“I draw their eyes first,” said Mary Burkett, “and I reach a moment where I just make some little subtle shading, and all of a sudden, I see the little person, and I just sort of say, ‘Hey, darling.’
“It is so wonderful that they are there. They seem to me as though they are hiding in the paper, and I just reveal them. I just find them.”
Since January, Burkett, 64, of West Columbia, has created 19 pastel portraits of children. Using old grainy black and white photos she printed from the Internet, she has spent hours, dabbing on minute amounts of pastel with a Q-tip or a rolled paper stump called a tortillon, creating the pictures on light brown paper.
She works at home, surrounded by high windows, or on the third floor of the Richland County’s main library – both places with natural or bright overhead light. It takes her 25 or 30 hours over a week to draw just one image.
They aren’t just any children. They are Jewish children who died in the Holocaust. Their faces exude happiness, though, for the photos that Burkett worked from were taken when the children were with their families, before being sent to the horror of the death camps created by Nazi Germany.
To those who have seen them, Burkett’s portraits radiate life, love and loss, intertwined in a way digital or photographic images can’t convey.
Many viewers tear up. They might have come across photos before of Jewish children killed in Hitler’s concentration camps during World War II. But none like Burkett’s, they said.
“I’ve never seen anything like it, personally,” said Barry Abels, executive director of the Columbia Jewish Federation. “Something gets yanked right out of me when I look at these pictures.”
Abels heard about Burkett’s portraits. After showing them to some friends, he invited her to Holocaust Remembrance Day at Columbia’s Tree of Life Synagogue in April. She set up a table, and people dropped by to see her sketches, still in her sketch book.
“Everybody was amazed,” Abels said. “The images jump out of the paper. She had captured the essence of the children. ‘Remarkable’ was a word I heard more than once.”
It wasn’t just the images. As she shows the pictures, Burkett flips through her sketch book, telling stories about the children, as much as she knows, gleaned from brief descriptions of the child on the Internet.
“Here is Little Edith,” she said of one girl who looks like she could take on the world, Edith Bartels, a Jewish Dutch girl in hiding from the Nazis. She was discovered in October 1944, and shipped to Auschwitz. She was 4.
“Somebody thought she was absolutely worthless. That she was worth nothing, and people murdered her. Gosh, if that doesn’t make you stop and think about your own ethics and your own values and the value of human life, I don’t anything ever will.”
Burkett, who never had an art lesson, said, “People ask me what my technique is. Well, I have no idea what my technique is.”
Because of the positive reactions from others, Burkett has made her goal with the pictures to share them with others in a way that lets others learn their stories.
“I’m not an artist. I’ve just been given this wonderful opportunity to let these children have a voice,” Burkett said. “They’ve been waiting 75 years to say something. Their little voices were taken from them, and I’m trying to give them a chance.”
HOW, NOT WHY
Burkett is Catholic.
She really can’t say why she, a non-artist, has found herself making portraits of Jewish children killed in the Holocaust, and evoking such reactions from people. She only knows that she was drawn to it, like a calling.
At first, she worried that people might think her subject matter “macabre,” or they might find it too painful.
“And I was concerned about the response from the Jewish community,” she said. “But they say, ‘thank you.’ ”
That’s right, said Lilly Filler, a retired Columbia physician whose parents survived Hitler’s death camps. Filler, a leader in South Carolina’s Jewish community, has for years played an active role in events and remembrances of those terrible years. But she had seen nothing like Burkett’s drawings, which take people to “another dimension” of the Holocaust, she said.
“I was so taken in, captured by the emotion those pictures portray,” Filler said. “She has invested not only her technical abilities into this, but her emotional abilities.”
Born of American parents who worked for the U.S. government, Burkett spent her early childhood in Belgium and summers in The Netherlands. Although she didn’t draw, she visited museums, soaking up paintings by the Old Masters. She saw World War II battlefields and learned about Anne Frank.
“The idea of the World War II was much more alive to me than it was to the typical American child.”
When she was about 8, her parents moved to Columbia. As an adult, she became a pediatric nurse, taking on a variety of roles that involved children.
About 10 years ago, Burkett felt an urge to draw. She checked out a book on learning to sketch from the Richland County library.
“It was something like, ‘How to Draw,’ ” she laughs. “I had always liked the sketches that the great artists did before they did their paintings. You see them in museums, the sketch and then the painting. That’s what I was drawn to, that look.”
But she stopped to home-school her youngest son and grandchildren and never did get around to drawing seriously.
Last January, she started drawing again. She wanted to draw children’s faces, and she went looking on the Internet for old black and white photos of children, entering the search terms in Google like “vintage photographs” and “children.”
Up popped Hersch Goldberg. She didn’t realize until she had begun work that he was a Romanian Jewish boy who had been rounded up by the Nazis in 1944 and sent to Auschwitz, where he was put to death. He was 5.
Recalling that the great painters like Michelangelo had used a type of reddish-brown pastel, she came across a pastel pencil at a local store. Pastels have been used for centuries by artists, and pastel colors can be both exceptionally vivid as well as subtle and nuanced. She also bought a white pastel pencil, which she uses sparingly for the flecks of light that artists put in their subjects’ eyes to bring them to life.
Her use of pastels might be in part responsible for the power of Burkett’s portraits.
But Steve Hamm, a longtime Burkett friend and interim S.C. Ethics Commission director, believes there’s another reason for the portraits’ impact – her feelings for the children somehow wind up in their faces, and somehow that emotion gets transmitted to whoever sees the portraits.
“She talks so lovingly about them, she could almost be their grandmother,” Hamm said. “That loving perspective is a powerful part of the skills she employs.”
Burkett said of the children: “I fall in love with them.”
Burkett showed her first portrait, of Hersch Goldberg, to her husband of 40 years, Ronny. He liked what she had done, encouraged her to continue, and advised her that if she felt she had to do the portraits, she should continue.
“I started looking for pictures of children from the Holocaust, wanting their pictures to be from the 1930s, before the Holocaust happened. The reason for that is, they were children. They laughed, and they cried, and they fussed, and they giggled, and they ran, all the things that kids do.”
Back then, Burkett said, cameras were a novelty and children didn’t make faces when you took their picture. “Whatever emotion they were feeling, is actually on their little faces.”
“Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.”
The sentence from “Night,” by the late Elie Wiesel, the Nobel prize-winning writer who was in Auschwitz as a child, rings true for Burkett, who often recalls that line as she works. She is constantly amazed at the brutality of the executions of at least 6 million Jews and millions of others.
“The children who were deported to Auschwitz who were younger than 9 were literally taken from the train to the gas chamber. The Nazis called them ‘useless eaters,’ which means that they took up calories and didn’t do any work. So they killed them straightaway.”
But, she said, “It’s such an injustice to think of them only as victims – they are so much more than that. They are beautiful children, and they had all the potential of life. I want people to see them. I want people to meet them. I want to honor their little lives.”
In fact, her collection of drawings is called, “Beloved: Children of the Holocaust.”
“Think about all the love and care and devotion that’s poured into your own children and grandchildren,” Burkett said. “In that first moment that their mothers held them, they counted their little fingers and toes, and they kissed their little sweet faces.”
Burkett knows them all. Among them:
▪ Alida Baruch, who was gassed to death at 5 months at Auschwitz.
▪ Simone Frajermauer, a little Belgium girl the camera caught pouting. “I call her little thundercloud,” said Burkett. She was gassed at the age of 2.
▪ Leon Futerman, looking sturdy and thoughtful. He was 3 years old, living in Paris, when he was most likely rounded up by French police working with the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz where he died.
▪ Jenny van Dam, from The Netherlands. She was 5 when she was killed with her mother and brother at Auschwitz.
There’s something “supernatural” about what she’s doing, Burkett said. When she’s drawing them, it is “sort of like I enter their world. They just invite me in. It’s extraordinarily peaceful and sweet.”
Mindful that her images might be exploited by others for some political purpose, she has copyrighted them.
Belinda Gergel, a Burkett friend and retired history professor at Columbia College who now lives in Charleston, said, “Quite frankly, these drawings are about as powerful as they could be.”
“Mary has a gift, and it’s a gift that transcends time, and it brings the past right back into the present,” Gergel said. “When you look at these drawings, you are confronting the central question about human experience: How could we have lost these very special children?”
Gergel, Hamm, Abels and Filler all hope Burkett can find a way to share what she’s done with wider audiences.
Whatever happens, Burkett doesn’t want herself to be the focus of attention.
“All the power resides in the children. I don’t think it’s my drawing at all,” she said.