MARGATE — If you walk through the front doors of the Milton and Betty Katz Jewish Community Center, you’ll soon be greeted by a large burlap cloth hanging from the ceiling, with charcoal etchings on it depicting a young child.
The large painting is part of a series called “Drawing Against Oblivion,” a free exhibit of charcoal portraits by Austrian artist Manfred Bockelmann depicting child victims of the Holocaust. The exhibit will be on display at the center through Nov. 6, and features portraits of children who have descendants in the area.
Michele Taroff is one of those descendants. A portrait of her aunt, Erika Fisch, is prominently displayed on the first floor of the center with a short biography. Fisch and her mother were separated from Fisch’s sister, Ruth Fisch Kessler, in 1941. Ruth never saw Erika or her mother again.
Kessler was Taroff’s mother and was able to see the portrait of Erika at Stockton University last year before she died. Taroff said it’s now important that the portraits are on display so stories like that of her aunt can continue to be told.
“I don’t know how many people got to see them at Stockton, and to see them here, it’s something, because this generation is dying and it’s a way to keep them alive,” said Taroff of Margate. “(Before she died) my mother saw her forgotten sister who never had a chance to be all she can be. But now, she is immortalized.”
On a recent Monday at the Jewish center, Manfred Bockelmann walked among the portraits he had created. He stood still as he looked into the eyes of the different children he had illustrated and come to know. In research for the project, Bockelmann visited former concentration camps and began to gather photos of the child victims and sketching them in charcoal to represent ashes.
Bockelmann said he created the portraits to bring the victims back into our mind.
“I’ve done this out of shame,” said the Austrian artist, who was born in 1943, the same year many of the children were killed. “This is the most important thing I’m doing as an artist.”
Marion Hussong is Bockelmann’s niece and helped set up the artist’s exhibit last year at Stockton University, where she teaches literature and Holocaust and genocide studies.
Hussong said that not just the survivors’ families but also the Jewish community has responded positively to the exhibit.
“There are certain wounds that time does not heal. Drawing the pictures will not erase the trauma, but it is a gesture that tells people that we understand that there are certain wounds that time doesn’t heal. It’s a gesture of respect and, really, love for the community,” Hussong said.
Isaac Ehrlich is no longer part of the South Jersey community but was on hand at the Jewish center to see the portraits for himself. Ehrlich, who now lives in Sacramento, California, was standing with his mother, Hanna, as they looked at the portrait of his uncle, David Granek. Granek grew up in Bedzin, Poland, and when the Nazis occupied the country, Granek was sent to Zawiercie, Poland, before later being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Ehrlich named his son after his uncle David and said it’s tough not to get emotional walking around the portraits.
“Believe it or not I come here and have a hard time not tearing up,” Ehrlich said.
Abe Greenbaum shares those same emotions. While he looked at the portraits of his aunt and uncle, Tova and Yossel Altman, he pulled out the original photos of the two of them, which were tucked neatly in a laminate cover.
Greenbaum said he remembers seeing the pictures throughout his life in a scrapbook or photo album, but felt something totally different once he saw them as life-size images at Stockton. He was feeling that same overwhelming feeling once again in Margate.
“(Seeing the portraits) made their lives more real,” said Greenbaum, of Egg Harbor Township. “To think that someone would paint these children that are largely forgotten, and outside of our family forgotten — and to have someone do that and for it to be seen so they are remembered — that’s quite an emotion.”
The exhibit may be viewed during the Jewish center hours of operation: Monday through Thursday, from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday from 5:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.