January 26, 2016

Penn GSE lecturer and Holocaust survivor Nelly Toll’s art on display in Berlin

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When she was a girl, Nelly Toll painted bright pictures. She painted women with print dresses and parasols, and a princess who invited Cinderella to her castle for piano concerts. She did not paint self-portraits, or the small room in Poland where she and her mother, both Jewish, hid in 1943 and 1944.

“There is no evidence in the pictures of war, even though any minute our door might have opened to let the Nazis in,” Toll recently told the New York Times.

Art was an escape for Toll, who survived the Holocaust, immigrated to the United States, and is now a lecturer at Penn GSE. 

On Monday night, German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed Toll to Berlin, where some of her paintings are on display at the Deutsche Historische Museum. It is the first international exhibition of Holocaust art from the Yad Vashem gallery in Jerusalem, and Toll is the only remaining living artist.

“The characters on the paper became my friends,” Toll told the Berliner Zeitung. Speaking to the Associated Press at the opening, she said: "I hope that generations to come will look at this and know what atrocities made me do this."

“Girls in the Field,” 1943, by Nelly Toll. Photo courtesy of the Collection of the Yad Vashem Art Museum, Jerusalem, Gift of Nelly Toll

Toll teaches a course in Holocaust literature in the Reading/Writing/ Literacy Division at Penn GSE. She is also a 2000 graduate of the program. Her dissertation, Integrating Holocaust art and aesthetics into the curriculum, looked at engaging middle school students in artistic practice as a bridge to understanding the Holocaust.

Division Chair Gerald Campano praised Toll as “a true Renaissance scholar with expertise in art, literature and history, who brings these passions - along with an incredible sense of humor - into her pedagogy.”

The exhibition runs through April. Read the full story from The New York Times here, and the Berliner Zeitung’s coverage here.