I am a typical North American, an immigrant with seniority. My ancestors were Scottish and Japanese as well as Ukrainian and Lithuanian born Jewish. As a textile artist, I have over the past five years or so been creating a solo touring show called UNMARKED LIVES celebrating these ordinary people. I have used trips to the places my ancestors came from, including Lithuania, to stimulate and inspire me.
I have carried on the family tradition of immigration and now live in Scotland. I have long been interested in genealogy and started on the Scottish quadrant first when I came here as a student thirty years ago. Many years later, when I got a computer and learned from a friend about JewishGen and LitvakSIG, I was able to carry on my research on my Lithuanian antecedents. The information gleaned has also helped me to form a picture of their lives and to create works of art about them. LitvakSIG has been most helpful in furthering my research.
The seeds of genealogical interest were sown in 1994 when my father realized that very year would be the hundredth anniversary of the arrival in Montreal of Pinchus Aizenman, his wife, Chaya Zisse Bergauz, and their six children, one of whom was my then two-year-old grandfather, Shepshe (John) Issenman. He and other members of the family decided to organize a family reunion to mark the occasion. He contacted the many cousins, wrote an article about Pinchus for the Montreal Gazette, and started to put together a family tree, or family forest, as my niece calls it. Over a hundred people attended the reunion, and I made a banner in the colors of the Lithuanian flag to decorate and commemorate the event. Older relatives talked vaguely about a farm and the shtetl of origin. Was it true that Pinchus’ father had gone to the Holy Land to die? What about Pinchus’ brother who was said to have emigrated to Ohio, married out and whose son had become a cardinal? My curiosity was definitely stimulated.
During the 1990s Lithuania was becoming more accessible. A tapestry-weaving friend visited Vilnius, and then invited some Lithuanian weavers back to Scotland. They gave me the address of the Jewish Museum in Vilnius. My father used the information to contact a researcher, Regina Kopilevich, and to commission some research, which gave us a starting point. Based on the initial research that was done, we could now confirm that Pinchus and Chaya Zisse had come from Seda in northwest Lithuania and that the family had had a farm. I then suggested to my parents that we go to Lithuania, and they readily agreed. We arranged for a visit in September 1996.
My partner, Mike, my parents and I were met at Vilnius Airport by Regina for the beginning of a whirlwind of traveling around the country and the accompanying emotions, both positive and negative. We went to Seda and met the headmistress of the high school and the priest, both anxious to help us. We saw the now unused wooden synagogue that my great-grandparents would have attended and the cemetery where members of the family would have been buried. Only eight gravestones remained, the rest having been stolen to build foundations for houses. We learned about the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and that they had reached Seda on the second day of the invasion by which time local collaborators had already started murdering young Jewish men. We also visited two other shtetls, Laizuva and Leckava, nearby to each other and to Seda, unsure which one was what our relatives called Latskeva in Yiddish. One was the birthplace of Chaya Zisse.
On a Baltic beach near Seda, I photographed an upturned boat whose hull was overpainted, scraped, and worn. The image looked abstract and became for me the symbol of my great-grandparents’ flight from Lithuania by boat to Canada, with its promise of a better life. Entitled "Scratching the Surface," it also referred to my attempts to understand them and the place and way of life they left behind.
|On a Baltic beach near Seda, I photographed an upturned boat whose hull was overpainted, scraped, and worn. The image looked abstract and became for me the symbol of my great-grandparents’ flight from Lithuania by boat to Canada, with its promise of a better life. Entitled "Scratching the Surface," it also referred to my attempts to understand them and the place and way of life they left behind.
This was the beginning of the large project I have named UNMARKED LIVES which was eventually to consist of around fifty works of art in tapestry, textiles, and paper. My idea was to celebrate all our ancestors, including the ones who are unknown and forgotten. I am telling my own history, but also that of everyone else, the story which is the unwritten sum of human history. The theme is that we are all related, that we are all brothers and sisters.
Because of the strong emotional response I had to Lithuania, I decided I needed to go back. I won a grant from the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation to do further research towards making more artistic works, and Mike and I returned to Lithuania in June 1998. We interviewed old people who had been eyewitnesses to the Nazi invasion. They were generous with their time and showed us around, including identifying the small building that had been the prayer house, but they also talked about the blood libel. We think we pinpointed, with their help, where the family farm had been. We found the place where Nazis and local collaborators had taken all the Jews from surrounding areas to be murdered on the banks of the Venta River at Mazeikiai (pronounced magique-ee). I have recently found out that some distant relatives were among those shot. "The Road to Mazeikiai" shows the column of people being marched along the road. A faint fragment of Hebrew lettering suggests the missing gravestones of those who had only an unmarked mass grave and the beginnings of the Sh’ma prayer that many would have had on their lips.
|I found out through other research that the area where the family farm had been situated was called the Zydu Dvaras (the Jewish Estate). It was the place where the Nazis and their local collaborators took members of the Jewish community to be shot."Zydu Dvaras, Seda II" shows the blue linen that my great-grandparents had grown, an abandoned tallis, and elements symbolizing the blood and the tears, when this became a place of murder.
|"The Marketplace, Seda," a paperwork, tells about the Jewish women and children of Seda who were held in the marketplace before being marched to Mazeikiai. They were confined in a narrow street. The surrounding buildings become tombstones, with the red and blue again representing blood and tears.
|"Chaya’s Dream (Nightmare)" is a more hopeful work. My great-grandmother had to persuade her reluctant husband to leave Lithuania. I imagine her looking up to the shingled roof of her little house and dreaming of the new life, the life that saved her descendants from a nightmare. The tapestry is in the form of shingles, with their colour interspersed with those of the boat which would take them to Canada. The deep blue stripes represent a disintegrating tallis, suggesting the nightmare she avoided. Chaya means life, and she chose life for me and for many others.
|My most recent piece, "Relative Strangers," brings together the four quadrants of my ancestry. This piece allows them to "meet" each other for the first time (although two did actually meet). The ghostly images are supplemented by faint representations of elements from their lives – pages from the family record, prayer shawls, and DNA sequences, also reflecting my connection to them.
The images of my Japanese great- grandmother, Take Kobayashi; my Ukrainian-Jewish great-grandfather, Reuben Gregorsky (later Frank); my Scottish great-great-grandmother, Annabella Mackay; and my Lithuanian-Jewish great-grandfather, Pinchus Aizenman (later Issenman) have been printed life-sized.
LitvakSIG has put me in touch with many relatives I did not know about and helped in my research in many ways. I found out that my great-great-grandfather did indeed go to Jerusalem to die in 1888 and is buried on the Mount of Olives. I also discovered an elderly relative, the niece of Chaya Zisse, through JewishGen. She was able to confirm that Latskeva, where she had been born, was Leckava, not Laizuva. My database of relatives, living and dead, now tops a thousand names and is still growing. I am on the track of the elusive cardinal in Ohio, but so far have no evidence. Is yichus conferred when there is a cardinal in the family?
My quest has been to discover as much as I can about my forebears and to celebrate their lives in my work. While I loved doing the genealogy I wanted to take it a step further. We are all indebted to our ancestors, but I wanted to tell the world about it.
UNMARKED LIVES Tour
|September 1 - October 1, 2000
|Multicultural Art Gallery, Pier 21, Halifax, NS
|November 2 - November 25, 2000
|Canadian Guild of Crafts Quebec, Montreal
|January 8 - February 9, 2001
|Cornwall Regional Art Gallery, Cornwall, Ontario
|September 9 – October 28, 2001
|New Jersey Center for Visual Arts, Summit, NJ
|February 7 - March 7, 2002
|Hart House, University of Toronto, Toronto
|April 19 – May 10, 2002
|Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, Inverness, Scotland
|May17 – June 8, 2002
|Swanson Gallery, Thurso, Scotland
|June 14 – July 4, 2002
|St Fergus Gallery, Wick, Scotland
|July 13 – Sept 14, 2002
|Aberdeen Art Gallery, Aberdeen, Scotland
|September 29 - October 2002
|An Lanntair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland
|Mitchell Library, Glasgow
|Museum of Edinburgh, Edinburgh
|Joanne Soroka (nee Issenman) was born in Montreal in 1949 and was brought up there. After graduating from McGill University, she decided to pursue her interest in textile art, and attended the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and the Edinburgh College of Art, gaining a diploma and a post-graduate diploma respectively. She has run her own tapestry weaving studio, Ivory Tapestries, since 1987. Her award-winning work has been shown in eleven solo and over seventy group shows in a dozen countries and is in many private and public collections. She teaches part-time at Edinburgh College of Art and continues to do genealogical research.