Just inside the fluorescent-lit room, six picnic-style tables were supplied with arts and crafts essentials: scissors, glue sticks and stock photos.
“A lot of survivors don’t have pictures,” said Lori Shocket, artist and curator of the hands-on exhibition, so she came prepared with a Ziploc baggie filled with spare images: cut-outs of Auschwitz, yellow Jude stars and cattle cars.
On Nov. 9, five Holocaust survivors attended the first of four workshops held at the Museum of Tolerance (MOT). (The final workshop will take place on Dec. 7 and a fifth workshop will be held in Las Vegas on Dec. 14.)
Survivors were told to bring pictures, documents and memorabilia — anything that held meaning and helped to tell their story.
Those artifacts were scanned, printed, cut out and placed on a 10-by-10 canvas board. The boards will be displayed and digitized in an exhibition called “Memory Reconstruction: A Sacred Culture Rebuilt.”
“The exhibit, although it’s conceived by me, is actually done by the survivors,” Shocket said. “They’re the artists, in essence.”
At the workshop, a 15-year-old volunteer, part of the museum’s MOTivating Youth Volunteer Program, helped Holocaust survivor Albert Rosa, 98, paste a black-and-white cutout of Auschwitz onto his collage. This is where his family perished 70 years ago.
“I remember those tracks,” he told the volunteer.
Shocket is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, artist Siegfried Knop. “When I grew up, he never told me any part of his Holocaust story, just little bits, and I could never grasp them,” she said.
But that changed two years ago, when Shocket and her father started painting together.
“Once we started painting, it was like a door opened, and he started talking about his story, every detail, and it was amazing to hear.” These in-studio talks eventually inspired a series of collaborative paintings by the father-daughter duo.
After hearing her father’s stories, she realized how crucial it was to document survival stories. At the time, Shocket had just finished a 15-foot installation titled “The Human Element Project” for a temporary exhibition at the USC Institute for Genetic Medicine Art Gallery, shown from July to October of this year, before moving to a permanent collection at DOW Research and Technology Center in Collegeville, Pa.
The massive installation consisted of 118 anatomical portraits, each canvas representing an element on the periodic chart.
Shocket adapted the concept to this current project. Using the periodic table as her muse, she is collecting 118 (the number of elements) collaged testimonies for the final exhibition. Each testimony represents an element on the table.
“They’re like sound bites of their experiences, visual vignettes,” the artist explained.
The centerpiece will be a collaborative painting by Shocket, her father and artist Doni Silver Simons, which will tie together the concept of the project.
When the survivor participants arrived at the first workshop, Shocket showed them examples of finished collages, one of which was her father’s.
“That’s him,” she said, referring to a black-and-white photograph of a boy with slicked-back hair.
“And that’s his sister,” she said, pointing to a faded picture of a woman reading on a Berlin balcony, with a curtain of Nazi flags behind her suspended from buildings. Beside her photo was the last letter her father ever received from his sister.
Some survivors came to the MOT with their families, others came alone.
Avrami Hacker, 13, was joined by his father, Adi, and his grandfather, Ernst. Three generations of Hackers worked on the collages. Avrami wanted to do a project for his upcoming bar mitzvah, and, because he’s part of MOT’s teen program, he’d heard about the workshop.
“This is so special,” Avrami said. “I learned about the camps where my grandfather went, and the letters he sent from Theresienstadt [concentration camp] to his friends in Vienna.”
Like Shocket’s studio session with her father, the workshops gave survivors a chance to reminisce as they combed through old photographs.
Especially with this project, time is of the essence.
When Liebe Geft, director of the MOT, first heard about Shocket’s artistic vision, she knew she wanted to debut the completed exhibition at the museum’s next Yom HaShoah commemoration in April 2015.
Geft explained, “In order to do that, we really had to accelerate the process and schedule workshops, do the outreach and identify the partners. And Lori’s working at triple speed.”
After everyone else had finished their collaged elements and gone home, survivor Elizabeth Mann was still working on her collage.
The remaining volunteers and staff members sat around her as she held court. With the room nearly empty, she talked about her youth, growing up in Kecskemet, Hungary, about her father and mother and about playing the piano.
“I never played the piano again after my parents were killed,” Mann said. “Never again.”
“The numbers in the Shoah are staggering, they are unfathomable,” Geft said. “It’s difficult to relate to these numbers. But one person, one name, one face makes it very personal.”