As a young Jewish child in Poland during World War II, Nelly Toll hid for 18 months in a Catholic family’s home.
She watched outside through a sheer curtain, using watercolors and words to create a fantasy world far preferable to the one in which she lived.
“I could only look through the sheer curtains, looking outside at the world that thought I had no right to exist,” Toll said Tuesday during Akron’s annual Holocaust Commemoration Ceremony.
Toll shared her story, both speaking and showing slides of a few of the 60 watercolors she created while she and her family were in hiding. Far from dark, her paintings feature bright colors and happy images, a reflection of the fantasies the younger Toll created: young children walking with their teacher, two girls playing dominos and a girl walking with her father.
Born in Lwow, Poland, in 1935, Toll was 6 years old when the Nazis invaded her hometown. At her father’s urging, Toll and her mother hid in the small apartment of a Catholic couple who agreed to take them in.
“For 18 months, I did not go outside,” Toll told the gather at the Akron-Summit County Public Library in downtown Akron. “I did not see a friend. I did not speak aloud. I was told the ‘walls had ears.’?”
Toll said her mother became her best friend, doctor and teacher. She taught her English, Greek mythology and math. She gave her a watercolor set, and Toll began to paint, creating images of a normal life. The young girl wrote stories to accompany the images, though she also kept a diary of what actually was happening.
After staying in hiding for a year and a half, Toll and her mother, along with other Jewish people, fled to Hungary, which they were told would be a safer place. The group of 15 hid in a house, unable to go outside.
One day, Toll said, the group was told they had better run; Toll and her mother and a few others fled to a nearby swamp that was surrounded by sunflowers. She said they stayed until the shooting stopped.
“My mother kept assuring me everything would be fine,” she said. “I believed my mother.”
When Germany was defeated and the war ended, Toll painted a picture she called Queen of Freedom that featured a beaming queen wearing a crown and holding a staff.
Toll urged the audience to speak out when they see someone being bullied or discriminated against.
“You shouldn’t be a silent bystander,” she said. “[Speaking out is] the only way this world can survive.”
Toll wrote an award-winning book, Behind the Secret Window.
Her watercolors are displayed at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Illinois Holocaust Education Center and the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel.
A collection of her artwork also will be on display at the Massillon Art Museum through May 18.
Before the ceremony, the winners of the Holocaust Arts and Writing Contest were recognized with plaques and certificates. First-place winners also won a trip to Washington next month to visit the Holocaust museum. Students in grades 6-12 in public and private schools in Summit County submitted entries in visual art, multimedia or writing. This year’s theme was Women of the Holocaust: Stories of Loss, Resistance and Survival.
An exhibit featuring students’ winning artwork will be on display at the main library through Monday. The winning entries, including the multimedia submissions, are available on the commemoration website, www2.akronohio.gov/holocaust/winners.html.
Lydia Harrison, a senior at Coventry High School, won first place for visual art for a charcoal and paint mixed-media picture on canvas that includes images of a man yelling, a mother holding a child and protesters holding signs. She said she wanted to capture a “collaboration of all the feelings of what women were going through.”
Jeremy Adkins, a junior at Green High School, took first place in writing for the older age category and also the Dorothy O. Jackson Best of the Best Award for his poem, The Snow. He wrote, in part: “The white snow was a canvas painted with horror.”
“This is a good way to remember the Holocaust and see how creative we can be,” Adkins said of the contest and ceremony. “It’s important to remember it.”
For the first time this year, students from Chemnitz, Germany, one of Akron’s sister cities, participated in the contest.
The city has invited students from Kiryat Ekron, Israel, another sister city, to join in the future.
All activities for the Holocaust Commemoration are funded by donations. Contributions to the trust fund that supports the event can be made by calling 330-375-2345.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705 or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @swarsmith and on Facebook: www.facebook.com/swarsmith. Read the Beacon Journal’s political blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/ohio-politics.