World War II

Henk Pander’s memories of Nazi occupation

Dutch-born Henk Pander lived his early childhood in occupied Holland, an experience he has captured in his work

The painter Henk Pander was born in Haarlem, in The Netherlands, in 1937.

That meant he was three years old when the Nazi occupation of that city began in 1940 and eight, when it finally ended in 1945. The “Hunger Winter” of 1944-45 was especially bad. Food was scarce; the Nazi occupiers and their Dutch collaborators were desperate to find resources, human and otherwise, to keep the war going; it was an extremely cold winter.

That winter the Nazis came for his father, who managed to escape. But would he be able to escape the next time?

Henk Pander, "The Floor"

Henk Pander, “The Floor”
“On our street another large family was involved in the resistance. There were routine house searches. People hid between the joists under the floors. The wife pretended to be ill. I tried to make these works from a child’s point of view.”

That profound experience of occupation stayed with Pander as he grew up in Holland, training to be an artist, as his father was. A primary lesson: “The government can walk into your world without hesitation,” Pander says. When he arrived in Portland in 1965, after marrying an American and starting a family, he brought that sensitivity to the coercive power of government. And he saw that power exercised in Portland, in response to the anti-Vietnam War protests of the time. He drew, painted and caricatured that Portland, and continues the practice of capturing the world around him—animated by his classical Dutch art training—to this day. From a purely documentary viewpoint alone, that work is fascinating—among the most important contributions to our understanding of Portland, Oregon, and America that I know of—even before we start to interpret it.

What that little boy witnessed in Haarlem between 1940 and 1945 became another vector of exploration. After seeing an Anselm Kiefer mixed-media painting show in Paris in 1984, a mediation on World War II and the Holocaust, Pander filled several drawing books with his memories of the war.
And then between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, he started painting them. I would suggest that those memories haunt much of Pander’s work, but these paintings allow us to see, feel, and experience what life under Nazi occupation was like. At the same time, they operate on a metaphorical level, too, the level of nightmare. Art historian Roger Hull calls them “among Pander’s most moving and profound accomplishments,” in the catalog essay for the Pander retrospective at the Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem.

Pander isn’t given to euphemism. “I again live in a Fascist period,” he says of this time. He’s not talking about Obamacare, and he’s not being metaphorical.

During the recent election, I heard the words “Nazi” and “Fascist” used more frequently than I had since my childhood, when they were used mostly to describe actual Nazis and Fascists from the recently concluded war. Mostly, the words were used loosely, I thought. Trump supporters used them, and so did Clinton supporters, neither side making a particularly coherent argument in the process, partly because the definitions of those words are contested and complicated, far more than our political conversation can handle at this perilous point. What is the proper application? I’m not a political scientist, but perhaps experiences like the ones Pander painted.

It’s possible that these paintings seem a long way from your everyday life in Portland; for some, though, they may capture the essence of it, especially if they are at Standing Rock right now. At the very least, they serve as a warning: We do not want this in Portland, in Oregon, in America, not for ourselves and not for anyone else.

Pander contributed the captions for these paintings.

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Truths self-evident and the camps

The daughter of a man who built a WWII confinement camp talks with the writer of a play about a Japanese American hero of the fight against incarceration


Hold These Truths is a drama for our time. Set amid the turmoil of America’s entry into World War II, Jeanne Sakata’s one-actor show is about the struggles of the civil rights hero Gordon Hirabayashi, a young student at the University of Washington, to reconcile his passionate belief in the U.S. constitution with the infamous betrayal of Japanese Americans during the war hysteria after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sakata’s play – which comes, she says, at a time when racism and anti-immigrant hysteria are again on the rise in America – begin previews on Sunday and opens Friday, October 8, in the downstairs Ellyn Bye Studio at Portland Center Stage. It stars Ryun Yu, who also played the role a year ago at Seattle’s ACT Theatre and in its 2007 world premiere at East West Players in Los Angeles, both times directed by Jessica Kubzansky, who also directs in Portland. Hold These Truths debuts Center Stage’s Northwest Stories series, which will continue with three more shows this season: The Oregon Trail, by Bekah Brunstetter; Astoria: Part 1, Chris Coleman’s new adaptation of Peter Stark’s book; and Wild and Reckless, a new show from the musical group Blitzen Trapper.

Jeanne Sakata, whose first name is pronounced “Jeannie,” is also an accomplished actor who received accolades several years ago for her performances at Portland Center Stage in David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly and Chay Yew’s Red. She went on to star in a variety of plays all over the world, as well as film and TV shows. She has been called a “local treasure” by the L.A. Times.

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in ACT Theatre's 2015 Seattle production of "Hold These Truths." He repeats the role in Portland. Photo: Chris Bennion

Ryun Yu as Gordon Hirabayashi in ACT Theatre’s 2015 Seattle production of “Hold These Truths.” He repeats the role in Portland. Photo: Chris Bennion

Knowing that Jeanne was Japanese-American, I requested an interview. I had good reason.


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