SEP 29, 2016
What a Holocaust survivor has to say to South L.A. school kids — and how she uses art to connect
By Carolina A. Miranda, Los Angeles Times.
The first period of any school day can be boisterous, with bells ringing, friends catching up on gossip and late arrivals rushing madly through doors. But early on a Thursday morning, the students in teacher Jon Aguado’s history class at Animo Ralph Bunche High School in Los Angeles are respectful and silent.
The only sounds are the low hum of a ventilation system and the soft voice of guest speaker Gabriella Karin recounting her chilling experiences in Slovakia during World War II.
Born to Jewish parents who operated a delicatessen in the heart of Bratislava, she was 11 when she and her family were forced into hiding — much like Anne Frank — to avoid deportation to a Nazi concentration camp.
“In this small, one-bedroom apartment were hiding eight people,” she tells the classroom, holding up a picture of the building in which her family hid as it looks today. “Imagine for nine months sitting on a chair and not being able to move. I could not talk.”
“We were always hungry,” adds Karin, who at 85 rocks a chic, asymmetrical bob. “There was never enough.”
The class is rapt.
When the presentation ends, with a few thoughtful questions from students and a round of applause, the kids, rather than delving into a deep discussion about the history of the Holocaust, reach for art supplies: markers and paint brushes and paper and stacks of Plexiglas discs that will serve as their canvas.
Karin’s talk — and the flurry of art-making that follows — is part of an innovative program established by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust that uses art to teach public schoolchildren about the Holocaust.
For three years, the museum has partnered with three high schools and one junior high in underserved areas — Animo Ralph Bunche, Animo Watts High School and Alain LeRoy Locke College Preparatory Academy, all in South Los Angeles neighborhoods, and Hawthorne’s Prairie Vista Middle School — arranging for L.A. schoolkids to visit the museum and for guest speakers from the museum to visit those schools in return.
These exchanges culminate in collaborative class art projects — paintings, installations, group quilts and massive mobiles made out of Plexiglas discs — that the museum then displays in its galleries. (Currently on view is the mobile inspired by Karin’s talk.)
To occupy herself during that period, Karin says she read everything she could lay her hands on — from Dostoevsky to Tolstoy.
“Everything can be taken from you — even the clothes you wear,” Karin tells the class. “But no one can take away what’s in your head, so put good things in there.”
Her words resonate with the students, who write words such as “faith” and “hope” on the small plastic discs they’ve been given. One young man stencils out the phrase, “They can’t take what’s in your mind.”
Since the pilot in 2013, the Share Our Stories art program has been staged on various occasions at the participating schools. One student, Robert Lara, now a senior at Animo Ralph Bunch, was so taken with what he learned during his session that he ended up working at the museum as a summer intern last year.
“I got really into it,” he says. “It was just so interesting.”
In addition to the history lesson, someone like Karin can be an important point of inspiration to students in low-income, underserved communities — some of whom are the children of Central American refugees or refugees themselves.
Despite the grim reality of the war years, Karin was able to move with her husband in 1960 to Los Angeles, where she had a long and successful career in the fashion industry. These days she is focused on making art and her volunteer work with the museum.
Recounting her life story — the bad and the good — can make a world of difference, says Hutman: “It’s someone who can say, ‘I’m OK. Things started badly for me, but I’m good now.’”
Aguado says that even after the sessions end, his students often continue to bring up their experiences from Share Our Stories. Some take their families to the museum to show off the collaborative artworks put on display.
“They continue talking about it,” he says. “The memory, it continues.”
Art made by L.A. school children via Share Our Stories: Reflections Through Art
Where: Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 100 S. the Grove Drive, Fairfax District, Los Angeles
When: Through Oct. 31
To read the story in the Los Angeles Times, click here.