Yom HaShoah: Survivor’s art memorializes children of the Holocaust

by Keri Guten Cohen, Story Development Editor
Detroit Jewish News, May 1, 2008

Miriam Brysk of Ann Arbor was 4 and living in her native Warsaw when World War II started and forever changed her life. A child of the Holocaust, Brysk cannot forget her experiences; nor does she want to. Instead, she expresses her thoughts and feelings through art.

Her newest work, “Children of the Holocaust,” can be seen in the auditorium of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills through June. The emotional work is a fitting tribute as Jews world-wide mark Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) on May 2.

“Children of the Holocaust” features a series of symbolic tallisim (prayer shawls), complete with Tzitzit Brysk knotted herself. Each tallis is a blend of photos that include present-day memorials now standing where Nazi killing machines operated, haunting images of actual children and historic photos of these sites during the war. Text at the bottom gives information about the children and about the killing going on around them.

“I have recently published my memoir, “Amidst the Shadows of Trees,” Brysk said. Dealing with the pain and emotions of my own childhood experiences led me to consider the plight of the 1.5 million Jewish children who had not survived. 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.

“The idea of a new art series began to emerge; I would focus on depicting the children who died, in the context of what they are likely to have experienced.

“One of the rites of passage from childhood to adulthood is the bar/bat mitzvah at age 13,” she said. At that event, children traditionally receive a tallis from their parents. Most of the children who died in the Holocaust, however, were too young to ever have a bar mitzvah, or to ever have worn a tallis. I, therefore use the imagery of the tallis to frame each piece. Each child is contained within his own tallis, the one he never received as a gift of remembrance from me.”

All the images of the children come from authentic photos of Holocaust victims; 10 of the children’s photos came from survivors who asked her to preserve through art the memory of their relatives who perished. Others come from books or the Internet.

The children depicted in Odette and Ralf have Detroit ties. Odette, was the cousin of local child survivor Giselle Feldman. Ralf was born in Amsterdam; he and his parents were killed in Sobibor. He is the cousin of child survivor Esther Posner.

Brysk’s own Holocaust story is unusual. After Warsaw fell to the Nazis, she and her parents, Bronka and Chaim Miasnik, left for Lida in Soviet occupied Belarus. When Lida fell, they were herded into a ghetto. In Russia, most of the Jews were simply shot. In one day, Brysk says, 80% of the ghetto was liquidated that way.

Her father was a much-needed surgeon. Partisans rescued them from the ghetto and took them into the forest, where her father ran a partisan hospital. He earned the Order of Lenin for his work after liberation.

Brysk remembers having her head shaved and dressing in boys’ clothes to protect her from being raped. At 8, she was given a pistol, which she proudly wore by her side.

The family moved to Brooklyn when she was 12. In America she says, she was able to live her dreams. A book about the exhilaration of discovering things led her to become a scientist. She sat up a laboratory at the medical school of the University of Texas at Galveston and worked there for many years as a professor.

She also dreamed about going to museums and one day expressing herself through art. Now three of her pieces have been added to the permanent collection at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem

Brysk, 73, is married to Henry, a survivor from France. They have two daughters and five grandchildren.

As a survivor, she is very involved in speaking to groups about the Holocaust. In September, at Judge Edward Sosnik’s request, she will address 400 students at the Oakland County Courthouse in Pontiac.

“I bring in a few pieces of my art, and I emphasize that I was able to overcome my handicaps and have a successful life,” she says. ” I teach about the Holocaust, but it’s also about empowerment.”