'A light unto the world': Artist tells story behind drawings of young Holocaust victims at Sumter's Jewish History Center

BY ADRIENNE SARVIS
adrienne@theitem.com
Posted 6/5/18

Mary Burkett thinks she is "as far from an artist as you can possibly get."

Despite that claim, the Columbia native and creator of the "Beloved: Children of the Holocaust" exhibit has been giving a lesson in humanity at multiple museums and …

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'A light unto the world': Artist tells story behind drawings of young Holocaust victims at Sumter's Jewish History Center

The new Jewish History Center at Temple Sinai was open to visitors Saturday in Sumter.
The new Jewish History Center at Temple Sinai was open to visitors Saturday in Sumter.
TY CORNETT / THE SUMTER ITEM
Posted

Mary Burkett thinks she is "as far from an artist as you can possibly get."

Despite that claim, the Columbia native and creator of the "Beloved: Children of the Holocaust" exhibit has been giving a lesson in humanity at multiple museums and schools for the last 15 months.

Burkett shared her journey and the stories of the exhibit to a crowd at Temple Sinai in Sumter during the opening of the temple's Jewish History Center on Saturday.

The Jewish History Center, constructed on a portion of the temple property for the purpose of preserving Jewish history for future generations, sheds light on some of the lives that were affected by the Holocaust including a few Sumter natives.

The visitors on Saturday explored the different exhibits of the history center and listened to the moving presentation by Burkett, who said she felt the call to preserve a portion of Jewish history in her own way. The exhibit exists today because of Burkett's New Year's resolution to learn how to draw.

While searching Pinterest for people to sketch, she was drawn to the photo of a little boy named Hersch Goldberg.

"It literally just jumped off the screen at me," she said.

Though she was not sure she could accurately recreate the boy's face, Hersch would become the first child in Burkett's extended family.

Burkett said she had no clue beforehand that Hersch died at Auschwitz, a concentration camp in Nazi Germany-occupied Poland, in 1944. It wasn't until after the drawing was finished that she searched Hersch's name online and decided to give new life to other children who died too soon.

"I wanted to see what they looked like when they were just little people staying home with their parents and doing what all precious little children do," Burkett said.

During her presentation Saturday, Burkett provided as much information - birthdays, where each child started life, where they were taken during the Holocaust and when they died - as she could, though some details have been forgotten through the years.

For the children whose families were also killed, many of their records come from the Nazis, Burkett said.

The Nazis kept meticulous records during that time because they fully expected to have a 1,000-year reich, or empire, and they wanted to leave a template on how to get rid of an unwanted population, she said.

For the 26 children who are named, none of them were older than 9 when they were killed. The youngest of the Beloved, Alida Baruch of Amsterdam, was killed at Auschwitz on July 18, 1942, at five months old.

"They were considered by the Nazis to be 'useless eaters,'" Burkett said, "meaning that they took up calories and they didn't do any work."

The Nazis killed the younger children straight away, she said.

Some of them went to the gas chambers with their mothers, some were shot when they were taken off the trains, and many of them were thrown into pits and set on fire, she said.

Burkett said she was once asked during a lecture if it would have been difficult for the Nazis to kill one of the children, 5-year-old Fani Silberman, who died at Auschwitz in 1942.

"My answer was I don't think so," Burkett said. "Whereas you and I might see her as a little light unto the world, I don't think the people who murdered her could see any light. I don't think they were looking for the light, and I don't think she meant anything to them."

In the end, Burkett drew 28 faces, one of them of an adult, Dr. Janusz Korczak, a pediatrician and author from Warsaw, Poland, who opened an orphanage for Jewish children and refused to separate from them when the Nazis took the children on Aug. 5, 1942.

Korczak's drawing shows him holding an orphaned child.

Though the Beloved exhibit started as a New Year's resolution, Burkett started focusing her talents on honoring the lives of the children.

"I wanted their moms to recognize them if they walked in the room right now," Burkett said. "I wanted to be absolutely faithful to their little pictures.

"They're not a project. They were certainly victims, but that's not all they were."

They laughed, they cried, they played, and they got scared in the night, she said.

"They were beloved," she said. "I'm blessed to have the opportunity to share them with people."

To see the Beloved drawings and learn their stores, go to www.belovedchildrenoftheholocaust.com.