"Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky."
— from Elie Wiesel's "Night"
Mary Burkett of Columbia wants to make one thing clear: Her simple yet elegant pencil drawings are not about her — they're about the Holocaust's youngest victims who happened to have come to life on the pages of her sketchbook.
Her unlikely artistic journey began in January, when she resolved to take up drawing as a hobby and chose as her first subject a black-and-white photograph of a child named Hersch.
"I printed out his picture and began drawing and soon his beautiful little eyes peeked out of the paper at me, and he slowly came to life under my hand," she said. "What I didn't know when I first saw Hersch was that he had died in the Holocaust, murdered at Auschwitz, at 4 years old."
Despite having little or no training, she was entranced by her new image and Hersh Goldberg's tragic story — and she quickly found the inspiration to create more, more than a dozen and counting.
She only recently begun to share them with a few friends and small audiences, and their reactions have encouraged her and stirred up many questions about memory, the innocence of childhood, and the darkest history of the 20th century.
The feeling that she is honoring these children with a personal act of remembrance gives her all the artistic motivation she needs.
As a friend once told her, "You look at their faces, and your heart fills in the rest."
'They peek out at me'
Burkett can carry all her art supplies in a plastic sandwich bag, with enough space left over for half a sandwich.
She uses a reddish pencil and a cotton swab for delicate shading. She doesn't do mockups or preliminary sketches and rarely starts over. She only found herself doing a second version once when she felt the original's facial hues weren't quite right.
"People always ask me what my technique is, and I tell them I don't have any technique," she said. "It's almost like they're already there. They're just hidden away. There's something very subtle about applying the color and all of a sudden, they peek out at me."
Her goal is to draw the child as accurately and faithfully as possible, not that she feels she has the skills to embellish if she wanted to. She is glad photography was less common in the 1940s, when most of the photos were taken, because the subjects don't look posed at all. Their expressions, whether silly, sad or serene, are all authentic.
"My goal is if their mother could be here, she would say, 'This is my little baby.' They're little people to me," she said. "They're not actually drawings."
Hersh led to Edith Bartels, who led to Alida Baruch, who led to others. After her first dozen: "Beloved: Children of the Holocaust."
"In the beginning, I didn't know why I had to draw them," she said. "I just knew I had to draw them."
A spiritual journey
While Burkett has no artistic background, her life experiences tuned her into her new hobby.
When she was only 6 months old, her family moved to Belgium, where she saw fresh scars from World War II and visited other countries from which Jews were rounded up and placed on trains bound for concentration camps.
Meanwhile, Burkett's adult career as a pediatric nurse has allowed her to see children regularly in every state: happy, sad, afraid and suffering. She acknowledges a connection between her approaches as a nurse and as an artist.
"In every one of those situations, the desire in my heart is to take care of them and restore their little normal lives to them," she said.
Burkett was raised a Roman Catholic, so she was not drawn to the Holocaust victims through the Jewish faith. But her faith is very much a part of what's going on.
"As soon as I drew Hersh, this took on a deeply holy meaning to me," she said. "I usually pray about the piece of paper before I start because I want to honor this little life.
"It's not a Jewish thing. It's about life. It's about children. It's about love. It's about caring," she said. "The power resides in the children."
And while their stories are indelibly wrapped up in the history of the Holocaust, Burkett's main message is they're more than that.
"Ruth is a victim. She is a victim, but she's more than that," she said, "and to compartmentalize her that way diminishes her humanity, her innocence, her love, her potential, and that's unacceptable to me. I think you have to celebrate these little lives."
Burkett only recently started showing her work to some close friends. She has done only one public unveiling — an April 23 holocaust remembrance event at the Tree of Life Congregation, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Columbia. She also has showed them to people who happen by her while she is drawing in her local library or another public place.
Barry Abels, director of the Columbia Jewish Federation who helped organize the April 23 event, thought Burkett's images are "pretty phenomenal."
He said he's no art critic, but her soft yellow pages and simple reddish pencil shades combine to create very evocative and emotive images.
"When she flipped through the pad, I felt an almost visceral reaction. It was almost like meeting them," he said. "I think everybody, at least those that I talked to, thought that for somebody unschooled and inexpert, this was really an unusual and amazing situation. She really does seem to bring these children to life.”
When Burkett shows her work, she most always asks her audience two questions:
Who do you think should see them? What do you think should be done with them?
She is still trying to figure out how to proceed. She has copyrighted the drawings at the advice of U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel, a family friend, a move that she hopes will keep them from ever being used in a commercial way. And she is making professional copies of them so they may be displayed outside her flipping her sketchbook. She is open to thoughts about what should come next.
"What is their future? I have no idea," she said of the drawings. "There's a very serendipitous nature to this. I trust God has his own purposes for allowing this to happen."
She has no plans to sell them and said she doesn't care what their value might be. Her main interest to be faithful to the children, "and I want to give them a voice."
While Burkett already has drawn a few more beyond the original 12, she is not sure she will do many more, partly because she has found too few quality photographs from which to work.
She is not sure how long this will last or what she might draw next.
"This was like being called. It's something I had to do," she said. "I wonder to myself sometimes, could I draw anything else?"