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Artist Mary Burkett Shares Powerful Portraits of Young Holocaust Victims with 7th Graders

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The children who died in the Holocaust were denied the opportunity to make much of an impact on the world. But some 70 years later, West Columbia artist Mary Burkett is giving some of the Holocaust’s youngest victims a powerful voice through her arresting drawings, which she shared with Heathwood’s 7th graders on March 13.

“Beloved: Children of the Holocaust” is a collection of portraits Burkett has sketched of children who were killed by the Nazis during World War II. Burkett has also researched the children’s lives, and a brochure that accompanies the portraits shares as much as she’s been able to find out about each of them.

For the 7th graders, who have been studying the Holocaust in their history and English classes, the portraits were a powerful evocation of the individual human lives that were brutally ended in concentration camps. Above all, the portraits capture the personalities of their subjects, who range in age from a few months to eight years old, bringing them to life in painfully poignant detail.

Burkett, who is a nurse by training, did not initially set out to create portraits of Holocaust victims. Nor did she think of herself as an artist. As she explains in the introduction to her brochure, “The sum total of my experience with drawing is skimming a book and attempting a few sketches…. In January 2017, I decided to try sketching again. Searching for subjects on the Internet, I was captured one day by the face of a little boy named Hersch, and I do mean captured. I felt as though Hersch were calling out to me to be drawn, and I simply couldn’t say no. … I, with no artistic training, watched as he slowly came to life under my hand, and he became not a drawing, but a little boy. What I didn’t know when I first saw Hersch was that he had died in the Holocaust, murdered at Auschwitz at four years old. I also didn’t know that his sweet face was just a beginning.”

Burkett shared slides of the portraits and stories of the children’s lives with the 7th graders, who then had the opportunity to see the actual portraits on display in the Heathwood Library.  The event was, said Middle School Dean of Students and 7th grade history teacher Rich Edwards, an especially compelling way to bring history to life.

“Thank you to Columbia Connections Director Donnie Bain and 7th grade English teacher Sue Swick for setting up this powerful event for our students through the Columbia Connections program,” Dr. Edwards said.