Ten years ago, I was contacted by a current teacher at my elementary school in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In anticipations of the school's 80th anniversary, he had done extensive research about the fate of children who had attended the school during World War II and discovered that 166 students and former students had died during the Holocaust. (Additional research led to the discovery of an additional six victims, for a total of 172). In 1941, the Nazis had forced Jewish children to attend special schools and by 1943 they, and their families, had been sent to concentration camps in Germany and Poland.
Much of my work as an artist has been autobiographical and I have often revisited childhood memories for subject matter. As kids growing up during the war, our lives were filled with the daily adventure of trying to take a shortcut to school by sneaking through a barbed wire barricade. After school, we would collect Nazi helmets, broken rifles and spent cartridge belts we found in bombed structures.
The news about the young victims from my school demanded a response. In Memoriam consists of 172 wooden suitcases, one for each of the students and former students who died in concentration camps. Many of the suitcase panels are made from plywood scrounged from a dumpster at the furniture factory where our son worked when I made the suitcases in 2009. On each suitcase, I painted the name of one of the children and the place, age and date of their death. One additional component consists of a neon sculpture depicting a young, stooped boy carrying a suitcase (I have named him "Leo").
This sculptural installation was first shown in the Exit Gallery on the Montana State University campus in 2009, followed by exhibitions at the University of Montana in Missoula, Bozeman High School, Turman Larison Gallery in Helena and, most recently, the Yellowstone Art Museum in Billings. At each venue, I have invited volunteers to make the decision of how to install the suitcases.
In Memoriam has now found a permanent home at the new National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam and will be displayed there for the first time in October, 2016. Children who currently attend my elementary school 'De Wielewaal' have been invited to work with me on this first installation. Thereafter, the suitcases will be made available to groups and to museum visitors on special occasions.
Willem Volkersz, 2016
Bozeman, Montana, USA