Artists Rob Calvert Was Witness to the Unspeakable

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Artist Rob Calvert, photographed in his East Hampton studio. Michael Heller photo

The day Rob Calvert returned to Sag Harbor from Poland, he went straight to his studio. He needed to make sense of the past 24 hours, and all that could help him was his art.

He couldn’t speak to his friends about what he had seen — the ominous train tracks stretching toward the stark buildings, and the countless horrors that once unfolded inside.

They didn’t want to hear it, anyway.

“When I got home, it’s not like I could tell people, ‘Oh, let me tell you what I did on my summer vacation.’ Everything had changed,” Calvert recalled. “I saw Budapest for the first time, I spent a week or so with a good friend of mine in Germany, but Auschwitz eclipsed everything.”

The artist poured his pain, anger, grief and solitude into “Witness,” a series of six sculptures that will be on view for the first time starting Sunday at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor, as part of Holocaust Remembrance Observance.

Rabbi Daniel Geffen has asked Calvert to speak during the opening reception and, last week, the prospect loomed large and heavy over the artist.

“It’s still a pretty raw experience for me. It’s difficult to talk about,” he said. “I don’t really regard it as my story, because it’s a decades-old story that’s been told and lived by Jews. I’m not Jewish. I realize in a short while, there will be no survivors. We’ll all be looking at this remotely — and it doesn’t relieve us of the pressing need to respond, as humans do, to such tragedy.

“I just happen to have this vehicle called art to do so,” he continued. “When I began making these things, I thought this was somewhat of an audacious thing to take on, because I had spent one day at a place that profoundly impacted me. It’s probably the single greatest event of my life.”

It was his brother-in-law’s wedding in Kraków that initially brought Calvert to Poland in 2016. But when he boarded that small bus on his final day abroad, he found himself without friends and family.

He was alone in a sea of strangers.

Together, they watched the 1986 documentary “The Liberation of Auschwitz,” a film he had seen years ago, one that allowed him to believe he had experienced the place before ever arriving.

It was a myth the concentration camp soon quashed.

“What was unclear at the time on the bus was Auschwitz wouldn’t allow itself to be seen as a place where remote events occurred to other people in another time,” Calvert said. “It just doesn’t allow that.”

“Benennen 42” by Rob Calvert.

Operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II and the Holocaust, the concentration camp is responsible for the death of at least 1.1 million prisoners, 90 percent of them Jewish. Those who were not killed in the gas chambers died from starvation, forced labor, disease, executions and medical experiments, stripped of their humanity.

Yet, from the outside, the camp appeared “unthreatening, the buildings simple, almost dignified, what one might expect from a once-Polish garrison,” Calvert said. “The initial, simple appeal of the place twisted perverse as we walked through the famous metal gate with the overhead serpentine message, ‘Arbeit macht frei,’ meaning ‘Work sets you free.’”

Soon, Calvert could not peer at the museum displays without noticing his reflection in the glass cases, artifacts and empty Zyklon cans piercing through him. He could only hear his hollow footsteps as someone else’s, nearly a lifetime away. He was an observer, he said, but also the observed.

“Even though the double-pylon, barbed-wire fence was not electrified, the towers unmanned and without fear of bodily harm, I was fearing nonetheless,” he said. “This wasn’t a visit. It was an encounter, one that deepened and worsened throughout the day. It would come home with me not merely as memory, but having misshapen my soul.”

In Sag Harbor, he went to work — hoping, somehow, he could move through the experience in a productive way. Using four salvaged type cases, he divided them into six, calling each “Benennen,” or in German, “to name,” with a number attached that corresponded to the year.

“When I made these things a few years ago, I didn’t know I was going to make six. I didn’t know I had the will, or the desire, to get through one of them,” he said. “The tone of the first piece set the stage for the others.”

Repeated symbolism prevails through the body of work, Calvert said, noting the pigmented beeswax, which speaks to the lives that were lost. The rainbow of six colors correspond to the color designations within the concentration camp — yellow for Jews, pink for homosexuals, black for gypsies, and on.

And the knob-and-tube wiring is a material embodiment of Auschwitz itself, he said.

“It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve tried to do,” he said of making the series. “There’s a certain historical weight that at times is overwhelming. The experience provides a certain non-linear understanding of the world. It’s a bit much to bear at times. I regard this as a huge privilege, and I realize that I’m not fully prepared for the event. And I’m not sure I ever will be …”

His voice cracked against the end of his thought.

“The language in human experience changes all the time,” he continued. “We need to respond with each generation, regardless of what the event is. It’s always present. For that reason, I feel that whatever I can add is what we’re supposed to do. What other job is there?”

“Witness,” a series by Rob Calvert, will open with a reception on Sunday, April 28, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Temple Adas Israel, located at 30 Atlantic Avenue in Sag Harbor, in conjunction with Holocaust Remembrance Observance. For more information, call (631) 725-0904 or visit rcalvert.net.

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