In Memory of Alice Lok Cahana

Mon, 12/11/2017 - 12:00am

We at USC Shoah Foundation are saddened to hear of the passing of our beloved friend, Holocaust survivor and renowned artist Alice Lok Cahana, who passed away on November 28 at age 88. Through her internationally acclaimed artwork, writings, and public speaking, Alice put forth a message to the world that both memorialized those who perished during the Holocaust and celebrated the strength of the human spirit.

Alice Cahana was one of five Hungarian Jews whose lives were chronicled in “The Last Days,” a documentary by Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation – which later became USC Shoah Foundation – about the Nazis’ mass murder of Hungarian Jews in the waning days of World War II. The film won the Academy Award® for best feature documentary in 1998 and was executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, produced by June Beallor and Ken Lipper and directed by James Moll.

Born in 1929 in Sarvar, Hungary, Alice was a teenager when Germany occupied her town and Hungary entered the war.  Alice survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau, Guben and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps.

In “The Last Days,” Cahana described the heartbreak of first escaping a death march and later being discovered by an SS guard who walked them back into Nazi custody.

“We knew that with every step, we are closer and closer to death,” she said. “And I remember that feeling, saying goodbye to the trees – everything you pass, I will not see you again.”

Alice and her sister, Edith, were liberated from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. Edith had fallen ill, and they were separated two days later. Alice never saw her beloved sister again.

After the war, Alice moved to Israel, where she married Rabbi Moshe Cahana. They had three children – Ronnie, Michael and Rina – and eventually resettled in Houston.

“In addition to Alice’s story of survival and inspiring artwork, those of us who spent time with Alice and Moshe were touched by the respect and tenderness they demonstrated for one another,” said USC Shoah Foundation Co-Founding Director June Beallor. “Theirs was a true love story.”

Rabbi Moshe Cahana passed away in 2004.

Cahana’s artwork has been displayed at high-profile venues around the world, from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., to the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, to the Vatican Museum in Rome, and in her own community  at the Holocaust Museum Houston.

Using impressionistic applications, she combined painting with actual photos, newspaper clippings and other artifacts to evoke “both the fear and horror of the camps and the faith and hope that helped some few survive,” wrote a critic for The Washington Post in 1988.

She dedicated one painting to Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews using fake passports, Alice’s father among them.

Cahana’s writing about her experiences at Auschwitz was featured in “The Best Spiritual Writing 2011.” As in her art, many of her stories focused on the people whose kindness offered a flicker of light in the darkness, such as a vignette about a foreman who risked his life to slip her a piece of bread.

Through her voice and artistic expression, Alice’s contributions to Holocaust education and memory have opened the minds and touched the hearts of people worldwide. She will be greatly missed.

And for those of us who have had the privilege and delight of knowing Alice Lok Cahana personally, we are grateful for how she touched our hearts and lives through her thoughtfulness, eloquence, optimism, faith, sparkling eyes, humor, loving-kindness and friendship – and for exemplifying for us all the meaning of a genuine woman of valor. 

Robin Migdol