Advisory: This article contains a historical photo from the Holocaust that depicts violence and partial nudity. The image is shown in contrast to an uplifting painting inspired by the woman in the photo. Still, we recognize this imagery may be disturbing. Discretion is advised.
When we think about the Holocaust, we remember and reflect on the horrific crimes committed and the 6 million Jews and millions of others who were murdered.
Often, that reflection includes imagining what those people's lives could have been like.
A new exhibit on view at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute in Waltham is bringing that concept to life.
“Lives Eliminated, Dreams Illuminated” features modern-day paintings inspired by archival portraits of women and girls who were killed. The portraits were acquired from Holocaust memorials around the world.
“Women were seen as creating future Jews, and children were seen as those future dangerous elements, or unwanted elements,” said artist Lauren Bergman, who created the series of 23 paintings.
She embarked on the project after meeting with Dr. David Milch, a physician and son of Holocaust survivors who funded the exhibit through his foundation.
“I believe that art provides a window, a lens, perhaps a mirror, to come to grips in a personal way, if you can connect with one individual whose life was lost,” Milch said.
The paintings are paired with music from his cousin, Israeli composer Ella Milch-Sheriff. Each visitor is given a pair of headphones to listen to voice recordings and songs tailored to the aesthetic of each painting.
To develop that aesthetic, Bergman said she connected with the eyes looking back at her in those archival photos.
“What can we tap into in looking at one person who was eliminated in hatred?” she said. “For me, I look in those eyes and just feel a sense.”
"I look in those eyes and just feel a sense.”artist Lauren Bergman
The first face visitors see in the exhibit is of a little girl named Eva Nemova. In her portrait, she's perched on a posing block, wearing a dress and a hair bow and staring directly into the camera. But the painting tells a different story.
“I wanted her to sit on the paper moon in a dreamlike setting and be surrounded by freedom, beautiful elements,” Bergman said. “She doesn't have to wear the yellow star. They're flying around her.”
Another painting shows a woman, whose name is not known, running through a field of flowers being chased by butterflies. It stands in stark contrast to the accompanying archival photo. There, she's being shown chased by Ukrainian auxiliary forces — or, as Bergman describes it, her neighbors who have turned on her.
“She's had her clothes ripped off her body. Her face is bloody,” Bergman said. “And I wanted to give her everything better so that she can say to the world, ‘I was also a happy, loving human being.’”
Visitor Laurette Bachman of Chestnut Hill said the exhibit is a visceral way to honor the difficult history that some are trying to erase. It’s especially important, she said, in a landscape where people argue against accurate teachings of atrocities like the Holocaust and American slavery.
“I think if we don't look at history, no matter whose history, then there's the danger of history repeating itself,” Bachman said.
It's part of the reason David Milch wanted to create the exhibit. For him, the history is personal.
One of the paintings depicts his family. His mother, Lusia Rosenzweig Milch, the only Holocaust survivor rendered in the exhibit.
“Each day had an unbelievable, life-threatening real situation. Life was threatened because actually the final analysis was they wanted us dead,” Lusia Rosenzweig Milch said.
Bergman adapted the family portrait into a painting of a picnic where the family is celebrating Rosh Hashanah.
While that idyllic future was not realized, another one was.
“Both my parents came here as survivors — having lost everything — and they were able to achieve success in the business world,” David Milch said. “Mom became a teacher of literature and languages. My brother and I had the opportunity to go to top schools. I became a physician. My brother became an attorney. And we feel, I certainly feel, this sense of life reborn and, you know, relit and the ability to go beyond tragedies that our family experienced.”
For David Milch, his family's story is one of triumph as much as it is of survival.
“Mom is very much alive and vibrant at 92 years old. And of course, for mom and for Jews in general, the rise of intolerance is self-evident around us,” he said. “So what do we do? I don't believe that one artistic or emotional experience is going to solve these problems, but it leaves something inside of us that's different than just the history.”
For viewers of the exhibit, he said he hopes that means leaving with a fuller picture.
“Lives Eliminated, Dreams Illuminated” is free and open to the public Monday through Thursday at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, 515 South St., Waltham. It will be on display at the until Oct. 25, then travel to Miami, Mexico City and Tel Aviv.