The Mirror of Life, and detail below, 1946, oil on composition board. Alfred Koerner, 1919-1991, American born and died Austria. Whitney Museum of (North) American Art, New York
The artist, an Austrian Jew, escaped in 1938 when Adolf Hitler invaded Austria; and finally reached the United States.
In 1945, he was assigned by the American Army to sketch the Nuremberg trials. In Austria, he learned that his parents had died in the Holocaust.
Many of his paintings reflect the themes shown here. Even domestic intimacy cannot keep him from a passionate attachment to and curiousity about the activities of life.
Life in the past and present. Life.
It was summer.
We were at the Met in New York at an exhibition of the works of Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, 1908-2001, French, expatriate Polish).
I sat down. Next to me a woman – probably in her early 80s – wearing a matching blouse and skirt. Not a straightforward match of colours and patterns but exquisite.
I greeted her. We spoke about the paintings for a moment.
Balthus, I said, was both French and Polish, of course. The Poles have a very sophisticated tradition in the graphic arts, I said, and a history of survival as a people which is incredible.
A wave passed over her face. Slight but you could see it. Just an immense sadness.
Are you a Jew? I asked. Yes, she said. I was born in Poland.
I apologize, I said. I am sorry. Of course, I could not have known this before you told me. But still I apologize.
We talked a little more. Her entire family died in the Holocaust. Everyone. She herself was still alive when her camp was liberated.
She left for the United States. Married. Settled in Queens, New York. Now widowed. Often came to the Met to visit.
After a while I said, It is time for me to go back to Philadelphia.
May I kiss you goodbye? she asked.
Of course, I said. We kissed each other and I left.
There is a divide between us all, I thought. Just one divide which counts among all the ways Sapiens has of differentiating himself (herself) from other Sapiens. Those who have lived experiences from which, emerging, you are justified in thinking: life is something that should not have been. And those who have not.
That woman kissed me for knowing this. For knowing. Even if I cannot know anything about this.
We were just sitting there in the lush galleries of the Met on a glorious summer day.