“What Should I be Afraid of?” Celebrating the Life of Ceija Stojka

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A Holocaust survivor is honored in an art exhibit with the help of Pacific University

On May 23rd, the Austrian Cultural Forum (ACFNY) in New York City opened the exhibition
“What Should I be Afraid of?” celebrating the life of Ceija Stojka. It is co-curated by Pacific’s
Dr. Lorely French and two others, including Dr. Stephanie Buhmann, director of visual arts,
architecture, and design at ACFNY, and Carina Kurta, director of the Ceija Stojka International
Foundation. The exhibit is open daily from 10 AM to 6 PM and will run through September

The exhibition features Ceija Stojka, a Lovara Romani artist, writer, and activist, and her work.
Born in May of 1933, Stojka grew up during the rise of Nazi Germany and survived Auschwitz,
Ravensbrück, and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. She passed away ten years ago.
In the mid-1980s, Stojka released her seminal work and memoir titled “Wir leben im
Verborgenen: Aufzeichnungen einer Romni zwischen den Welten” or in English, “We Live in
Secrecy: Notes of a Romani Woman between Worlds.” The piece describes her experience of the
Porajmos, or Romani holocaust, and established her as a leading educator on the Romani

An eclectic artist, Stojka published her works through various mediums. Alongside her memoirs,
she released a collection of “memory pictures,” or paintings and drawings featuring snippets of
her life and experiences. Her artworks cover a broad spectrum of themes, ranging from
utopian-esque pre-war slices of life to detailing her appalling first-hand experiences at the hands
of the Nazi Regime. Regardless of her work’s extensive topics, a unified message always
emerges. As ACFNY writes, “Stojka’s oeuvre manifests itself as a most powerful warning
against hate and intolerance of all kinds and a plea for remembrance.”
While the event celebrates the life of Stojka and opened on her birthdate, it also commemorates
two other significant events: one, marking the thirtieth anniversary of the designation of Roma as
an official ethnic group, and two, highlighting the success of fifty years of Austria’s International
Culture Policy.

When asked to comment on her role in co-curating the exhibit, Dr. French was more than willing
to comment. “I am so proud and honored to have been a co-curator of the exhibit and to make the
important work of Ceija Stojka, a remarkable artist with an important story, reach a larger
audience. The exhibit is a culmination of so many thoughts, hopes, and dreams for me and
others, and I am sure that Ceija Stojka would have been so delighted and proud to see her
paintings exhibited once more in the United States in such a reputable venue as the ACFNY and
in such a renowned city as New York City.”

Plans for the ongoing exhibit began in January of this year. However, as French explained, the
roots of her interest in Stojka’s work can be traced back to 2003, during her time as a Fulbright
Distinguished Professor of German at the University of Klagenfurt in Austria. French contacted

Stojka twenty years ago in Vienna via phone call. French recalls, “She immediately answered the
phone and invited me to visit her. I took the 4-hour train ride from Klagenfurt to Vienna, where
she greeted me with a delicious home-cooked meal, many stories, and gracious hospitality. The
rest is history.”

Since then, French has devoted parts of her professional life to promoting Stojka’s art and life
story. In 2009, French co-curated an event showcasing one hundred paintings of Stojka’s, which
toured in Universities across the United States. During the same period, French traveled to
Vienna with three students to interview Stojka and document her artwork and living conditions.
The photographs from the trip have since become important historical documents. Much of
French’s work includes translating Stojka’s memoirs into English. Last summer, French worked
with a Pacific student to edit three manuscripts, and recently, French received a $25,000 grant to
transcribe thirty-three of Stojka’s journals into English.

The endless stream of translation and documentation of Stojka’s artwork speaks to the
multifaceted nature of her life. Nevertheless, French’s aims and hopes remain clear no matter
what form her current project takes. In the case of the current exhibition, French remarked, “I
hope that people receive these messages that demonstrate how hope can arise from despair and
how art and writing can assist in confronting the effects of trauma and violence.” Before
concluding the interview, French left with one final sentiment: no matter where Stojka’s story
takes her, “The story continues…” — Reed McFeely


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