Woman called to sketch Holocaust children

The beautiful portraits of children that Mary Burkett started drawing in January of 2017 are making an impact on people who see them, but it’s not just about the art. Yes, they are well done in technique, an impressive feat because she doesn’t have a background in drawing, not even casually. The closest she ever came to an art lesson was in 2008 when she skimmed a how-to book and made a few sketches.

What drew her to complete 27 portraits in just a matter of months was that the children she drew had stories to tell, and the eyes of little Hersch were the first ones that beckoned her to tell them. These are the eyes of children that bring tears to the eyes of many who see them.

They are children of the Holocaust, precious little ones whose pictures were taken when they were ordinary Jewish children living ordinary lives with their families.

“They were home safe with their parents, loved and cared for,” she said.

Then they were gone.

‘Captured by his face’

Burkett, who lives in West Columbia, South Carolina, has a background in pediatric nursing. When she decided to start drawing, she found an old black and white photo of a little boy on the internet.

“I was captured by his face, and I do mean captured,” she said. “I felt as though he was calling out to me to be drawn, and I simply couldn’t say no.”

She would later say that it was the beginning of her calling, that it was the hand of God.

She worked first with a penciled sketch, then the drawing took shape with chalk dust that she scraped from a sanguine-colored pastel pencil and applied with cotton swabs and rolled up paper.

She didn’t know until later that the boy was Hersch Goldberg, the son of Yosef and Eszter Sicherman Goldberg, that he was born in Romania in 1939 and died at the concentration camp in Auschwitz in 1944.

Once she knew this, she searched for more photos of Jewish children who perished in the Holocaust. They had stories to tell, and she needed to tell them.

Israel, son of Motel and Lea Grinberg, born in 1937, was caught up in the slaughter of 10,000 Jews when Romanians in 1941 turned on their Jewish neighbors and went door to door killing them.

Burkett drew him from a photo where he was playing outside with other boys, and he was wearing a shirt that was too big.

“I imagine them running and laughing and having fun as boys do everywhere,” she said.

Rachel Van Gelder, the daughter of Simon Andries Van Gelder and Eva de Leeuw, was 5 when she died with her mother at Auschwitz.

Journey into deeper faith

She has written stories to go with each of the portraits that she takes on the road for exhibits, or that are in the presentations when she speaks at churches, colleges and universities. Drawing them was emotionally draining, and she was often moved to tears. And so are many who see the portraits.

“People are rarely prepared for what actually happens when they see the children,” she said. “You can often see their emotion as they go from child to child. On one hand, they say that they are so beautiful, that this is an incredible experience and they don’t know what to say. Some people have tears in their eyes.”

The experience of drawing the children and taking their stories out into the world has deepened Burkett’s Catholic faith.

“They are testifying to the light and love of God,” she said. “I am very proud of them.”

When that series was completed, Burkett found photos of adults in the Warsaw Ghetto. She was moved by their dignity despite having their freedom and their lives stolen from them. She left each of those drawings incomplete, symbolic of their fate. The series is called “Beloved: Unfinished Lives” with titles including “And Still I Pray” and “And Still I Love.”

“I hope that when I go places with them and speak to people about them that their faith is encouraged and that they see the great goodness of God and his great love for us,” she said. “Their portraits are testimony to the power and goodness of God, that the essence of who they are in him can never be diminished, can never be touched.”

At one recent presentation, someone said to her that this was not just an art exhibit. Burkett agreed. “Really, all of this work is about all of us seeing one another as God sees us,” she said, “And it’s about loving one another as God loves us.”

Burkett has written a short book, “An Unexpected Year: The Story of the Beloved Portraits,” about her faith journey as she drew the portraits. Her website is maryburkettart.com.

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Children and the Holocaust

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Courtesy photos

Children were particularly vulnerable to Nazi persecution. Some were targeted on supposed racial grounds, such as Jewish children, others for biological reasons, such as those with physical or mental disabilities, or because of their alleged resistance or political activities. As many as 1.5 million children, about a million of them Jewish, were killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.