War was something artist Bert Menco’s parents never wanted to discuss. “I guess subconsciously they suffered from survivor’s guilt–I think that’s why they don’t talk about it very much,” he says. Both of his parents were Jews who lost most of their family after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Menco has spent much of his life trying to get his mind around that fact. “There’s confusion,” he says. “You try to understand that your whole family has been murdered, that you have no extended family–no aunts, uncles, cousins. It’s a very bizarre thought.”
But as Menco got older, he says, “I felt the need to begin expressing my feelings about the war. Our whole second generation deals with this to some degree. Many people started writing about it and lived a little vicariously through their [parents’] stories and their experiences.” After his maternal grandmother died in 1980, Menco inherited his grandfather’s journal and some postcards he had written shortly before his death. These artifacts taught him more about the man than his mother had.
Max Hakkert, Menco learned, liked to have fun and loved his city–Rotterdam in the 30s. He owned a musical instrument shop and promoted cabaret shows and jazz concerts. He painted, too–landscapes, mostly in watercolor. And he was a devoted family man. When the Nazis arrived in Rotterdam, Hakkert planned an escape to Switzerland. But he, his son, and his daughter’s fiance were caught in France, shipped to Poland, and killed. Two years later Menco’s mother would marry a man she met at a refugee camp in Switzerland. “I’m oddly a product of the war,” says Menco. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the war. I have a little bit of guilt about it. It’s stupid, but you can’t help it.”
Two of Menco’s three works on display at Woman Made Gallery were inspired by Hakkert’s journal and postcards. Rotterdam: May 14 1940 reproduces a page from the journal describing the bombing of the city. Above it is a large mezzotint of Rotterdam burning surrounded by more than a dozen small panels showing citizens in flight. The etching Arnhem: September 1944 was inspired by the ill-fated attempt of British and Polish paratroopers to capture bridges over the Rhine. The frame is filled with paratroopers and civilians, and there’s no distinction between sky and ground. Except for the British soldiers in the foreground, everyone seems to occupy an equal place in the nightmare.
Menco wants his images to be seen as a universal condemnation of war, “telling that in this world we can do things to each other that are reprehensible.” The war in Iraq is on his mind. “I have a severe depression going on right now,” he says. “Things that are beautiful are less beautiful now.”
“War Forum: Images and Words,” which features works by 32 artists and writers, runs through February 19 at Woman Made Gallery, 2418 W. Bloomingdale, 773-489-8900.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Stephen J. Serio.