Past Exhibit

Genocide Among the Flowers: Seymour Kaftan’s Ponary Paintings

This exhibit tells the story of Vilnius’ Jews starting with the Nazi invasion, and including the Ponary tragedy. It does so through the visual images recorded by Seymour Kaftan—born Szepsel Kaftanjski—in 26 oil paintings.

A Holocaust survivor—he was 15 years old when the Nazis invaded his hometown—Kaftan documented his personal ordeal, depicting the horrors of Nazi brutality, the loss of his entire family, and his own survival. Kaftan, like so many other survivors, did not share his horrible experiences even with his immediate family. Then, in the 1960s, without any prompting, he began to pour out his memories on canvas.

Basically self taught in the use of oil, acrylic, copper and sheet metals, Kaftan later studied fine art at the City University of New York. He signed his work using his Yiddish name “Szepsel.” Convinced that his English was poor, Kaftan, with the help of a friend whose English he judged to be better than his own, saw to it that short texts would accompany each of the paintings, helping to illuminate his artwork.

Kaftan’s unique graphic testimony is complemented by black-and-white images of the Ponary grounds as well as texts from the Ponary Diary by Kazimierz Sakowicz. Sakowicz was a Pole who lived together with his wife in a frame cottage in Ponary’s woods, next to the murder grounds, becoming an eyewitness to the atrocities. His diary, originally written in Polish, “is a unique document, without parallel in the chronicles of the Holocaust. It stands as a bystander’s view of the activities of the Nazi extermination machine” (Yitzhak Arad in the “Preface” to the Diary) in Ponary, leaving a key testimony against the Nazi cover up that attempted to hide the crimes committed there.