Nelly Toll was just six years old in 1941, when Nazi troops invaded her hometown of Lwów, Poland. Like Anne Frank, she chronicled her experiences as a Jewish child in hiding. Toll also wrote short stories of a happier imaginary world, and illustrated her creations with watercolor paintings. Those childhood paintings and writings now form one of the largest extant collections of rare Holocaust artifacts created by a child.
Visitors can experience more than 50 digital reproductions of Toll’s childhood paintings, now on display through March 31, at the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Campus of the San Antonio Jewish Community, 12500 N.W. Military Highway. Those interested in viewing the exhibit should call the Campus at (210) 302-6807 to ensure access.
Visitors should also stop at the Holocaust Memorial Museum on the same floor, open weekdays 9 a.m. to noon and Sunday, from 1-3 p.m. Just outside the museum hallway is a series of framed images, one for each of the first five books of the Old Testament, created from micro-calligraphy.
Dr. Toll, who is a university professor, will also visit San Antonio to give an artist’s talk at the Campus of the Jewish Community on March 2, at 6:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. To make a reservation, call (210) 302-6807.
A second presentation will be held at the Little Flower School on March 3, at 10 a.m. The free event will admit up to 200 members of the general public. Reservations are required, so call (210) 732-9207 to secure your seat.
Toll and her mother were separated from her father and brother, who died during the Holocaust, by 1943. They spent 18 months confined indoors, forced into hiding in the home of a Catholic couple.
They were unable to leave the single small bedroom, and often hid behind the curtain of a bricked up window when outsiders entered the apartment, many times narrowly avoiding discovery. She and her mother were eventually liberated by the Russian army in 1944, and they later emigrated to the United States.
More than half a century later, Toll continues to paint. She travels around the country sharing her story, speaking against intolerance while celebrating the indomitability of the human spirit and the power of art. Toll is also the author of “Behind the Secret Window,” an award-winning memoir of her experiences during the war.
Toll’s watercolors can be found on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and are among the collections of the Illinois Holocaust Education Center and Museum and Yad Vashem Museum in Israel.
An exhibit, which featured the entirety of Toll’s original paintings and recreated her hiding place, received the 2014 Best Exhibition of the Year by the Ohio Museums Association. “Art from the Holocaust,” a current exhibition at the German Historical Museum of Berlin, includes two of Dr. Toll’s paintings. In January, Toll was greeted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the exhibit’s opening.
Toll’s art exhibit at the Jewish Campus and her visit to San Antonio are sponsored by Francine Garza-Vale and the Light One Candle Children’s Education Fund, the Jewish Federation of San Antonio Annual Campaign, and the Alex and Sally Halff Foundation.
Garza-Vale, the founder of the Light One Candle Fund, helped to bring Toll and the exhibit to San Antonio. The fund provides tuition assistance and sponsors fine arts experiences for children that bring together children from different cultures and faith traditions. Garza-Vale has been involved in Catholic-Jewish relations for many years.
“The exhibit and Dr. Toll’s visit are peacemaking efforts,” said Garza-Vale, who views art as “a healing bridge between people and a vehicle of change.” She hopes that Toll’s experiences will encourage many to “work together to imagine a better world, and to see how to love your neighbor as yourself.”
*Top Image: “Girls in the Field,” 1943. By Nelly Toll. Courtesy Photo.