Rosner’s show, Where Can I Go Now?, sheds light on the lasting impact of war, focusing on civilians displaced by violence and devastation. While the muse for the collection is an Auschwitz survivor from 1945, her works also connect with the plight of contemporary refugees. Yet she never expected to be adjusting that trajectory in response to real-time events.
Originally scheduled for April 2020, the pandemic saw Rosner’s exhibit pushed to March 2022, just days after Russia waged war on Ukraine.
“That my show opened exactly when the Russians invaded was really shocking, and it also made the subject more poignant,” she said. “It was such a shaky coincidence these two events – my tiny one, and this world-shattering one – were happening at the same time.”
As a result, she painted an additional piece — a white stork, the national bird of Ukraine — to include in the show.
Rosner, who studied art part-time at Western under Paterson Ewen, hopes the timing of the exhibition will “help people see the past through the present moment.”
The ‘past’ element of Rosner’s works are inspired by Elisabeth Raab, who was deported, along with her parents and daughter, from her home in Hungary to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. As the family’s lone survivor, Raab’s liberation in 1945 left her lost, without a home.
“In Elisabeth’s case, the feeling of displacement never ended,” Rosner said. “She wandered back and forth and returned to Hungary a couple of times, looking for some remnant of her old life. But she couldn’t start again there, partially because she lost her child and parents.”
Using images of shattered glass to signify a fractured Europe, Rosner maps Raab’s 17 intersecting journeys of displacement with a network of red chains.
Eventually Raab went to Ecuador and lived in Australia as well. “Her journey ended in Canada, and she was grateful for it, but the experiences she had never left her,” Rosner said. “This was and is true for millions of people. The statistics are just numbers, but the personal memory and experiences really affect a person.”
Recipe for survival
The exhibit also includes a tribute to Raab’s resilience. Archival digital prints display her quiet act of resistance against the Nazis: a homemade cookbook made from discarded scraps of paper.
Sharing pages with ledgers showing German wages, Raab’s recipes and those of her Hungarian barrack mates, kept treasured memories alive in the face of inhumane treatment.
“Talking about food at Auschwitz was common,” Rosner said. “They called it ‘cooking by mouth.’ You would think people who were starving wouldn’t bear talking about food, but it connected them to a time when they felt like human beings living a presumably conventional, happy family life. It was a comfort to them, not a torture.”
Connecting the past to present
Rosner, who consistently employs narrative in a body of work reflecting Jewish diaspora, collected stories from refugees and immigrants to Canada to tie her displacement theme to the present.
Part of her research included connecting with new Canadians through the London Cross Cultural Learner Centre. After her interviews, Rosner requested permission to photograph significant objects brought along on the journeys to Canada.
She shares them through text and drawings, arranged on the gallery floor to suggest tents in a refugee camp. Using light-dark reversals and doubling, ghostly images stand in vivid contrast to colourful depictions of national birds of the countries from which the refugees fled.
This contrasting effect is a strategy Rosner has favoured throughout her career.
“I use it when I want to move between the present and the past,” she said. “In the floor piece seen walking into the gallery is the memory of the ghost of the experience these people have had and left behind. When you move further into the piece, there’s a rejuvenation.”
Rosner speculates her interest in the personal narratives of immigrants and refugees to Canada may come from hearing stories told to her by her immigrant parents and family.
Though many families from Europe kept their experiences hidden from their children, they often feel the need to share them with the grandchildren. Such was the case with Raab, who chronicled her journeys in her award-winning memoir, And Peace Never Came.
And now Rosner, who knew Raab personally through a family connection, is pleased to share them with the Western and broader community.
“I feel very satisfied with this work,” Rosner said. “It always meant something to me personally, but I think the circumstances of the war in Ukraine augment the whole experience.”