Bouquets and bigotry

Finding strength through art in the decades after the Holocaust


Artwork by David Labkovski

This painting by Labkovski hangs in Medved’s living room. It inspired her to write this story.

By Shoshana Medved, Oak Park High School - CA

In the living room of my house hangs a painting of a beautiful bouquet.

The canvas explodes with hues of periwinkle, merigold and fuschia. Emerald leaves sprout from soaring stems, and dozens more scatter across the ground. A glass vase glistens beneath the grove of flowers.

I had never given it much attention before. My parents told me that one of my ancestors painted it, but I didn’t know anything more than that — and frankly, I didn’t see the reason to explore deeper. Sure, a member of my family was an artist and it was cool that one of his pictures was hanging up in my house, but he died … I felt no real connection.

That is, until four years ago, when my aunt Leora Raikin hauled some more pictures out from my grandparents’ garage. They were wrapped in brown paper and bubble wrap, and shipped directly from Israel. The paintings had been collecting dust for years, and Raikin never seemed to have time to focus on them. Yet when she mentioned the artwork to her friends at dinner one night, they seemed genuinely interested in this artist’s story. Immediately her curiosity was reignited.

This artist’s name was David Labkovski. He was a Holocaust survivor.

During World War II, Labkovski spent his months in a Siberian Gulag. Authorities had flagged him as a Communist, and he was starving in the blistering cold. Thanks to his artistic skills, Labkovski became a tattoo artist there. Despite his experience suffering in prison, a far worse fate befell the Jews in his hometown of Vilna, Lithuania. After the war, he returned to Vilna, only to find that most of his family and friends had been murdered.

It is now 70 years later, but for my family, his story echoes. My aunt has started a non-profit organization, the David Labkovski Project, in his memory. It’s dedicated to teaching students about the Holocaust through his art. Soon, it may be coming to Oak Park High School.

“This is a program that is suitable for high school students, as well as eighth grade students,” Raikin said. “We’d like to see it in every school across the country.”

Raikin along with her Director of Education, Stephanie Wolfson, have already visited dozens of locations with this project. Their travels have taken them to Mexico, South Africa and Lithuania. In September, they opened an exhibition at the Los Angeles City Hall. They have reminded students of the importance of remembering the Holocaust.

“If anything, this program teaches tolerance,” Raikin said.

This course is aimed at high school classrooms, and is designed to last one semester. There are weekly sessions, in which pupils rewind through history using Labkovski’s drawings as a blueprint. After exploring his work, they reflect on his pieces through poetry and their own artwork.

“We’ve had students say to us things like, ‘I could see that he was in pain, but when I was drawing the circles under his eyes, I felt it,’” Wolfson said.

The David Labkovski Project is not only significant for the Jewish community. Wolfson mentioned that by shining light on the hatred that existed during the Holocaust, people can reflect on current issues in the world. Using this knowledge of the past, they can come to fair judgements about the future.

“Hatred has been given a platform,” Wolfson said. “How we respond to that hatred, as individuals, communities, societies or countries is really important.”

At OPHS, there is some Holocaust education already in place. In tenth grade World History, students watch and discuss “Schindler’s List” during their World War II unit. This film was first implemented into the curriculum over 15 years ago.

“It’s always the intent to build empathy, understanding and compassion,” World History teacher Todd Creason said. “You’re always going to have people out there who discount it or minimize [the Holocaust], but the main thing is that you want to make sure people understand that it did take place.”

Tenth grade students also read “Night” by Elie Wiesel in their English classes. It, too, has been in the curriculum for over a decade.

English II Honors teacher, Jan Willis, believes that her students respond maturely to this novel, and become more compassionate after studying the text. Willis regards her unit as something absolutely necessary.

“I believe that Holocaust education must be an integral part of any school — high school or middle school — which seeks to educate students on the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust and the loss of millions of Jews and other ‘undesirables,’” Willis wrote to the Talon. “Just as important, Holocaust education addresses the dangers of ultra-nationalism, hate for perceived ‘others,’ and passive ‘bystanders’ who do not stand up for goodness and equality.”

Artwork by David Labkovski
David Labkovski’s painting depicts his sister’s home in Vilna, Lithuania before the Holocaust.

Discussions about tolerance and kindness are promoted throughout the grades — yet, anti-Semitism still continues. Much of it can be found close to home.

In March, high schoolers from Newport Beach, a school only a couple hours away, arranged red plastic cups in the shape of a swastika at a party. The following month, a shooting occurred at a synagogue in Poway, San Diego. The suspect behind the attack was only 19-years-old.

According to a Claims Conference survey, almost half of Americans cannot name a single concentration camp. For those between the ages of 18 and 34, the percentage is even higher. Thanks to this and other information, Claims Conference has reached a conclusion: the Holocaust is fading from people’s memories. 

“There’s such a danger today in students not knowing about [the Holocaust],” Raikin said, “We’ve been into schools where not a single student has ever heard of the Holocaust. The number six million means nothing to them.”

Creason believes that most of his pupils recognize this “six million” before his discussion. However, even after his lesson, he thinks that some still say hurtful things.

“Unfortunately sometimes on campus you’ll hear certain things that people say or do that they obviously don’t understand,” Creason said. “[It] saddens me.”

Senior Jojo Sharpstone is a student ambassador for the David Labkovski Project. She is passionate about the project, where her job includes organizing paintings and setting up luncheons.

“It’s one way to learn about [the Holocaust] and read all these sources,” Sharpstone said. “But I think having this first-hand experience [of Labkovski’s paintings] and looking at something, knowing that he once painted that … I think that’s a lot different.”

I am the great-grandniece of David Labkovski. And for a long time, I always avoided talking about the Holocaust, thinking it was too uncomfortable of a topic to bring up. I was scared of other people’s reactions, worried they would dismiss me for talking about something that happened such a long time ago. With so many impending issues upon us, why did I need to focus on history?

I have finally realized the answer. After talking about it to Raikin, she summarized my thoughts into a single sentence.

“If you care about the future, you must understand the past,” she said.

What this means to me is simple: No more hiding, no more pretending and no more acting like bigotry just goes away.

Now, when I pass by my living room and see that painting of the bouquet, I smile.

This story was originally published on The Oak Park Talon on December 12, 2019.