Sonoma artist gives a voice to the silenced 6 million

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Barbara Shilo was never shipped off to a concentration camp. She wasn't starved or gassed. She didn't lose her family.

But the traumas of anti-Semitism experienced in her childhood nonetheless tormented her for the rest of her life.

Every Monday following a morning religion class, the kids at Shilo's Czechoslovakia elementary school were unmercifully cruel.

"Your people killed Christ," they'd snap at Shilo, the lone Jew in her class and now an award-winning artist living in Sonoma County.

"By Wednesday we were friends again, but that only lasted until the next Monday."

It would be more than half a century before she could work through her trauma — and the guilt of surviving when 6 million Jews had died — through art.

In her upcoming San Francisco exhibition, "Silent Voices Speak: Remembering the Holocaust," Shilo gives a voice to those who lost their lives.

Shilo's art will be on display April 1 through May 15 at the Herbst International Exhibition Hall, in conjunction with an exhibition and lecture series on the Holocaust and social injustices.

A small child living in Germany at the time Hitler came to power, Shilo distinctly remembers the three-story-high flags flying high with huge black swastikas emblazoned upon white circles. She remembers the men in brown shirts marching through the streets.

She even remembers feeling "a sense of anxiety" and "a lack of security" when she overheard her father talking about "men disappearing, about torture and castration."

She was less than 10 when she left Europe in 1938, but "as a Jew I was subliminally aware I was different. It sort of just came with the territory."

That territory is exhumed in "Conclusion to the Final Solution," one of her works in the exhibit, which reveals a mass grave filled with bones, heads, torsos and limbs. "By painting them, I wanted to give a decent burial to these bodies. Their deaths were completely anonymous. I wanted to put a human face on it."

The 14 mixed-media paintings portray a historical timeline of the events between 1933 and 1945 that took so many lives. Based on archival photographs from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the works depict events ranging from deportation and death camps to liberation and survivors.

Shilo never had to suffer the atrocities depicted in "Silent Voices Speak." Fleeing Germany in 1933 to settle in Czechoslovakia, her parents again feared the worst five years later and decided to escape to the United States.

There they joined her mother's family in Brooklyn and all thoughts turned to acclimating, learning English and making a living. They never mentioned the mass genocide that destroyed her father's side of the family, or the fact that it could have been them.

"It simply became a forbidden item," said Shilo, who studied at the Art Students League and the New School for Social Research in New York and holds a degree in psychology from New York University. "Unconsciously, you knew that you survived and others didn't."

And that knowledge produced guilt.

In fact, it took more than 50 years before Shilo could face the subject of the Holocaust head-on. Before that, she acquired book after book on the subject "out of duty" and never read a one. And despite a career as a prolific artist, with several awards and exhibitions, she never broached the subject in her artwork.

During the 1970s, Shilo moved to Sonoma County with her husband and two sons. Along with her painting career, she and her husband ran a winery for 10 years, before he passed away in 1989.

It wasn't until the late 1990s that the full-time painter thought about, and fervently rejected, the idea of using the Holocaust as a subject.

"I though since it was something I had not experienced firsthand, I couldn't really do it justice," said Shilo. "It was an unthinkable idea that put a lot of fear into me."

But the idea wouldn't leave her.

"I decided to bite the bullet," she said.

As it turned out, the anticipation of the pain was much worse than the actuality. As Shilo began her research in 1998, she said, "I became immersed in it, and the fear left me. There was no turning back."

The first Holocaust piece she completed, "Children Behind Barbed Wire," started out with an 8-by-10 photograph of 30 Polish children imprisoned in Auschwitz. After having about a dozen different-sized reproductions made of the photo on paper, she began cutting them up and pasting them in various ways on a 24-by-50-inch foam core. She painted the children with opaque watercolors called gouache and covered them in barbed wire.

"Now instead of 30, I had about 120 little faces, little bodies," she said.

"Research shows us 1 million children died in the Holocaust, but you cannot comprehend or conceive of a number. I wanted onlookers to see these children as individual faces, not numbers."

Shilo completed her first piece at the end of January 1998, when she immediately began her second piece. Interrupted only once by a brief illness, by December 1999 she had completed the series of 14 works and experienced "a major release of something from my system.

"A lot of things came back to me during the process," she said. "In fact, I'm sure that deep down this whole project had to do with the kind of emotions which went through me as a child."

The paintings have since been traveling around the United States, including a showing at Sonoma State University in April 2000. They will headline the upcoming exhibition and lecture series, which is also called "Silent Voices Speak."

Shilo's work will be accompanied by the exhibit "Visas for Life: The Righteous Diplomats," which identifies and honors diplomats who rescued Jews and other refugees during the Holocaust. It will also be accompanied by a 10-part lecture series featuring scholars, human rights leaders, survivors, civic leaders, journalists and performing artists.

While Shilo said she can sympathize with the desire to push the Holocaust out of one's mind, she hopes that the upcoming exhibition, which teaches about history through art, will be something people won't ignore.