The picture on the book’s cover: “If I forget thee…”

By Josef Kuzkovsky

Born 1902 in Mogilev, Belarus.

Died 1970 in Ramat Gan, Israel.

The picture on the book cover is no coincidence, it is deeply connected to all that I have written here. The noted Jewish artist, Josef Kuzkovsky, lived before the war in Kiev, Ukraine, during the war in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and at the war’s end he settled in Riga, where we lived as neighbors and he was a close and dear friend to me.

The Holocaust, the terrible extermination of our people, opened his eyes and proved to him, that his prior belief in the Soviet idea of “socialism”, “freedom”, “the equality of peoples”, was an illusion devoid of content. The change that occurred in his worldview changed in an extreme manner his artistic themes. Instead of paintings dedicated to Lenin and the October Revolution, he began during his time living in Riga to paint pictures from the life of our Jewish people and its fate.

His greatest painting, which hangs today in one of the halls of the Knesset in Jerusalem, the artist painted during this same period. This is a monumental oil painting depicting the final path of our brothers and sisters in the territories occupied by the Germans in Eastern Europe. The painting does not represent any particular event or location. This is how things transpired in the years 1939-1943 in Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic countries, Belarus, and western Russia. Later, the extermination of Jews became more “sophisticated”. No longer were they brought on foot to the pits of death. Then they began to bring them by train directly to the extermination camps and the gas chambers.

I was frequently a guest in the Kuzkovsky home and I told him of my memories and the events and that I recount in this book. He experienced them in a hard way and with an aching heart pressed on immediately with his work and immortalized on the canvas all that he had heard. In this way my memories, too, contributed their part to this unique work.

The first title of this painting was “If I forget thee…” after the ancient Jewish oath, an expression of our people’s eternal devotion to Jerusalem. In Josef’s opinion, the significance of this period of extermination in our people’s history is no less than that of the people of Israel’s expulsion from Jerusalem and for this reason he gave his painting this name. However, all this took place during the time of Stalin, when all that concerned religion in general, and the Jewish religion in particular, was treated like an unclean thing and strictly forbidden and Josef had to change the title to “Babiy Yar”, a name more easily understood and acceptable to the Soviet authorities.

Later, when he was already in Israel, where he had arrived in the summer of 1969 after a bitter struggle with the authorities, his painting received a new name: “On the final road”. But in my mind the old title “If I forget thee…” remained and there is with this title in my study a smaller reproduction of the larger picture, in whose shadow I have written down my memories. The purpose of my writing is identical to that of the painting – to never forget the Holocaust – may “If I forget thee…” be the motto of my book.

Josef Kuzkovsky z”l

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