GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — Rabbi Murray Kohn lost his sister Ida Rebecca to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz when she was just 7 and he was 10.
All he had left of her was a photograph recovered by another Auschwitz prisoner, who found family photos in his mother’s purse after she and his sister were sent to the gas chambers.
But thousands of miles away in Austria, artist Manfred Bockelmann brought Ida Rebecca back to life in a stark charcoal drawing, one of 120 he has made of children who were kept prisoner, and likely killed, during the Holocaust of World War II.
On Wednesday, Bockelmann stood in the Holocaust Resource Center at Richard Stockton College and presented the drawing to Kohn, now 85, bringing back memories of a childhood that ended much too soon. Kohn was stunned when he realized Bockelmann was giving him the piece to keep.
“This man did not just take a photo,” the Vineland resident said. “He has read her face from the inside out. Oh my God, I can’t believe it.”
He recalled the last days he spent with his sister, holding her hand in cattle cars as the family was shipped by train to Auschwitz.
“For three days and three nights she was sitting next to me,” he said. “She held my hand. She wouldn’t let go. She had a premonition, but she didn’t know of what. It’s as if she knew these were our last moments together. This stays with me forever.”
He said that memory has led him to a lifetime of holding on to his own children and grandchildren.
Bockelmann, a renowned landscape artist, said he began the project four years ago as a way to remember the children and keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive. He said he was born in 1943 in Austria, and had he been Jewish, he probably would not have survived.
“I lived because I was not Jewish,” he said. “Now I can bring the children back. I do it for this generation so they can see each other.”
Bockelmann’s project is being made into a documentary film titled “Drawing Against Oblivion.” Executive Producer David Kunac and staff from Final Frame Productions filmed the presentation at Stockton and said it would be an integral part of the film. A short preview just received a gold medal at New York Festival’s 2014 Best Film and TV Awards International Division.
Kunac said he knew Bockelmann, and one day he showed him a book with the works he had started.
“I started crying,” he said, and asked to make the film.
Bockelmann got the photo of Ida Rebecca through Marion Hussong, who is Bockelmann’s niece and a professor of literature and Holocaust and Genocide studies at Stockton, where Kohn also teaches. She said she remembered the photo from a book Kohn wrote about his family, and sent a photocopy to her uncle.
Bockelmann said the copy was fuzzy, but there was enough that he could get a sense of her as a child.
Hussong said her uncle has gone through the archives at Auschwitz and pored through records looking for photos of the lost children. They are re-created in charcoal on canvas, to replicate the ashes of the dead, Bockelmann said.
Hussong said Ida Rebecca is special because there is someone to tell her story. Bockelmann said they have found family of a few more children, and even found one who survived. He hopes when the documentary is finished and seen they may be able to learn the stories of more of the children in the haunting drawings. He hopes to eventually have them placed in museums and Holocaust memorials.
“There is such a difference in the drawings of children in the camps,” Hussong said. “You can see the fear and starvation, compared to the family photos when they are all dressed up.”
Some Stockton students gathered to watch as Kohn, standing near the drawing of his sister, talked about his experience during the war. Kohn became increasingly emotional as he talked about the Holocaust and how angry he still is that so many millions of Jews, including more than a million children, could be murdered as the world stood by.
“Yes, I want the world to have a guilty conscience,” he said. “Maybe then we will have a better world.”
He said he looks at photos of his murdered family members every day. He showed Bockelmann an old photo of his parents, Marta Levine and Elias Kohn, that he carries in his wallet.
“I love,” he said. “But also I am an angry old man.”
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