TEN YEARS AGO Houston painter Alice Lok Cahana took a trip to the old country, a sentimental journey to her home town of Sarvar, Hungary.

Nobody seemed glad to see her, or asked after the family. Neighbors had taken over the old home place and the Cahana carpet factory. The synagogue she'd loved had been converted into a woodworking shop.

Sarvar's Jews, who had shared the town's life and labor for a thousand years, were all gone; and there was no monument to tell how they had been consumed in the Holocaust.

At length she came to understand that "Nobody in my village wondered what had become of us, nobody cared what had become of a whole town of children."

It was then that Cahana, a survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, stopped kidding herself and abandoned abstract art.

"When I came to America, I wanted to paint like this wonderful country, all bright colors, all happiness. I wanted everything smooth and seamless . . . But now I remembered what I had said to myself, standing by the fence in the camp, a girl 15 years old:

" 'If I survive, I will tell the story.' "

Cahana began to work furiously, creating a body of work that evokes both the fear and horror of the camps and the faith and hope that helped some few survive. From a palette of dismal black and deadly red, she somehow manages to fashion a heartening vision.

Fragments of photographs, newspaper headlines, pages from her mother's prayer book -- she and both of the artist's younger brothers died in the camps -- yellow stars, lines from poems written by doomed children, all serve as nodes from which Cahana builds her moral: "Forgive, but don't forget."

The paintings have been mounted by Los Angeles' Skirball Museum in a traveling exhibition dedicated to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued whole trainloads of Hungarian Jews -- Cahana's father among them -- from the Nazis and then was swallowed up in the post-Holocaust holocaust of Soviet vengeance and madness following the Great Patriotic War.

"When you think, what is a hero? Raoul Wallenberg is a hero," she said. "He was of a family, they were like the Rockefellers of Sweden, he didn't have to do this. Singlehanded, he saved one hundred thousand people, he made them the passports, he got them across the border. If he is still alive, in the Russian gulag, he is 73. Maybe now, with Gorbachev who has an open heart, they could let him go."

Such a thing would be a miracle of course, but Cahana has seen miracles.


Tuesday, March 22, through March 30 in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building, First and Independence SW. Open 7 to 7 weekdays, 7 to 1 Saturday, closed Sunday.