COVID presented many challenges for students this past year, but that did not deter the 54 students of the Class of 2021 of the Bernard Zell Anshe Emet Day School in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood from embarking on an emotional and significant capstone project: mounting a museum-quality art exhibition. The fruits of their labors? A compelling photojournalistic show,
Image and Memory: Yesterday and Today
, which touches on the lives of local Holocaust survivors and their families.
The al fresco exhibit, displayed on approximately 20 large, weatherproof panels on the school's exterior walls. It includes enlarged images of survivors and their families, along with student photos that represent their own emotional responses to the stories they heard from the survivors or the survivors' children. Because of COVID restrictions, students interviewed and took the portraits of their subjects over Zoom-yet you'd never have guessed this was so, said Zell 8th grade history teacher Dr. Jeff Ellison, who spearheaded the project, "because the quality of the images is so good."
Ann Weiss, a Philadelphia-based Holocaust educator who served as artist-in-residence at Zell this past year, concurred. "I work with college students who could not have done any better or as well," said Weiss, author of The Last Album, a compilation of photographs she discovered during a 1986 tour of the Auschwitz death camp.
Image and Memory
a photo exhibition may be a bit of a mischaracterization, since viewers can take screen shots of QR codes beside each of the display panels and listen to two short videos the students created: one about the survivors' lives, the other about the experience of having interviewed a survivor and created work in response to it.
Ellison, a longtime Zell faculty member who teaches Holocaust studies to the school's 8th grade students, said that he began taking an "interdisciplinary approach" to the coursework about five years ago. Since then, he said, his classes have created a graphic novel and written an original play that was staged at Skokie's Northlight Theatre.
The students, who worked in pairs and threesomes to interview survivors and their families, learned about loss, displacement, and lifelong fear, but also resilience, hope, and perseverance. They spoke to survivors like Marguerite Lederman Mishkin, born in Brussels in 1941, who was hidden with a Catholic family during World War II and never saw her birth parents again; and Leonie Bergman, née Loni Taffel, born in Berlin in 1935, who was hidden in a Belgian convent and "learned that her parents were taken and killed at Auschwitz, only two months before the liberation of Belgium," according to the Image and Memory catalogue that accompanies the show.
In the catalogue, which Ellison edited, Zell student Zoe Josefson likened the life of the survivor she profiled to that of a jigsaw puzzle: "After the war, she moved to Chicago and had to start up from almost nothing," Josefson wrote. Like a puzzle, she had to build "her picture back up."
Zell students also worked with technology specialists at the school to create QR codes for their videos, along with art teacher Gili Sherman, who introduced them to the works of noted photographers. "They learned about photographers' motivations and how they think," Sherman said.
Image and Memory
will be displayed at least through this summer. The campus will be open during this time, but Zell personnel recommend calling (773) 281-1858 to secure an appointment. Those interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue should email email@example.com.
Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago.