Jerusalem: A Special On-line Exhibit by Bela Taraseiskey
I'm an artist. My first museums were the Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches of my hometown, Vilnius, Lithuania. In those structures, I experienced my first glimpse of beauty.
In Vilnius, I grew up among Jewish, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian, and Ukrainian girls, all of us having one thing in common, we lost our fathers in World War II. Though Vilnius was multicultural in ethnicity and religion, I grew up Jewish, and for me, my immediate world was what I've came to call “Little Jerusalem.” Nonetheless, it was all of Vilnius that contributed to my artist's palette—religious architecture, as well as the uniquenesses of the religions themselves, and the traditions of my neighbors.
After I married and gave birth to the first of my two daughters, my family fled to Israel, where we lived for ten years and where I came to experience and appreciate the natural and cultural wonder that is Jerusalem. This unique city provided me with a great amount of visual stimulation—very similar to what I knew in Vilnius. Jerusalem's pronounced landscapes, atmosphere, diversity, and spirituality have inspired artists for centuries. From ancient times, Jerusalem has been one of the world's spiritual capitals. It was in Jerusalem that I first realized that religion can unite millions of people, and elevate them to a higher level. It was here, even though there is the ever-present tension and too often expressed hatred of various communities, that I realized that temples and churches can touch the heavens and go beyond the mundane. My thirst for using Jerusalem as a foundation to understanding the horrors of war, and the mistreatment of man-to-man, grew exponentially and in turn, fed my curiosity and hunger for knowledge.
For my entire life I thought about the father I never knew, and a thirst for finding out about his last days grew. I continually dreamt of what could have happened to him during the war. In many ways, it was no comfort to have been told he perished during the last days of WW II. I had to find out for myself and to find answers to my many questions. Eventually in 2006, I decided to go on my own quest. I contacted military archives, the United States Embassy in Russia and the U.S., as well as non-governmental organizations, including the newspaper in Orenburg, Russia, where I believed his life ended. I brought others into my search. After much investigation, and help from others, I found his final resting place in an old military cemetery in Orenburg, Russia.
As I gathered information, I soon realized that I was not only on an historical journey, but I was participating in a spiritual experience that was taking hold of my life—it was truly transformative. Each new bit of information fortified my determination. I found myself running across the world carrying a torch to find and clarify my roots. This intense period brought me to higher level—closer to a new understanding—and to God. As an artist it became the most prolific period of time in my life.
The collection of paintings, “Windows to Jerusalem” illustrates how I’ve distilled a lifetime of hiding from the past and reaching toliberation—all of this through paint and canvas.
The Gaon of Vilna
Bela Taraseiskey, The Gaon of Vilna, ©2006, acrylic on canvas, 40 x 24 inches
Elijah Ben Solomon Zalman (1720-1797), was known as the Gaon of Vilna (the Genius). He embodied the glory of erudition of Lithuanian Jews. He wrote works in all spheres of Jewish science: from the commentaries of the Bible to Hebrew grammar, from Kabbalah to biblical geography. Gaon's greatest achievement was editing and commentating on the Babylonian Talmud. After the scholar's death, all editions of this Talmud were published with Gaon's notes. Gaon's analytical method of the Talmud was later taught by Gaon's pupil, Hayim from Volozhin (1749-1821) in a specially founded yeshiva, which was attended by students from Lithuania and abroad. Hayim from Volozhin turned the traditional religious school into a spiritual academy. The yeshiva in Volozhin was the first among the world famous Lithuanian yeshivas - Mir's, Telsh, Radun, Ponevezh and others. Some of them continue their work in the USA and Israel.
The Great Synagogue of Vilna (Painting by Bela Taraseiskey)
17th Century Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Bela Taraseiskey, 17th Century Synagogue, ©2007, acrylic on canvas, 12x16 inches
The highest activity a human being can attain is learning for understanding, because to understand is to be free.
The Portuguese Synagogue was built by Sephardic Jews during the time of Baruch Spinoza. Every night candles on the candelabra light up, thus giving the deepest spiritual feeling of the past.
Next Year in Jerusalem--Bashanah Habaah Birushalayim
Bela Taraseiskey, Next year in Jerusalem, ©2007, acrylic on canvas, 24x36 inches
BASHANAH HABAAH BIRUSHALAYIM is a saying used during the Jewish Holidays. It is traditionally spoken at the Passover Seder and at Yom Kippur. It represents a heartfelt wish for every Jewish person who cherishes their heritage and faith.
The Orthodox Jews
Bela Taraseiskey, Simha, ©1994, oil on canvas, 20 x 20 inches
The Orthodox Jews of Eastern Europe were completely opposed to the idea of returning to the Promised Land until the appearance of the Messiah. The religion taught them “at the end days” the Messiah would lead them all to Jerusalem. They would wait, they said. But there were other Orthodox Jews who couldn’t wait. Some 40.000 went to Palestine. Including two teenagers, David Ben-Gurion, who became Israel’s first prime minister and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, it’s second president.
Bela Taraseiskey, Ofra Haza, ©2007, acrylic on canvas, 11x8 inches
OFRA HAZA (11/19/57 – 2/23/00) was a popular Israeli singer, actress and international recording artist. Her creations were most often Inspired by love for her Yemenite-Jewish culture. The appeal of her musical art quickly spread to a wider Middle Eastern and international audience.
The Yemenite-Jewish community is believed to be the oldest in the world, often living under severe conditions.
Bela Taraseiskey, Kaballah, ©2008, acrylic on canvas, 36x24
The Kabbalah is the ancient mystic wisdom of Jewish faith. The Kabbalah is a map that shows the path to self- perfection--God’s blueprint for creation.
“Kabbalah” means “to receive — accept”. This knowledge is passed down as a tradition. It interprets a body of teachings about nature of God, the birth of the soul, the purpose of life on earth, and what happens afterwards. It is wisdom that came from many centuries ago. The unlocking technique gives the answers for improving your life, mind, body and soul. You are the receiver and the individual accepting the goodness of wisdom. You are part of nature, giving peace and bringing the tradition alive. Kabbalah is like "crystal stairs" that lead to heights for self-improvement and perfection.
The Queen of Sheba
Bela Taraseiskey, Queen of Sheba, ©2007, acrylic on canvas, 36x24 inches
The Queen of Sheba is mentioned in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic sacred texts. The Queen of Sheba and King Solomon are claimed to be progenitors of Ethiopian royalty. The imperial family of Ethiopian claims its origin directly from the off-spring of King Solomon and the Queen. King Solomon is said in this account to have seduced the Queen, and sired a son by her, who would eventually become the first Emperor of Ethiopia.
Bela Taraseiskey, Tallit, ©2006, acrylic on canvas, 11x8 inches
Tallit is a prayer shawl that is worn during the morning Jewish services in Judaism during the Torah service, and on Yom Kippur and other holidays. It has special twined and knotted fringes known as tzizitt attached to its four corners.
Gethsemane Church of all Nations
Bela Taraseiskey, Gethsemane Church of all Nations, exterior ©2007, collage and acrylic, 8x11 inches
A soft and peaceful glow often fills the beautiful Gethsemane Church of All Nations.
Baroque Church of St. Theresa
Bela Taraseiskey, Baroque Church of St. Theresa, ©2006, acrylic on canvas, 40x24 inches
Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, was called ‘Little Jerusalem’. This small Baltic country had been part of the Tsarist Russia, occupied by Germans, annexed to Poland and for 50 years ruled by the Soviets.
Today Lithuania is free and independent. I was born, raised, and studied in Vilnius. The churches were my first school of wisdom, art, architecture and religion. It was escape and peace for many children and adults after the WWII.
Church of Holy Spirit
Bela Taraseiskey, Church of Holy Spirit ©2006, acrylic on canvas, 40x24 inches
Eastern Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodox Christian Church, broke from the Roman Catholic Church. There were conflicts and disagreements that were partly political, partly racial, and partly religious. Finally, in approximately 1054 A.D., the conflict resulted in a break that has been mended. The Eastern Churches have no Pope.
The differences: The Roman Catholics have concentrated upon the salvation available through the death of Jesus, while Eastern Catholics have been far more interested in His divine human nature.
Roman Catholics have been occupied with winning salvation for the next life, but Eastern Orthodox Catholics have sought a spiritual rebirth in this life, more so than any other Christians.
Our Lady of Ostra Brama
Bela Taraseiskey, Our Lady of Ostra Brama, ©2009 acrylic on canvas, 28x24 inches
In its old part, near the Church of St. Teresa and Orthodox monastery of Holy Spirit, there is a relic, honored by both the Orthodox and the Catholics –the icon is in the church above the gates. They are called “Sharp Gates” or Ostra Brama (from Polish ostra – “sharp” and brama – “gates”). The name of the gates gave name to the icon, which has been placed above them long since. The gates are the remaining part of the ancient defense system.
Bela Taraseiskey is a storyteller and an artist. Here she tells the story of her mother and aunt and how they survived the Holocaust. Bela has named her story, Khurban. This is a Hebrew word that means “destruction.” Historically there have been three Khurban in Jewish history: the destruction of the First Temple, 286 BCE by the Babylonians, the destruction of the Second Temple, 70 AD, by the Romans, and the attempted genocide of the Jewish people in during World War II by the Third Reich. Bela has illustrated her story that follows:
My personal Khurban started during the first days of World War II in Lithuania. The exact date was June 22, 1941. Through my paintings you will learn of the unspeakable horrors that began as soon as the Soviet forces fled eastward and the people of my mother's village, Rasainiai, were left to fend for themselves.
I am told that crimes against the villagers began even before the Nazis arrived. However, when they did come, the killings became “well organized.” Nonetheless, several local units were asked to shoot their Jewish neighbors, and they complied.
Lithuania had been made into a Soviet Republic a year before war came to the country, in 1940. The propaganda waged against the Jews at the time was that they were all communists. Many “bourgeois” elements; owners of businesses and Jewish citizens and some Lithuanians Christians, were deported by the Soviets to Siberia. Constant confusion and hysteria drove people insane. Unarmed Jewish civilians, including all women and children, the old and sick, were consistently humiliated, imprisoned, tortured, murdered, and their property stolen. Around a quarter of a million Lithuanian Jews were shot and dumped, often still breathing, in large mass graves—almost an entire population of a race singled by the Nazis.
My mother, Rosa Lurie and Sara Furmanskey, her aunt, were among the very few survivors of Rasainiai. However, their entire families perished along with so many others. Rosa and Sara became witnesses to the orgy of barbarism in which Jews, just because they were Jews were bitten, and shot to death sadistically. In the middle of these atrocities, Rosa and Sara witnessed acts of heroism on the part of Lithuanians who risked their lives to protect them. They too lived in constant fear of death for their humane acts of protecting innocent Jews.
Khurban is the Holocaust journey I took as I visited my mother's homeland, to follow her footsteps of survival and to paint that journey. I found myself traveling the pain and death of others who lay beneath my feet in the pastoral beauty of Rasainiai's countryside. I felt the rich heritage and contribution by Lithuanian Jews to their culture and religious life which dated back to early the fourteenth century—long before Rasainiai became a killing field. Through my mother's stories I remembered that Lithuania had a robust Yiddish culture, was one of the seats of serious Talmudic scholarship and jurisprudence, was at the advent of the Mitnagdim, saw the birth of Hasidic practice, and supported flourishing secular Jewish movements and modern Yiddish literature.
The Story of Rosa Lurie and Sara Furmansky
Bela's art tells the story of Rosa Lurie, the artist's mother, and her cousin, Sara Furmansky, both of whom hid in a Lithuanian woman's potato storage hole under a field during part of the Holocaust. Born in the small town of Kedynia, Lithuania, Rosa and Sara were taken to the Rasain Ghetto in 1941. When their families were informed that the entire ghetto was to be deported to a concentration camp, Sara's mother told the two that their blonde hair and "non-Semitic" features gave them a chance for survival.
Sara and Rosa escaped to the forests, where they met a Lithuanian neighbor who agreed to hide them in her field. For nearly a year, the two cousins could only come out of the hole at night to get food from the woman. The hole was eventually evacuated in the winter when the freezing temperatures made it unbearable to stay.
Though Rosa and Sara survived and were able to return to thank the woman, their families did not. Rosa’s first husband was killed in the war. She later remarried and moved to Israel, passing away in 1973. Sara Furmansky Gurvich, mother and grandmother, still lives in Israel.
This artwork is a tribute to both the fortitude of the artist’s mother and cousin, and the heroic deeds of people like this Lithuanian angel who risked their own lives to save those persecuted.
The above story was presented in Reflections on the Holocaust: Works by Holocaust Survivors, Family Members and Friends, curated by Chana Benjamin, New Century Artists, Inc., 2001