In new documentary, Canadian artist Hinda Avery takes on the Holocaust like you've never seen before
by Deborah Krieger
AGAINST A BACKDROP of a large half-finished canvas, Hinda Avery, a slight, elderly, Jewish woman looks through the pile of dinner-platter size speech bubbles on her lap. Picking one up, she reads the quip, delineated in typical comic-book style: “We have knives under our clothes. When their backs are turned, we’ll stab the fuckers.”
The seeming incongruity of a stereotypically sweet, witty old Jewish lady advocating violent resistance against Nazism is rather the point of Avery’s Resisterrrz painting series, as well as of the recent half-hour Canadian documentary made about her work, Hinda and her Sisterrrz (directed by Michael Kissinger). As one interviewee remarks in the film, “[Avery’s work] makes resistance feel more natural […] instead of feeling so victimized by the Holocaust, she’s given us all an opportunity to think of us as something else.”
And who wouldn’t want to be a part of Avery’s coterie of smiling, brightly-dressed army of (often elderly) Jewish ladies standing against Nazis and winning? If resistance can look natural, then surely it’s not a stretch to imagine yourself taking part, and then even less of a stretch from there to finding a way to become a “resister” yourself. It’s Inglorious Basterds with a good bit less gore and an even bigger smile — as if Quentin Tarantino were a Jewish retired gender studies professor from Canada and Basterds had been made up of yours and my Bubbes instead of Brad Pitt and Eli Roth.
Avery first conceived of the Resisterrrz, first titled the Rosen Sisterrz (Rosen is her mother’s family’s name), after visiting the Polish concentration camp where her family was murdered. She says, “It was time to look at that part of my life that I had set aside while working, to come to terms with my history.” After visiting other concentration camps in Poland and Germany, Avery was struck by the lack of any record or memorial to her family, and decided to honor them herself by painting the women — first her grandmother and aunt, and, in time, herself and her mother. These early paintings, which depict Avery and her female relatives as concentration camp prisoners, are much more melancholy than her later works. The four women look out balefully at the viewer, all pale faces and dark hair and striped uniforms (or naked bodies) and staggering vulnerability.
The film then refreshingly shows, rather than tells, the gradual transition Avery made in creating these paintings andeventually laying the groundwork for the exuberant Resisterrrz. Several images are shown on screen in succession, and in each new painting, an element has been shifted. The colors are less doused in gray and purple; the faces of Avery and her family grow a little more alive and their body language more confident and open. From there, Avery says, she moved the Rosen Resisterrrz out of the camps and into the forest to build an army proper, and developed the six female characters who comprise the Resisterrrz and appear in all subsequent paintings: Avery’s mother, late sister, aunt, two friends (Ayala Johnson and her mother Freda Knott), and herself.
In the film, talking-head style interviews with Johnson and Knott reveals their initial reactions to seeing themselves portrayed in this way. Johnson recalls a mixture of shock, horror, and excitement, while Knott conveys a sense of incredulousness married to nostalgic laughter. Avery’s Resisterrrz alternately pose as pinups with handguns, or in military-esque uniforms with machine guns, always with wide, winning smiles on their faces.
THE NEXT STEP for Avery was the addition of dialogue, giving the Rosen Resisterrrz the look of a comic book. The move cannily locates Avery within the time-honored tradition of Jewish comic artists using their art for political purposes — whether literally punching Hitler à la Jack Kirby’s Captain America in 1941, or Shuster and Siegel’s Superman serving as America’s “secret weapon” against the Nazis in 1943. Avery remarks, “I wanted the women to be quite crass,” which certainly bears out in the Resisterrrz. Various off-kilter speech and thought bubbles accompany the smiling, gun-toting ladies, like “Der Führer wants to make manure out of us. We’ll prove he’s already full of shit,” and, “Der Führer’s fuckers love to Heil him. We prefer to Hell him.”
A turning point for Avery came when she made the decision to actually include Hitler himself after initially avoiding depicting him. Once she began, there was no stopping her. As she says in the film, “I really enjoyed drawing and painting him, because then I felt empowered and I could do whatever I wanted to him.” But the responses from her local Jewish community to the Resisterrrz were far from uniformly positive, with many believing that the Holocaust shouldn’t be treated in such a humorous way. The rabbi of a local congregation, Harry Brechner, describes as “the elephant in our soul” the all-consuming seriousness and overwhelming influence of the Holocaust on Jewish life in general. It is this attitude that Avery’s art seeks to change.
Hinda and her Sisterrrz, which has been shown at the Toronto, Vancouver, and Boston Jewish Film Festivals, is ultimately a rather conventional documentary about an extraordinary and powerful artist and her oeuvre. Seeing these women take active resistance against some of the most destructive figures of our collective Jewish past is nothing more than inspiring, refreshing, and — to use the by-now banal word — empowering. Despite the well-trodden subject material of the Second World War and the Holocaust, Avery’s art provides a fresh look at how fascism can be resisted with the solidarity, camaraderie, and humor that help keep the flame alive from day to day.
Deborah Krieger is an arts writer and curatorial assistant based in Philadelphia. She has written for BUST, PopMatters, the Forward, the Awl, and the Mary Sue.