Irene Zisblatt, Holocaust Survivor
Holocaust survivor Irene Zisblatt is an authority in the field of hope. “We have to find a way, we have to try,” she says. We have to use our words to spread hope. “There is no room for hate.”
When she was just 13 years old, Irene Zisblatt, along with her siblings and parents were taken on trains to Auschwitz-Birkenau. “I am a child survivor of a man’s hatred, I am the only survivor of my family,” Zisblatt told me as she lowered her eyes and described to me the details of being separated from her mother. Irene and I sat in a cafeteria style booth just outside the gym of the David Posnack Jewish Community Center (JCC). She had just finished her daily workout and had greeted me with a smile like we had known eachother our whole lives. She told me story after story of the horrors of being a young girl alone in the concentration camps. She told me of the glimmers of hope she received from a young boy with a violin, and a friend with whom she didn’t have to speak any words. A girl a few years older than her whose connection would get them through each horrifying day. Her friend’s name was Sebka, and with tears in her eyes, Irene would tell me how Sebka would not get to live her life on this earth but instead would experience her freedom in heaven. She lost her life the day of liberation from illness.
For 50 years after being liberated from the camps Irene did not speak of the Holocaust. She knew no one would have listened or believed a child. When the movie “Schindler’s List” came out in 1994, she realized she had to begin talking about her experiences. There were lessons for humanity in each of her stories. At 90 years old Irene tells her story for Sebka, she tells her story to youth hoping that future generations will learn from it. It was an absolute honor to be on the receiving end of her words. We would meet again another day after another workout. She would have the same smile and heart full of hope waiting for me.
As I worked on her portrait watching the world day by day react to a deadly virus, financial crisis, protestors with guns, and families bickering with each other over their differing opinions, I’m sad knowing Irene can’t go to the gym, or speak to the many people eager to listen. I put my hand on the half painted canvas, closed my eyes and heard the words of this wise, wise woman…
“We have to find a way, we have to try.” “There is no room for hate.”
I have been so fortunate to have experienced extraordinary moments of love over the past few weeks. I am reminded of what Irene told me during our talks. The message of hope she and her friend Sebka spread throughout the camps was; This is temporary, the world is beautiful, life is beautiful, just hang on so you can live and experience it. If she could have that kind of hope then, surely we can have it now.
Inspiration for this portrait was taken from the moments Irene Zisblatt was sharing her stories with artist Lori Pratico.
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