CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — After more than two years of planning, a travelling art exhibit about the Holocaust opened at Illini Hillel’s Cohen Center for Jewish Life on Wednesday.
The exhibit, titled “The Auschwitz Experience in the Art of Prisoners,” features more than 60 pieces created by 12 Auschwitz survivors that depict the horrors they experienced firsthand. It was that perspective that caught the eye of Bob Lehmann, Co-Director of the Holocaust Education Center of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation.
“I thought this would be an interesting perspective of presenting the Holocaust to various groups of people,” Lehman said. “It wasn’t historical photographs or pictures of artifacts. It was a movie-memorable experience of these people that went through the horrors in the tragedy of Auschwitz, and so they depict it in their paintings and their drawings. Because who knows more about what went on there than the people that experienced them?”
Lehmann and fellow Co-Director Brian Kahn began emailing the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland, which owns the exhibit, about bringing it to central Illinois in January of 2020. Their plans would soon be shelved by the pandemic, but 15 months later, they got the green light.
“In July, Brian tells me ‘We’re going to do it,'” Lehman said. “And so we signed the contracts, and we brought the exhibit here.”
The display at the Cohen Center, as well as an earlier display at the Vermilion County Museum in Danville, are the first two times this exhibit is being shown outside of Europe.
Hillel Executive Director Erez Cohen was also involved in the process. Hillel hosts major Holocaust educational programming three or four times per year.
“We are working each year to bring Jewish education to the campus, and specifically Holocaust education, to make sure that we help students on campus, faculty, staff to learn about horrors of the Holocaust and to basically to learn about the importance of human decency,” Cohen said. “It’s on us to continue to educate people about the importance of human life and of human decency to avoid something like the Holocaust or any type of genocide from happening ever again.”
The plan was to open the exhibit at the Cohen Center on January 27, the anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation by the Red Army in 1945. But the Omicron wave put those plans on hold as well.
“We had to shut down the building for the first week of school, which was exactly when International Holocaust Memorial Day was happening,” Cohen said. “And so we had to postpone this three more months to Yom HaShoah.”
Yom HaShoah is Israel’s official day of commemorating the Holocaust.
The delay of the Cohen Center hosting the exhibit allowed the Vermilion County Museum to host it first. That showing, which lasted the entire month of March, was a resounding success.
“The reception there in Danville was just fantastic. Everybody I think that went through was moved in one way or another,” Kahn said. “We got over 2,000 people in a month and left some wonderful comments on the reflection board, and comments to the museum staff and to us.”
“You would almost guarantee a crowd here on campus because there’s so many Jews here, but not in Danville,” Kahn continued. “So I was really taken by that, how many people were truly interested in that.
Lehmann is hoping for a similar turnout at the Cohen Center.
“I hope the community takes advantage of this opportunity and comes in and sees it,” Lehmann said. “I would love to see us do 2,000 people in a week, which would be fantastic.”
Cohen said that after recent incidents of anti-Semitism on campus recently, hosting the exhibit now means a lot.
“Despite the delays in bringing the exhibit to Hillel, having the exhibit here now in April, after we’ve had stones thrown at students on campus for following their Jewish faith, this is a tremendous moment for us,” Cohen said. “We are able to come and show what the development of hate can create in a country and what a horrible thing it is to demonize other people. And I think that for us to have the exhibit here is an opportunity for us to teach the campus about the importance of human decency, the importance of treating each other with respect and the importance of of knowing the past so that we can prevent it from ever happening.”
Cohen said Hillel has sent emails and placed fliers around campus to promote the exhibit and has also invited the university’s administration to see the exhibit. Everyone is welcome to attend as individuals or in groups.
The Auschwitz Experience in the Art of Prisoners will be open until May 6.