A group of high school students huddled around an archival pigment drawing that featured two marching soldiers carrying off a golden Menorah. The students pointed to the details etched on the canvas and discussed possible meanings behind the colors and shapes.
These students were exploring the latest exhibit on display at the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs gallery as part of a Holocaust learning lab exercise. The exhibit, “All This Has Come Upon Us…” featured 42 works by award-winning artist, author and physician Mark Podwal. Podwal’s collection illustrates historical tragedies and injustices suffered by the Jewish people since the days of Pharaoh.
Each work, conceived as a page of a book, consists of a colorful drawing paired with a psalm from the Book of Psalms. The original exhibition premiered in April 2014 at the Terezin Ghetto Museum outside of Prague. In 2015, it was on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU (JMOF) after Dr. Paul Drucker bought the collection and donated it to JMOF. The exhibit was displayed at the Green School in the spring and has since closed.
To mark the closing of the exhibit in the gallery, the Green School hosted an interactive learning lab with a group of high school students – members of Interfaith Youth Miami, an initiative to promote understanding and foster new friendships between various faith communities.
Saif Y. Ishoof, vice president for engagement at FIU, reached out to the student group and told them about the exhibit at the Green School. Pedro D. Botta, senior director of strategic initiatives at the Green School, helped organize the event and worked with the students to connect them with Oren Stier, the director of the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program. The event was funded by Auschwitz survivor Tibor Hollo’s gift to the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program.
Stier led the learning lab, giving students a tour of the exhibit and providing historical and contextual information about the paintings, the Psalms as well as the religion and history of the Jewish people.
Students discussed and analyzed several pieces of the collection and shared their thoughts on possible reasons behind the artist’s choices in depicting historical, religious and cultural situations through symbolism.
“This active learning exercise was about using the exhibition as a tool to facilitate a discussion about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust,” Stier explained. “I wanted the students to learn something about the experiences of hate and intolerance and how that is relevant today. Visual culture is a tool for expression and interfaith conversation.
Stier added, “I don’t want these students to just look at art in a museum. I want them to see. When you really look, you really see, and then you really understand.”
Alexander Sutton, the founder of the high school interfaith group and a rising senior at Coral Gables Senior High School, said that one of the best parts of the activity was learning more about the interconnectedness between the three Abrahamic religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – throughout the lab.
“I can relate to this as a non-Jew,” Sutton said. “The lab was extremely enriching. As a group, we hadn’t done an in-depth look into faith and history yet. We went deep today. The big takeaway for me is that the history of the Jewish people is even longer and filled with more oppression than people often realize.”
Mia Crabill, a rising junior at Coral Gables High, said that participating in the activity inspired her to talk with her rabbi to learn more about the things she discovered throughout the workshop.
“I think using art is an incredible way to convey a message,” Crabill said. “Art was something Jews turned to as a form of expression during difficult times, and it’s something that should be studied.”
Khalil Chebbi, a rising junior at Coral Reef Senior High School said the lab introduced him to new concepts regarding Jewish theology and history.
“It’s incumbent upon me to learn about these people,” said Chebbi. “Their history is my history.”
Solange Acosta, a rising junior at Coral Reef High, said the lesson learned was simple: “We have to have empathy and awareness about others no matter what our faith or beliefs are.”
Mark Podwal's drawing featuring soldiers marching off with a menorah. To the right is a representation of Psalm 44:18. Artwork Credit: Mark Podwal.
The exhibition at the Green School was co-sponsored by the FIU Holocaust and Genocide Studies Program, the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, the Global Jewish Studies Program, Hillel at FIU and the Green School Arts & Humanities Initiative – which focuses on highlighting the intersection between the social sciences and the arts.