"The paper will have your handprints on it," student Lucas Leeds says of drawing with charcoal. "You really become part of the drawing itself." (Photo/Leslie Katz)
"The paper will have your handprints on it," student Lucas Leeds says of drawing with charcoal. "You really become part of the drawing itself." (Photo/Leslie Katz)

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

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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.

Paul Schwarzbart
Paul Schwarzbart

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. 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.”

This portrait resulted from the Studio Survivor Project, which so far has reached more than 700 students and educators. (Photo/Courtesy Farkas Center)
This portrait resulted from the Studio Survivor Project, which so far has reached more than 700 students and educators. (Photo/Courtesy Farkas Center)

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.

Your hands get dirty … The paper will have your handprints on it. You really become part of the drawing itself.

“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.”

Lucas Leeds, a rising senior at Lick-Wilmerding High School who drew Schwarzbart during a Survivor Studio Project workshop in San Francisco last year, described the experience as emotional and immersive. Charcoal, a highly tactile medium, added to that.

Students are instructed to write down resonant words or phrases as they listen to survivor Paul Schwarzbart's testimony. Later, they later include these in their drawings. (Photo/Leslie Katz)
Students are instructed to write down resonant words or phrases as they listen to survivor Paul Schwarzbart’s testimony. Later, they include these in their drawings. (Photo/Leslie Katz)

“Your hands get dirty, your nose will get dirty if you rub your nose. The paper will have your handprints on it,” says the San Francisco teenager, who now sits on the board of the Farkas Center, along with several other peers who’ve participated in the program. “You really become part of the drawing itself.”

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.

In leading the sessions, artist Cohen-Wynn takes cues from the Memory Project, which helps people of all ages connect with the Holocaust by drawing survivors’ portraits.

After a session of the Survivor Studio Project, whose funders include the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund and the Florence and Laurence Spungen Family Foundation, students fill out an online evaluation. According to surveys from 2022 and 2023, 95 percent of respondents said the program gave them a deeper grasp of the Holocaust.

Interacting with survivors has left Leeds with an even broader understanding. “Listening to their stories,” the teen says, “you get a sense of what really matters in life.”

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.