Susan Weinberg earned a master's degree in finance, but she's really a master of history. Now an artist and genealogist, Susan makes canvases that tell truths we mustn't forget. Five years ago, her professional mission turned stunningly personal.
"I really think we were supposed to meet," Susan, 61, says of Dora Zaidenweber, 91, who sits beside Susan in the painter's sunny studio in northeast Minneapolis. "It really felt like beshert, the Yiddish word for fate."
"Mind-boggling," Dora agrees. "To think that, three generations later, we were standing there."
"There" was Radom, Poland — Dora's birthplace, a once thriving community of 100,000, one-fourth of whom were Jewish. In 1941, Dora and her family were forced into a ghetto in German-occupied Poland. By 1944, Dora was in Auschwitz. Liberated in 1945, she reunited with her husband, Jules, her father and brother. Her mother died just after the war.
In 1950, Dora and Jules settled in Minneapolis, where she obtained a master's degree in economics and raised two children. For decades, she has spoken publicly about the Holocaust. "We are called survivors," Dora says. "I prefer to call us witnesses. We had a need to tell, because the world needs to know."
Susan learned about Dora in 2010 while creating a website on Radom, the birthplace of Susan's grandfather, for a Jewish genealogy site. Susan went to meet Dora and stayed for five hours. Susan later discovered that Dora's grandmother and Susan's great-uncle lived at the same Radom address. Beshert, indeed.
Susan created paintings based on Dora's memories. "Beneath the Stairs" reveals a young Dora crouching in fear as Nazi boots pound the steps above her. "We Walk Together" recalls the three-day death march Dora took from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen. "The Exchange" recounts Dora's mother exchanging a diamond ring for her daughter in a camp infirmary.
Susan is in awe of Dora's memory for detail. "I can ask Dora, 'How were you sitting? What was the weather like?' " Dora nods. "I don't think you've ever needed to be corrected in retelling my stories."
In 2011, the two traveled to Radom, where Susan exhibited artwork on the former community and Dora shared prewar family photographs that her brother kept hidden in his shoes.
Today, Susan visits Dora often, helping her with household tasks. They speak together about the Holocaust and about daily life, too. "The people we know best are those who know our stories," Susan said. "Dora is my muse." □