Artist Explores Holocaust Horrors Faced by Children Exhibit in Maitland centers on boys and girls who died at the hands of the Nazis

By Michael W. Freeman
The Reporter Editor
January 18, 2009

MAITLAND | Sometimes works of art are created around images of spectacular natural beauty. Other times, art goes in the opposite direction and depicts terrible misery and suffering.

Holocaust Memorial & Resources Center of Maitland

That was what Miriam Brysk decided to do with her exhibit “Children Of The Holocaust,” which is now being displayed at the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center Of Florida. The exhibit opened Jan. 2 and runs through March 27.

In 2007, Brysk published her memoir, “Amidst The Shadows of Trees,” that recounted her terrifying childhood spent in the Lida ghetto in Belarus during the Nazi Holocaust. Brysk was born in Warsaw, Poland, in March 1935. Her parents escaped to Lida in then-Soviet-occupied Belarus after Warsaw was invaded by the Germans in September 1939, but Lida, too, fell in 1941 and its Jews got herded into a ghetto. On March 8, 1942, a Nazi Einsatsgruppe (mobile killing squad) shot most of the Lida Jews.

Brysk’s own family also had been selected to die, but at the last moment the Germans decided to spare them because they needed her father’s surgical skills to operate on wounded German soldiers.

The family was rescued by the Russians in December 1942, who brought them to the Lipiczanska forest. In early 1943, a partisan hospital was established in a remote part of the forest staffed by Jewish doctors and nurses, and Brysk’s father became chief of staff. The family survived the final years of the war, and later came to the U.S. in 1947. In her introduction to the exhibit, Brysk wrote that her memoir, which recounts the horrors she experienced as a small child, led her to think more about the brutal toll that the Holocaust had taken on the lives of so many innocent children.

“Dealing with the pain and emotions of my own childhood experiences led me to consider the plight of the one and a half million Jewish children who had not survived,” she wrote. “I thought of their disrupted rites of passage as beloved sons and daughters of extended Jewish families, and their ultimate and untimely deaths in Nazi-designated killing places.” As a result, “The idea for a new art series began to emerge,” she wrote. “I would focus on depicting children who had died, in the context of what they are likely to have experienced.” Art had enabled Brysk come to terms with an upbringing she said was “filled with hopelessness and darkness.”

“Children of the Holocaust” is made up of a series of stark photographs – of children thought to have died in the Holocaust, of the places where they were killed, and also some modern-day photos of what those places are like today. The photos were collected from books, the Internet and from Holocaust survivors who had asked Brysk to preserve through her art the memory of their late relatives.

The photos are put onto the imagery of the Tallis, or prayer shawl, that Jewish children wear at age 13 during their Bar and Bat Mitzvah ceremonies. The shawls are used to frame each individual piece.

Noting that many of the children depicted in the exhibit died well before reaching the age of 13, “Each child is contained within his own Tallis, the one he never received, as a gift of remembrance from me,” Brysk wrote. The children portrayed in the pieces came from the major Jewish population centers in Europe. The images capture both the innocence of their small faces – and, in written notes accompanying each piece, the agonizing fate that awaited them.

There is Tsirele, age 5, a boy from Kupiczow, Poland (now the Ukraine), who was tossed up into the air and shot while descending.

Bernard was born on Feb. 4, 1933, and deported to Auschwitz in August 1942, where he died. At Treblinka, some 300,000 children died. As the exhibit notes, “They were beaten and whipped as they deboarded the packed cattle cars and ordered to undress. Some of the children were shot at an execution pit, while others were forced into ‘the bath’ – a misnomer for the gas chamber.”

At the largest Nazi camp, Auschwitz, the children were led to undressing rooms and ordered to strip, then were shoved into gas chambers, where they were poisoned with Zyklon B, their bodies later burned to ashes in crematoria. Brysk, herself, returned to the death camps of Eastern Europe in 2002.

“Throughout the trip,” she wrote, “images of my lost family were creeping back into my consciousness, while childhood fears reemerged as frightening nightmares. My entire being was shaking in horror as I sobbed for my own lost family and the 6 million of my people who had so inhumanly and painfully perished.”

It was the inspiration for this grim and powerful exhibit.

“I felt a deep inner need to portray their suffering,” she writes. “I wanted to express those feelings through art.”