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The Selecting Hand, by Michael Hafftka

The Selecting Hand, by Michael Hafftka

Do we learn from history? Genocide and “The Selecting Hand” by Michael Hafftka

by Claudia Moscovici

Michael Hafftka is an internationally renowned artist, whose works are displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the National Gallery of Art, among other museums. Art critics have dubbed his powerful and moving painting, “The Selecting Hand,” “the Guernica of the Holocaust”. This comparison with Picasso’s masterpiece is flattering and apt. Both paintings represent the atrocities inflicted upon innocent individuals: in Picasso’s case, the bombing of Guernica in 1937 by German and Italian planes (at the incitement of Spanish Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War); in Hafftka’s case, the suffering and death of millions of innocent victims during the Holocaust. Both paintings express undisguised pain and emotion in a way that is disturbing to viewers. Both stand as compelling anti-war symbols and reminders of the atrocities of the past for future generations.

In this spirit, Hafftka’s “The Selecting Hand” was selected as a representative work of art for the International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  The date of January 27—the day that Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1945–was designated by the UN General Assembly as a day of commemoration of the Holocaust. On this day, “the UN urges every member state to honor the victims of the Nazi era and to develop educational programs to prevent future genocides” (www.ushmm.org).  This day of international significance also has a profound personal meaning for Michael Hafftka. “I painted it in 1986 in memory of my parents and my family who perished in the Holocaust,” Hafftka declares in his artist profile on The Huffington Post. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-hafftka/)

“The Selecting Hand” alludes to the selection process in Nazi concentration camps. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, this process was quick and, for the most part, arbitrary. As soon as they stepped out of the deportation trains—where, usually, they had been deprived for days of food, water and hygienic conditions—the weakened victims were led by guards into the selection line. The guards first separated men from women and children, ripping apart families whose only solace and strength was each other. Then, following a brief and superficial visual inspection, the Nazi physicians decided whether an individual was fit for work or should be sent to the gas chamber. Babies, children, pregnant women and young mothers with small children were doomed. They were immediately taken to the gas chambers. Disoriented and frightened, the victims often didn’t even know where they were headed, since the death chambers were disguised as public showers. We see this aspect of the selection process featured in Hafftka’s painting, which reveals a woman with her blonde hair half shorn and a young child, crawling to her right, trying hopelessly to cling to life.

Although not painted in a realist style, “The Selecting Hand” is nevertheless a historically realistic painting. It’s accurate right down to the imprint of a hand on the wall and the slots through which the toxic gas Zyklon B (crystalline hydrogen cyanide) was channeled through pellets down the airshafts of the gas chamber. The painting shows the horrific and brutal reality of the Holocaust as it was. We see intertwined human beings fighting for life. Their bodies and individuated features are blurred by the toxic gas as it engulfs them. Darkness surrounds both the dead and the dying.

Since part of the significance of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which Hafftka’s “The Selecting Hand” in turn commemorates, is to educate the public about the Holocaust and prevent future genocides, the question arises if we—“we” understood as humanity in general–ever learn from the history of the Holocaust enough not to repeat such disasters. Certainly, if you look at the number of genocides that followed the Holocaust—in Zanzibar, Guatemala, Pakistan, North Korea, Laos, Congo, Cambodia, Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, Congo and Somalia among other places—it would seem that humanity hasn’t learned much from the past. Yet, hopefully, the future isn’t entirely bleak.

Our hope of dignity and survival consists in spreading truthful information about atrocities around the world and in combating indifference to human suffering in the places that aren’t immediately affected by them. Totalitarian regimes, ethnic or religious antagonism, and sociopathic rulers will no doubt continue to exist for as long as human beings live on this planet. Such dangerous and dark forces of history will continue to foster hatred and destruction around them.

Many have said after WWII that they didn’t know of the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis.  Some have claimed they knew about “pogroms”, but not about mass genocide in concentration camps. Today, in an Internet age where information travels almost instantaneously to all corners of the world, claiming ignorance can’t offer the same shield from knowledge of the truth. We have fewer excuses—or reasons—to remain indifferent to atrocities perpetrated against the innocent. For, as Elie Wiesel reminds us in Night, “The Opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” Michael Hafftka’s painting, “The Selecting Hand,” represents an homage to the victims of the past and a reminder to us today that we cannot afford to be indifferent to genocide ever again: no matter where it takes place and no matter who are its victims.

Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com