EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

April 27, 2014

Survival through art

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, poet will talk about how art raises the spirit

By Will Broaddus
Staff writer

---- — Rhina Espaillat met many survivors of the Holocaust when she was growing up in New York and was often impressed by their strength of mind.

"I was always surprised to meet people who came through the Holocaust not only physically whole, but mentally whole," she said. "It's utterly amazing that they came through with their love of life intact."

Espaillat, an accomplished poet and Newburyport resident, will discuss the expression of that spirit in the work of poet and painter Yala Korwin at Aviv Centers for Living in Peabody on Monday.

Her talk will be followed by a short, Academy Award-winning documentary, "The Lady in Number 6," about a concert pianist who survived internment in a concentration camp and lived to 109.

The event is being held on Holocaust Remembrance Day and is part of a program in which Aviv is encouraging Holocaust survivors to provide any information about lost or missing family members.

They will forward those names to Yad Vashem, the international center for Holocaust remembrance in Jerusalem, which is trying to create a complete list of victims.

Korwin, a native of Poland who lives in New York, lost her parents and a sister to Nazi persecution.

"She was fortunate enough to be blonde and fair, so she could pass as Christian," Espaillat said. "Her husband was an engineer, and he passed as an ethnic Pole during the war, hidden among the Germans."

Korwin started writing at an early age in her native language but has written in English for most of her career. She also translates poetry from Polish to English.

She has published two books, "To Tell the Story" and "Crossroads," and two chapbooks, “If Bones and Dust Could Speak” and “Cave Poem.”

"I'm going to read poems that reflect the bitterness of those days when she lost family in Europe," she said. "They are strong and musical, and her inspiration goes right through the walls of language."

Espaillat will also bring several of Korwin's paintings to her talk, which display a marked contrast from her verse.

"Her painting is surprisingly upbeat and beautiful," she said. "With the colors of life, beautifully bright, full of fruit and flowers and bright clothing. It looks like it had been done by a person who never had a bad day in her life."

People have questioned Korwin about this positive tone in her painting and its contrast with her poetry. Her reply: "My job is to bring life back," Espaillat said.

Korwin also explores this difference between her two types of work in a poem, "In My House of Three Levels."

The poem is written in a complex form called a pantoum, Espaillat said, so its structure mimics the levels it describes.

"On one level she has the darkness of what she remembers of the Holocaust," Espaillat said. "On another she has these voices, the poetry in which she carries on the voices of the dead she lost. On another, the painting level, she has fruits and bright colors.

"She poured the griefs into the poetry, but she poured the love of life and the insistence on living into the painting."

Espaillat said Korwin is still writing in her 90s. While Korwin is not as strong as she once was, intellectually she is "as good as new," Espaillat said.

"The thing that draws me to her work is first of all the courage," Espaillat said. "Adorno said that after the Holocaust, it's impossible to write poetry, but Yala said that's not the case.

"It is necessary to write poetry, to see to it that those who want to destroy our culture don't win, that art wins. We survive through art."

Espaillat, who met Korwin at a workshop in 1986, said she is motivated by a similar impulse in her own work.

"I am the daughter of political exiles from the Dominican Republic," she said. "I sympathize. We don't give in to dictators and negative forces around us.

"You say, on the contrary, we are going to survive because we deserve to. That is something she does, and something we need to carry into the future."

If you go

What: “Conquering Unspeakable Evil: How Poetry, Music and the Visual Arts Raise the Human Spirit,” with Rhina Espaillat

When: Monday, April 28, 2:30 p.m.

Where: Aviv Centers for Living, Community Room, Woodbrige Building, 240 Lynnfield St., Peabody

How: Free. Visit www.avivliving.org or call 978-471-5100.