Local artist’s monumental work headed for Auschwitz Youth Centre, story captured in documentary

Beth Griffith-Niemann, Northern Kentucky Tribune, 2018

An internationally renowned artist living in Cincinnati is using her talents to make sure the world never forgets about the Holocaust. Anna Socha VanMatre has created a monumental work that will be exhibited at the International Youth Meeting Centre near the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland.

VanMatre’s art is already being hailed as a masterpiece. She created three panels that stretch more than 70 feet. The Polish-born artist combined nearly 100 digital photographs of flames along with clouds and smoke that she created using powdered graphite and pastels.

“It is a message that means more to me than any other art I have created,” VanMatre said. “I was trying to put the viewer into the terror, the atrocity, the evil which Auschwitz was.”

Because VanMatre was working with synthetic paper as her canvas, she spent months kneeling on the floor creating the work, titled, To Those Who Warn. . . It is dedicated to Jan Karski, a Polish hero who fought in the Resistance and was one of the first to tell the British government and President Roosevelt about Auschwitz and the other concentration camps. “I was privileged to know Mr. Karski during the last few years of his life,” VanMatre said.

The artist grew up in Krakow hearing about the Holocaust from her parents, friends, and neighbors. Her father fought in the Resistance and was badly wounded by the Germans. He survived and is credited with saving the lives of about 100 Jews. Her mother’s family with Jewish roots was imprisoned by the Russians in a Siberian camp that took the life of VanMatre’s grandfather. Along with knowing survivors of Auschwitz, her best friend’s father was subjected to medical experiments by the infamous Dr. Mengele.

“Every story I heard growing up was terribly tragic,” VanMatre said.

One of her panels creates what VanMatre imagines prisoners saw when they arrived at the camp by train at night. “It was dark, it was cold, it was terrifying,” the artist said as she relived the process that drove her to create the work. “They see the smoke and see the fire and they don’t know what’s going on – it’s total confusion and then, they gradually understand.”

In the midst of the chaos, VanMatre created a small patch of blue sky. “That would have been the prisoners’ only connection to the outside world,” she said.

Before packing up the project to take to Poland, VanMatre held a private showing for invited guests and their friends and family.

“It’s an extremely emotional kind of experience when looking at this piece of art,” said Yanky Perelmuter, an attorney in Cincinnati whose grandmother is an Auschwitz survivor. “I think that this is a perfect piece of art for the Auschwitz Youth Centre.”

“I just think it’s so moving that the flames represent all of the destruction that was part of the Holocaust,” said Sophia Kasprzycki, a 16-year-old high school student.

“I think art is the best way of communication, especially to the young generation,” VanMatre said. I hope they will ask themselves and people around them a lot of questions ‘What is it? What does it represent? What happened?’”

The exhibition opening event will be May 25 at the International Youth Meeting Centre in Oświęcim, about an hour outside Krakow, and just down the road from the concentration camp. The artist’s husband, renowned jazz saxophone player Rick VanMatre, will be leading a trio performing four original compositions, a mix of jazz and avant-garde classical. One work he created several years ago is called “Ashes,” inspired by Auschwitz. One of the works VanMatre just finished composing for the occasion and is dedicated to Jan Karski whom the composer knew. Another is based on his wife’s art, which frequently influences his music.

“I’m often inspired more by art in general and Anna’s work in particular than by music,” VanMatre said.

It’s not the first time the dynamic duo have collaborated on an event that features her original art and his music. They have wowed audiences with similar performances around the world, from Berlin to Jerusalem. VanMatre is Professor Emeritus at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and was recently inducted into the Cincinnati Jazz Hall of Fame. “The emotional impact of this event just goes way beyond anything we have done before.

The concert and art unveiling will be captured by a Northern Kentucky documentary filmmaker who has been following VanMatre’s progress on the work for five months.

Steve Oldfield, who directed the award-winning documentaries Covington at 200, and Lines of Sight, created a short video featuring VanMatre that will play at the exhibition alongside the artwork. Oldfield also will direct a documentary that will head to film festivals and television. Oldfield is being supported by Children, Inc., where he works in the Service Learning Program.

“Children, Inc. shares many of the same goals of the youth center at Auschwitz – to engage and inspire students and to help them to reflect on what they have experienced,” Oldfield said.

“It has been a true honor watching Anna create this powerful work,” he said. “She and Rick are two of the most brilliant and dedicated people I have met in my life.”

In addition to the documentary and other videos, Oldfield and his colleges at Children, Inc. will be presenting the story to classes from grade school to college, along with conferences around the region. They hope it will inspire service learning projects and other meaningful endeavors.

“I believe the students and teachers we work with will learn a lot from Anna and Rick’s work and our visit to Auschwitz,” Oldfield said. “For all the tragedy and sorrow of the Holocaust, the potential surrounding this project is truly exciting.