennial with her imaginative film project “And Europe will be Stunned.” Her film-trilogy observes the imaginary activities of a “Jewish Renaissance Movement” in Poland, ushering millions of Jews back to their former homes there.

Bartana used complex sets and architecture for the effort, such as a full-size Kibbutz built in the former Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, a Jewish-version Stade and other anomalies. She also prepared a 400-page book on the issues, “A Cookbook for Political Imagination,” on the occasion of her exhibition.

Beginning with a trip to Poland, Bartana was struck by the absence of Jewish culture and entire villages and neighborhoods wiped off the earth. She began imagining an entirely different scenario, a “happy ending” for Polish Jews, although she doesn’t seem to believe it herself.

From "And Europe will be Stunned," Yael Bartana

In an introduction to the first of the trilogy films “Mary Koszmary (Nightmare),” she claims, “This is a universal presentation of the impossibility of living together.”

Bartana deals with the loaded themes of nationalism, propaganda, Zionism, borders and “constructing a modernist idea of a new world.”

The Art Gallery of Ontario first showed her films in North America in a recently ended show there.

Far from offending most Poles, Bartana’s work was the first time a non-Polish artist represented Poland for the Biennial. The showing stirred some controversy with several officials, however, resulting in some absences and complaints. Critical reception was good but varied, with Jens Hoffmann of Frieze commenting on the “deeply troubling, provocative and ambiguous” film, which stuck with her “since first viewing.”

On the other side of the barbed-wire fence dwells WWII Holocaust denier David Dees. A Louisville, Ky., based graphic artist, his views meander all over the place from generic conservative to 9/11 and Aspartame.

By David Dees

Dees’ work is either luridly realistic or full of tunneling eyes and eerie glows with computer-game and movie-set references. His emotive work isn’t technically bad, but the crude propagandizing and hate shrivels any good effect. Dees graphically spells out (literally) all his opinions, in case we missed one. Chief among them are a searing distaste of Jews, Israel and a fictionalized Holocaust account.

The Anti-Defamation League honored Dees with his own (quite extensive) page where they post his blatantly anti-Semitic images, which question the Holocaust and suggest that Jews control the world – or trees or anti-matter or whatever.

Still Dees insists he is “Pro-Jewish, but extremely Anti-Zionist.” Dees labels himself a “freelance artist and illustrator” and claims to have over 20 years of experience as an artist – such as the artistic freedom he takes with the Holocaust.

On another front, anti-Israeli, anti-American artist Carlos Latuff is currently engaged with Occupy AIPAC. At the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, conference last month, Latuff contributed his stock Marxist cartoons, lambasting the group with a wave of vitriol in the guise of art.

This is no shock coming from the proud possessor of a second-place prize in the Iranian-financed “International Holocaust Cartoon” competition. Could it get any weirder than that?

Latuff ‘s work oozes with antipathy to Jews and attributes Nazi-like behavior and war crimes to Israel. His prolific output is commonplace on the web, spreading the hate around.

Occupy Wall Street has been the backdrop of several nasty attacks on yarmulke-wearing Jews, somehow attributing all the woes of capitalism to them personally. These sages also offer helpful advice for Russians, warning them “not to let the Jews take over Russia, too.” Perhaps there’ll be a diplomatic mission coming soon, but that’s not necessary when the U.N. is doing such a good job already.

But Latuff and Dees are small potatoes; entire nations reject the reality of Holocausts. Turkey can’t remember a thing about slaughtering approximately 1.5 million Armenian Christians there in 1915, not even the official edict from Minister Mehmed Talaat. Perhaps they don’t want Nazi Holocaust deniers to be left out. Armenians commemorate this tragedy on April 24 each year, the date in 1915 of a particularly egregious mass-arrest and execution of hundreds of Armenian community leaders.

Poster for "Ravished Armenia" from The Armenian Genocide Museum

Armenian survivors have an old film of their own based on “Ravished Armenia,” the memoirs of an eyewitness of Armenian Genocide.

Arshaluys, a young, Armenian girl gave a detailed account of her torture and enslavement in a Turkish harem during the genocide. She eventually escaped with help from American missionaries in Turkey. This Armenian Janna d’Ark (Joan of Arc), as she was called in America, resisted the conversion of her faith, somehow survived and ended up in New York in 1917.

The teen’s mission was to tell the world about atrocities in Turkey. From her highly successful book, Metro Goldwin Mayer studios created “Auction of Souls” in 1919, the first genocide documentary movie. Enlisting over 10,000 Armenian residents of Southern California, including 200 deported children, Hollywood and the political world heavily invested time and funds, checking accuracy and authenticity. Arshaluys was allowed to play the leading role in the story of her life.

Gruesome graphics in the movie brought a ban in some places; England screened it only after scenes of naked, crucified women were edited out. Director Oscar Apfel hoped that “Auction of Souls” would appeal to all humanity, but the solemnity surrounding the film stands in stark contrast to current flippant dismissals of the Armenian Holocaust by Turkish leaders.

Recently an uprising of indignation from Armenian protestors over Turkey’s century of genocide denial stirred the creation of songs, plays and other forms of art. A series of commemorative posters by Ruben Malayan and Var Amayakyan and others visually ask “when and why” from the Turks.

So far no one has answered.

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