Holocaust haunts Chandler woman’s artwork The Chandler Arizonan

Holocaust haunts Chandler woman’s artwork

Holocaust haunts Chandler woman’s artwork
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By Kevin Reagan

Arizonan Staff Writer

 

Helen Weisman didn’t understand as a child why her grandparents were never around.

Whenever the Chandler resident tried asking her mother, Esther Don, about her older relatives, Weisman said her mother quickly became depressed, distraught and withdrawn.  

She behaved this way for most of Weisman’s childhood – troubled and preoccupied with events taking place before Weisman was born. 

“As a child, you want a normal mother and she was not,” Weisman said. “She was just lost in the past.”

Weisman would later learn her mother’s parents and siblings were executed by the Nazis in a Ukrainian ghetto during World War II. The family was Jewish and was among the thousands of Jews murdered during the Nazi occupation of Lutsk.  

Weisman’s mother, then a teenager, survived the executions by hiding in the wilderness and constantly being on the run. 

But the trauma of the war had a permanent impact on Weisman’s mother and haunted the family for subsequent generations. 

“My mother really suffered so much because of what happened to her family,” Weisman said. “It affected all of us.”

Weisman tries to make sense of the Holocaust’s horrors through a collection of paintings she’s put on display at Perry High School. 

Inspired by historical photographs and her family’s stories, Weisman’s collection illustrates how Jews suffered under the rise of fascism. 

The 36 portraits are intentionally bleak – depicting a mass grave of skeletons in one and emaciated prisoners in another. 

Weisman said the artwork’s meant to tell a story about dehumanization and such a story requires the work to look hideously gruesome. 

“I felt I needed to somehow get people’s attention about what happened,” she said. 

Weisman was born in 1947, inside a German refugee camp for displaced people. Her family then moved to Israel just as the state was declaring independence. 

It was an interesting time to watch Israel fight for its sovereignty, Weisman recalled, but her mother worried about the safety of her children. 

The family relocated to the United States in 1960 and Weisman said they all struggled to adjust to American life. They didn’t speak English very well and Weisman felt like they had to hide their Jewish identity. 

She remembered a school principal changing her Hebrew birth name Hana to the more American-sounding Helen. 

Weisman said her mother rarely ever spoke of what happened to her parents during the war. 

She managed to piece together her mother grew up in a prominent family, which included a rabbi. She was smart, pretty and spoke several languages. 

As the Nazis began to invade Ukraine in 1941, Jewish residents were rounded up and relocated to a ghetto on the outskirts of town. 

They were required to wear armbands brandishing the Star of David and forfeit any valuables to their occupiers. 

Weisman said her mother’s parents instructed the teenage girl to get out and check on some relatives in another town. This errand likely ended up saving her mother’s life. 

By January 1942, senior officials of the Nazi Party had begun making plans to exterminate all 11 million Jews living in occupied Europe by sending them to concentration camps and liquidating ghettos. 

Historians estimate between 15,000 and 17,000 Jews in Ukraine’s Lutsk ghetto were executed during the summer of 1942. 

The Jews were forced to dig their own graves before the Nazis shot them all, Weisman said.  

Her mother tried seeking refuge from nearby farmers but was often turned away once farmers realized she was Jewish.

“Nobody wanted them,” Weisman said, “It was a horrible time.” 

Weisman’s father was from Poland and had been shipped to a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. He managed to escape and supported himself by making boots for soldiers in Uzbekistan, which was where he met Weisman’s mother.

Weisman believes her mother spent the rest of life suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder before her death in 1996. 

Because she nearly starved to death during the war, Weisman said her mother was always obsessed with keeping the family’s refrigerator stocked.  

“She was always afraid she wouldn’t have enough food,” Weisman said.

Throughout her life, Weisman’s worked to preserve the stories of Holocaust survivors. She’s been a docent for the Illinois Holocaust Museum and delivered presentations to school children. 

After relocating to Chandler a few years ago, Weisman decided to continue using her art to educate younger generations about the Holocaust. 

She specifically wanted to exhibit her work at Perry High School after hearing about some instances of anti-Semitism taking place on campus. 

Posters displaying swastika symbols were found outside Perry High last March. In 2017, residents of a nearby Gilbert neighborhood were shocked to find a swastika spray-painted in the street.

These types of incidents are becoming too common, Weisman said, and hopes her artwork will help students better understand history’s mistakes. 

“I feel maybe if you educate people, they will not hate,” she said. 

Weisman’s collection of Holocaust-inspired paintings will be on display in Perry’s library through the end of February.

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