- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - An exhibit beginning Tuesday at Shelton State Community College will provide an intimate look at the lives of 20 Alabamians who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust firsthand.

Painter Mitzi Levin and photographer Becky Seitel created the exhibit, which will be on display through April 10.

Levin said it’s vital that today’s generation learn about the genocide of 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany during Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.

“The biggest thing is we want to keep the stories of the Holocaust alive for people to know the history of what happens when things get too out of control and people don’t speak up and treat people right,” Levin said.

The idea for the exhibit began in 2005, when Levin and Seitel attended a Holocaust program at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham. The accounts they heard that day from Holocaust survivors inspired Levin and Seitel. Over the next two years, they created 78 paintings and photographs of 20 Holocaust survivors who live in Alabama.

Their completed work, called “Darkness into Life: Alabama Holocaust Survivors Through Photography and Art,” went on display at the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center and the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum. Since 2008, the exhibit has traveled throughout the state.

The traveling exhibit that will be at Shelton State beginning at 3 p.m. Tuesday is much smaller than the original exhibit. It consists of 17 panels that will display the 78 original pieces as well as maps and biography information on the survivors.

Telling the story of 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Max Steinmetz’s story through painting was difficult, Levin said.

“We wanted people to be able to relate to these people,” Levin said. “Some of them had normal lives before the Holocaust. We wanted to humanize them more because when you read millions of people died, it’s kind of hard to take all that in. So my first paintings were of their experiences before the Holocaust.

“With Max … he and his family are brought to Auschwitz (a Nazi concentration camp) on a very long train ride. They were told when they got on the train that they would be taken to an area where they can work on farms. When the cattle car doors are open, they are at Auschwitz and their family was separated so the able-bodied people could be slave labor and the old and young were taken to the gas chambers.”

Levin said a young Steinmetz went outside because he smelled a terrible stench in the air and thought there was a fire.

Another prisoner told him that the smell and the burning were his family being disposed of in the Nazi crematorium.

“Ashes are in the air,” Levin said. “The painting I did was him in that moment leaning on a brick wall with a horrible tortured look on his face. It’s called ‘Moment of Truth.’ “

Levin said none of the Holocaust survivors she’s worked with - there are 16 still alive of the 20 interviewed for the project - enjoy retelling the stories. But they share their memories because they want people to know what happened and they want to speak for those who didn’t survive.

“This exhibit was put together to document this and continue the teaching when these people are no longer here to tell these stories,” Levin said.

Levin said Seitel came up with the name “Darkness Into Life” because they wanted the exhibit to tell a story of going from a dark period to a better time. Many of the photographs that Seitel shot were of the survivors decades after the Holocaust. They lived good lives in Alabama after the slavery and slaughter of loved ones they experienced in their youth.

Levin said a phase of her paintings, called “Liberation,” also reflects that “into life” experience of the survivors.

“In Max’s case, where he was when liberation came is he was being taken on a death march where the Germans wanted to get rid of people as the war was ending to hide what they had done,” she said. “They were marching in the snow, and he was able to escape.”

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Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, https://www.tuscaloosanews.com


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