'I Saw It'

An artist book is inspired by a BC professor's translation of a powerful poem by a Holocaust witness

Inspired by Boston College Professor Maxim D. Shrayer’s English translation of a powerful poem by a literary witness to the Holocaust, award-winning conceptual artist Harriet Bart proposed a collaboration to create an artist book—a medium of expression in illustration, materials, and design that makes the volume an object of art.

The letterpress limited edition, titled I Saw It, presents the poem of that title written by Ilya Selvinsky (1899-1968), the first Jewish-Russian poet to depict the Shoah (Holocaust) in the occupied Soviet territories. As a military journalist, Selvinsky witnessed the immediate aftermath of the massacre of thousands of Jews outside the Crimean city of Kerch, and composed and published his poetic reportage in early 1942.

I Saw It: Ilya Selvinsky and the Legacy of Bearing Witness to the Shoah also is the title of a ground-breaking 2013 book by award-winning bilingual author Shrayer, which introduces the work of Selvinsky based on archival and field research and previously unknown historical evidence.

Based on Shrayer’s book—and his translation of Selvinsky’s poem, which she called “haunting”—Bart approached Shrayer with the idea of creating the artist book, combining his text and her artwork and design.

Maxim D. Shrayer in a library

Maxim D. Shrayer (Lee Pellegrini)

 “For me this is not only about a kinship between poetry and painting, but also about friendship and collaboration between authors and visual artists,” said Shrayer, a professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies, whose love of poetry and culture was fostered by his father, novelist and poet David Shrayer-Petrov. “I was both thrilled and deeply moved when Harriet Bart, whose work I admire greatly, approached me with the idea.”

The poem “is simultaneously about the way language is not equipped to speak of such incomprehensible violence and about the poet’s sacred duty to bear witness,” he said. “As a frontline journalist and military officer, Selvinsky’s task was to report on the Nazi atrocities. What he saw defied any expectations: an anti-tank ditch filled with thousands of bodies of murdered Jews—mainly women, children, and the elderly—who had been annihilated by German and Austrian soldiers and officers and their local Crimean accomplices. Instead of a piece of journalism, Selvinsky wrote his peerless poem, which became the first nationally disseminated act of literary witnessing of the Nazi genocide of Jews.”

The project was of special interest to Bart: her maternal grandmother, to whom she includes a remembrance in the book, was from Ukraine. The artist worked with noted typographer and fine-press printer Philip Gallo, who had introduced her to Shrayer’s work on Selvinsky, to design the volume.

What Harriet Bart has produced in our book is not only great art but also an artistic embodiment of the very predicament of bearing witness to genocide. I’m grateful to her for her vision and her commitment to keeping alive the memory of the Shoah.
Maxim D. Shrayer

 “The artwork I create for any given book is meant to add another dimension to the work and enhance or amplify the selected text,” said Bart. “It is more demanding to work with a contemporary writer/translator, in this case Professor Shrayer, as it is important that he is pleased with the work.

“For the compositions that accompany the poem ‘I saw It,’ I chose to work directly with scissors and black paper,” said Bart, whose work has been exhibited throughout the United States and internationally, and is included in many museum, university, and private collections. “I hoped the immediacy of these stark sharply angled cut images would amplify the brutality of the event and, perhaps, in some way augment the poet’s words for the reader. My goal is for the artwork to feel true to the text.”

“Illustrating such a poem is a challenge on multiple levels,” said Shrayer. “What Harriet Bart has produced in our book is not only great art but also an artistic embodiment of the very predicament of bearing witness to genocide. I’m grateful to her for her vision and her commitment to keeping alive the memory of the Shoah.”

Shrayer knew Selvinsky’s daughter, Tatyana Selvinskaya, an artist and a poet who bequeathed to him a trove of her father’s photographs and materials. "I believe she would have been very pleased with this collaborative project and with Harriet Bart’s starkly beautiful work,” he said.

I Saw It will soon be on display at the University’s John J. Burns Library. Associate University Librarian for Scholarly Resources and Burns Librarian Christian Dupont facilitated the recent acquisition of the volume for its collection.

Preview the volume: harrietbart.com/i-saw-it.