South Carolina artist honors memories of Holocaust victims with drawings

IMAGE: CNS photo/Christina Lee Knauss, The Catholic Miscellany

By Christina Lee Knauss

COLUMBIA, S.C. (CNS) — Mary Burkett never had formal art lessons. Drawing was
something she resolved to try as a hobby in January 2017.

decided to sketch the face of a little boy she saw in a black and white photo
on the internet.

her surprise, Burkett was able to produce his image on the paper with amazing

was like he was already there waiting for me, like he just peeked out at me,”
she told The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of Charleston. “I
was entirely amazed. I didn’t feel like I had drawn him. I felt like he was
hidden in the page.”

image is of a boy with a wide-open gaze, fair hair spilling from under a
vintage-style cap cocked back on his head. He looks bemused, as if he was
forced to pause for a portrait on his way out the door to play.

wasn’t until later that she discovered the photo was of a Romanian Jewish boy
named Hersch Goldberg. He died at Auschwitz in 1944, one of millions of
children who were victims of the Holocaust.

had a visceral and emotional reaction to the innocent yet haunting face of
Hersch. The fact that his life had been cruelly ended before it ever really
began led her to search out images of other children with similar fates.

felt as if she knew Hersch after drawing him and she wanted to learn the
stories of other children like him. Eventually, she decided she wanted other
people to learn their stories too.

year later, that first drawing of the photo of Hersch Goldberg has blossomed
into a collection Burkett calls “Beloved: Children of the Holocaust.”

features Burkett’s sketch portraits of 25 other children killed in the
Holocaust, as well as one of Janusz Korczak, a Polish pediatrician who ran an
orphanage for Jewish children in the Warsaw ghetto and was eventually killed at
the Treblinka concentration camp.

wanted to give these children a chance to speak to the world,” Burkett said. “I
wanted to honor their precious little lives.”

first sketch launched a journey she never dreamed of when she first put pencil
to paper. She has displayed the collection at churches and synagogues, colleges
and universities. Several schools have asked her to speak to classes that are studying
the Holocaust and she has traveled halfway across the country to share her work
with others.

who attends St. Peter Church in downtown Columbia, lived in Belgium for several
years as a child, where she learned firsthand of the suffering and death that
European Jews and other groups suffered at the hands of the Nazis. That
perspective, and a lifelong love of children built through motherhood and a
40-year career as a pediatric nurse, likely are part of the reason her
portraits of the children are so riveting.

look at them is to briefly feel as if you have touched a tiny soul. Their eyes,
especially, reach out with a spark of life.

Alida Baruch, who died at Auschwitz in 1942, looks like a Gerber baby. Fani
Silberman, with dimples and tiny hoop earrings, has the twinkling innocence of
a child movie star. Abraham Henselein, although he died at 6, already had an
intense gaze. Perhaps he would have been a future scholar or national leader.

said their expressions convey so much because they were captured in an era when
photos were more rare than today.

weren’t used to posing all the time back then, so we get to see more of who
they really were,” she said.

said her skill can only come from God. As she is quick to explain, she had no
formal training prior to that January day when she first started to work. Her
artist’s tools are spare and simple.

she calls her toolbox is a Ziploc bag with a few simple items. She uses a
pencil in a shade of reddish-brown called sanguine, and smooths edges and lines
with cotton balls and swabs. Burkett does most of her sketch work at a large
table on the second floor of her West Columbia home, before a window where
sunlight spills in on nice days and she can look out at a span of green hills
and trees.

as she did not expect the “Beloved” collection would exist a year ago, Burkett
says she does not know what the future will bring. All she knows is that the
children who reached out to her from photos have been given a new life through
her pencil.

just try to be faithful to what God is telling me and what he is doing in my
life,” she said. “I feel like through this work the children are being honored
and God is being honored. My job now is to shepherd them on the journey. They
have a path in front of them. I think part of that path is to show people the
sanctity of all life and the true love of God.”

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Note: To view the Beloved collection and learn more about Burkett’s work, visit

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is a reporter at The Catholic Miscellany, newspaper of the Diocese of

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