About twenty years ago, in September 2001, I was excited that my solo touring show, Unmarked Lives, was about to open at the New Jersey Center for Visual Arts in Summit, NJ.

I had spent decades researching my ancestors, who were Jewish-Lithuanian, Jewish-Ukrainian, Japanese and Scottish, all immigrants to Canada, and making tapestries, paperworks and textiles about their lives and journeys to create this exhibition. I had visited many of the places they came from and taken inspiration from them.

As part of the private view, I gave a talk about my work and research. The most memorable events had occurred in the village in Lithuania where my grandfather had been born. I heard first-hand accounts of the Nazi invasion. Local collaborators helped to round up members of the Jewish community of Seda and other villages, taking them to the nearby town of Mazeikiai (pronounced magique-ee). At the Jewish cemetery there, over a period of days in early August 1941, 2500 men, women and children were slaughtered. Among them were four of my relatives – my grandfather’s cousin and his family. I had found out only recently that any family members had been victims of the Holocaust.


The memorial at the Jewish cemetery in Mazeikiai, Lithuania


After the  talk, a woman approached me in tears. She told me that her relatives came from Mazeikiai and that she was sure that they had been involved in the murder. ‘My relatives killed your relatives.’ I didn’t know how to reply, except to say that it wasn’t her fault. But how can you have a conversation on that subject? The evening went well, but I couldn’t appreciate it fully.

The following day was spent strolling in New York City, especially in lower Manhattan, since I wanted to buy a camera, and there are numerous such shops there. In the evening, I went on to Newark airport, to get my plane to Scotland which was to leave at 10pm. It was delayed by about an hour, and on takeoff, I looked out to see the lights of New York.

Upon arrival in Edinburgh, I heard that early that morning, planes in the US had been hijacked and that two had flown into the World Trade Center. One of them had taken off from Newark airport about 10 hours after I had left it. And the previous day, I had been walking close to the WTC.

While my exhibition had been something to be proud of, my memories of it are mainly emotional ones. One person had poured her heart out to me about a tragedy affecting my family, and I had been near a huge tragedy affecting thousands of others. The opening of my exhibition paled in significance.

See also:

The Resurgence of Tapestry https://joannesoroka.co.uk/the-resurgence-of-tapestry/

‘Unmarked Lives – the Weaving of Meaning’ https://americantapestryalliance.org/tapestry-education/educational-articles-on-tapestry-weaving/inspiration-creativity/unmarked-lives-the-weaving-of-meaning-by-joanne-soroka/