They say that every artist has a muse and that certainly rings true for Thelma Rosner.
The London, Ont.- based visual artist said much of her work has been inspired by Elisabeth Raab Yanowski, a Holocaust survivor from Hungary who died in Toronto in 2016.
Raab Yanowski, the author of the award-winning Holocaust memoir And Peace Never Came, also wrote a cookbook during her internment in concentration camps.
Rosner explained that her show grew out of a cookbook written by Raab Yanowski following her deportation to Auschwitz from Hungary in the spring of 1944.
Rosner said her art exhibition features a large installation and prints based on recipes from Raab Yanowski’s cookbook, a tiny book three inches long by 2 1/2 inches wide.
“People will see the relationship between the original material and the art that came out of it.”
Rosner said this exhibition is a remount of a previous show. “The rise in anti-Semitism revived my whole encounter with the recipe book. It brought the installation piece to mind.”
Raab Yanowski was separated from her mother and young daughter at Auschwitz. She never saw them again. Later she was among a group of Hungarian Jewish women sent from Auschwitz to Lippstadt, a slave labour camp where they worked in a munitions factory.
Apparently she wrote down recipes on scraps of paper and material she could find and hid them in a book, which is now in the possession of her family. She is survived by her husband Henry Yanowski, their two sons and their families.
Raab Yanowski’s cookbook is mentioned in Diaspora, Memory and Identity: A Search for Home, a book edited by Vijay Agnew. She said the cookbook maintained her connection to her family throughout her enslavement by the Nazis. “It served as my only connection with freedom and normalcy.”
“Thinking about food and how the table was laid and family experience helped people get through the difficult time,” Rosner said.
Raab Yanowski did not tell her family about the book’s existence until someone told about another cookbook that been put together at Theresienstadt. “Elisabeth said she had done the same thing and that’s how I found out about the cookbook.
“She showed me the book and I was able to scan some of the pages.”
Rosner explained that Raab Yanowski is the grandmother of her great-nephew and so she got to know her. “There were a lot of family gatherings. Whenever Elisabeth made a meal it was perfect. It was presented very elegantly.”
Rosner said the internment took a grave emotional toll on Raab Yanowski. “Her will to live was compromised. She found herself among some Hungarian women she knew and they kept her going.”
She wandered for several years after the war. She and her second husband lived in Ecuador before immigrating to Canada. They had two sons and five grandchildren.
“Elisabeth’s experience with this recipe book led me to do a lot of projects connected to Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life,” Rosner said.
For instance she’s had an exhibition based on medieval Spanish Jewish history, a period when Jews flourished.
Rosner noted that during the Spanish Inquisition research showed that the way food was prepared often exposed those Jewish people who were trying to hide their true identity. “Certain dishes [that secretly followed Jewish dietary laws] gave them away.”
She has done work based on this research. “Scholars put together a recipe book of those recipes that were derived from the Inquisition.”
Rosner said that Raab Yanowski’s life continues to be a theme for her art work. “After the war there were 17 different places that she wandered through.”
She plans on doing a project “documenting Elisabeth’s travels and displacement.”
Thelma Rosner’s show runs at the Loop Gallery, 2173 Dundas St. W., Toronto from June 1 to June 23. www.loopgallery.ca