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Face to Face With History

Through Art Exhibit, Students Sense the Pain of the Holocaust

November 14, 2000|DUKE HELFAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To Andre Kinney, the Holocaust is a hazy term in a history book, like the Civil War or the Ice Age. The 11-year-old isn't sure when it happened, or how many people died. "About 3 million?" he asked.

On Monday, Andre and his classmates from Sutter Middle School in Canoga Park came face to face with that epoch in a way that no history book could convey.

They viewed images. Not the grainy, black-and-white photos of death camps the world has come to know. But art from those who survived.

Andre, along with 1,000 students from schools across Los Angeles, toured an exhibit at UCLA that used the power of the artist to explore the pain of the past.

The collection of works commemorated the 62nd anniversary of Kristallnacht--or Night of Broken Glass--in 1938, when Nazis went on a rampage, killing dozens of Jews while destroying scores of synagogues and thousands of Jewish shops throughout Germany and Austria.

"The reason they are drawing and painting is because they are suffering," Andre said as he viewed a picture of a newborn nestled on the shoulder of a skeleton. The work was produced by the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. "That is the only way they can cheer themselves up," Andre said.

Sponsored by the Jewish Federation's Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the exhibit featured 50 works of art by Holocaust survivors, their children and others.

The pieces were displayed in Royce Hall, where students also listened to a performance of composer Leonard Bernstein's Symphony No. 3, known as "Kaddish," a name drawn from the Hebrew prayer for the dead.

Among the most striking images in the exhibit were those created by 69-year-old Gabriella Karin, who, as a young girl, survived the Holocaust by living in a convent for three years and hiding with her family for nine months in an abandoned apartment building across the street from Gestapo headquarters in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia.

"It was nine months of complete silence," Karin told Andre and several of his classmates. "It was a similar story to Anne Frank, but a different outcome."

Andre and his classmates stood silently as Karin described her 12 scenes, made from clay and copper, that depicted moments from her childhood. One showed books being consumed by flames on Kristallnacht. Another featured a globe with a black swastika and the words "Silent World."

"Do you remember everything?" one student asked Karin.

"These things are deep inside," the woman replied. "It's too strong to forget."

Another student joined in. "Were your mother and father killed?" Karin replied: "They survived. They were hiding with me."

A third student asked: "Do you dream about it?"

Karin looked at the group, pausing for an instant. "I do have nightmares: people chasing me and things like that."

The students' teachers watched quietly from behind the small gathering, clearly pleased with the exchange. The conversation and the artwork, they predicted, would have a stronger impact than any historical account the students read in school.

"Art is a means of expression when words fall short," said Jina Virtue, an English teacher and coordinator of the gifted program at Sutter Middle School. "It's something everyone can relate to. You don't have to be well-versed in the details of the period."

The art collection included a huge painting divided in half, with a Nazi officer screaming orders on one side and a hunched concentration camp prisoner on the other. Over the prisoner's head was the word "Jude," the German word for Jew. Another painting showed anguished refugees at the Swiss border, with a red, white and black Nazi flag flying at the checkpoint.

To many of the students, the Holocaust is little more than a rote historical fact. Teachers from Sutter and several other schools said they hoped the experience would stir their students' curiosity.

"The Holocaust is like thousands of years away from their reality," said Frank Tremonti, a band teacher at Hale Middle School in Woodland Hills, which sent more than 100 students to the event. "Kids have heard about it in passing. A healing process can take place through the power of art."

That power was on display as Karin was finishing her talk with the students from Sutter. Two girls who were distressed by what they were hearing slowly walked up to Karin. They introduced themselves and complimented her art. Then they hugged her.

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