With paper and charcoal, local students learn empathy for Holocaust survivors

BY Leslie Katz

Stick of charcoal in hand, an eighth grader at San Francisco Catholic school École Notre Dame des Victoires sketches the thick mustache of the man in a photo sitting on her desk. Next to her, a classmate draws the arch of the eyebrow, then softens its contours by smudging it with her pinkie.

The students, 36 in all, are drawing portraits of 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Paul Schwarzbart of San Rafael. Earlier in the day, they watched a recording of Schwarzbart sharing his story of survival, his voice halting with emotion as he recalled the last time he saw his beloved father, Fritz, who was murdered at Buchenwald.

Now, the kids are sketching Schwarzbart’s image as a means to connect more intimately to him and all he went through, including escaping Nazi-occupied Austria for Belgium with his family and spending two years hidden in plain sight in a Belgian Catholic boarding school. There, he constantly feared a slip of the tongue would reveal his Jewish identity, leading to arrest and deportation.

The drawings are part of the Survivor Studio Project, which offers middle and high school students a creative, experiential way to learn about the Holocaust. The Farkas Center, a Bay Area nonprofit that brings Holocaust education into Catholic schools, initiated the program in 2020 to keep students engaged when schools were closed during the early months of COVID-19. As the pandemic wanes, the project continues to serve as an agile tool for disseminating the testimony of increasingly frail survivors. The Farkas Center believes it holds lessons about empathy and respecting cultural differences.

“This experience in no way identifies your art abilities,” Sandy Cohen-Wynn, the artist who leads the drawing exercise, tells the students at École Notre Dame des Victoires. “You’re creating the drawing to honor Paul’s life and remember his story.”

Still, powerful and sophisticated creations emerge from the sessions, which so far have taken place in about 15 schools and reached more than 700 students and educators. Drawings of Schwarzbart, dapper in his herringbone jacket, are all rendered in a somber black, white and gray palette, but each has its own distinct feel. One evokes a cubist painting by Pablo Picasso. A few have a surrealist quality. In some, the corners of Schwarzbart’s eyes turn up in a smile. In others, his eyes are partly closed, as if he’s lost in memory.

“It’s astonishing that they’ve been able to capture his essence,” says Farkas Center director Adrian Schrek, who knows Schwarzbart well. “They say it helps them dwell with him a little bit longer.”

Cohen-Wynn gives each student a black-and-white photograph of Schwarzbart, then instructs them to turn it upside down. This art technique encourages them to see exactly what’s in front of them — the shadows and light, lines and shapes — before their › brains fill in with notions of what a particular feature, like a mouth, should look like.

“Everything you need to know is in this photograph, but you have to observe,” Cohen-Wynn tells the students. “Your fingers are your most important tool.”

Before Schwarzbart begins his testimony, delivered in French for bilingual École Notre Dame des Victoires students, teacher Carrie Schroeder tells them to listen for resonant words or phrases to incorporate into their artwork. Words like sorrow, hardships, liberty and miracle appear on the pages. “Partir,” to leave. “Rendre,” to give back.

“I feel like the words I chose told his story,” says 14-year-old Mario Beard, who like many of his peers had some prior knowledge of the Holocaust through school, feature films and documentaries. Drawing him “almost felt like getting to know him better.”

That doesn’t surprise Cohen-Wynn, formerly the Judaic arts director at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El. “Paul’s story is so accessible to the kids, because Paul is very accessible as a person,” she says about Schwarzbart, a former high school French teacher. “The kids want to get it right.”

For his part, Schwarzbart says he enjoys working with young people.

“They are the future,” he says. “With all the antisemitism in the world, our only chance is for kids to learn about what happened and get a good grasp on it, as good as possible.”

Longtime Holocaust educator Jim McGarry founded the Farkas Center in 2007 in honor of Bay Area Holocaust survivors Joe and Helen Farkas. Helen Farkas frequently shared her life story in schools before she died in 2018. Though the Farkas Center primarily focuses on Catholic schools, Schrek says the Survivor Studio Project is available to any school that wants it. “We say no to no one,” she says.

“It is a privilege to be associated with the Farkas Center and to bring high-quality Holocaust education programming into Catholic schools,” said Carrie Schroeder, director of faith formation at École Notre Dame des Victoires, whose students participated in the project.

As a Farkas Center board member and a longtime Holocaust educator, Schroeder recognizes the transformative effects that Holocaust education can have on a young person.

“Many times, Holocaust education focuses on the sheer scope and magnitude of the Holocaust, such as the 11 million victims murdered by the Nazis, 6 million of whom were Jews,” she said. “We can’t possibly wrap our heads around such numbers, but what we can do is learn one person’s story, and that is what the Survivor Studio Project does. Students ‘meet’ Paul Schwartzbart virtually and then connect with him in a way that is simultaneously both tangible and spiritual. In physically drawing him, they somehow internalize the reality of his suffering and the lessons of his story.”

Schroeder said that in a time of deep polarization in both our Church and our country, lessons of compassion, respect for difference, joy in the simple gifts of everyday life, courage and faith are particularly needed.

After a session of the Survivor Studio Project, students fill out an online evaluation. According to surveys from 2022 and 2023, 95% of respondents said the program gave them a deeper grasp of the Holocaust. 

Article excerpted with permission from Leslie Katz, former staff writer at The Jewish News of Northern California.

Read a reflection by holocaust survivor Paul Schwarzbart: https://tinyurl.com/89oldsurvivor