GSE Lecturer Found Peace During Holocaust Through Art

During the Second World War, when she was a child hiding with her mother in Nazi-occupied Poland, Nelly Toll spent 13 months in a one-bedroom apartment in the city of Lwów.

Polish Jews, Nelly and her mother, Rose, hid with a Christian family who were friends of Nelly’s father, Zygmunt. Toll and her mother began hiding in the spring of 1943 and stayed in the one-bedroom apartment until September of 1944—around 400 days or 9,600 hours.

Like all children her age, 8-year-old Toll grew bored and restless cooped up inside every day. To help her pass time and keep her occupied, with Toll’s mother’s permission, Krysia, the woman who was hiding them, asked another tenant, Olga, who had known Toll’s father before the war, if she would purchase a small box of watercolors, a paint brush, and sheets of paper for Toll. Olga, risking her safety, for she had no children, agreed.

Ready with her watercolors, Toll began to paint, spending hours on each picture, drafting them in pencil first before touching them with her brush.

“The art was a saving grace because it kept me busy,” says Toll, a lecturer in the Graduate School of Education. “I could spend all day painting.”

Toll’s innocent mind created make-believe lands full of vibrant, rich, and striking colors, and good, happy, and civilized people. Her worlds were without war, danger, violence, or cruelty.

Toll says she was able to create such upbeat and beaming works of art while surrounded by terror and dread because of her mother.

“She was my teacher, my girlfriend, my doctor, and she assured me that things will be fine, we will be liberated from Hitler,” she says. “And I believed her. I didn’t question it. I spent the day making these little pictures.”

Toll’s mother encouraged her painting and imaginary play, helping her create her stories and bring them to life, but also impressed upon her the importance of education, and gave her lessons on math and English. Olga would bring adult books from the library and Toll’s mother would translate them to Toll’s elementary level.

“She brought books, believe it or not, of [Russian novelists] Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and my mother made it simplified,” says Toll.

After reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Toll made up her own story and painting showing Eliza, an enslaved black woman in the book, running away with a child to find safety.

“Perhaps I thought of my mother running with me,” Toll says.

Toll became so enthralled with her paintings that she forgot the constant danger that she, her mother, and the family hiding them were living in; at any moment, the Nazis could barge through door and kill them all.

“The reason that they didn’t take the apartment was because it was only one bedroom,” Toll says. “If it was bigger, they would have taken it.”

By the time they were liberated, Toll had made 64 paintings. Twenty-nine are depicted in her memoir, “Behind the Secret Window: A Memoir of a Hidden Childhood During World War Two,” which was published in 1993.

Toll’s father and little brother did not survive the Holocaust. She moved to the United States with her family and attended college in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

She received her undergraduate degree from Rowan University, her master’s degree in art and art history from Rutgers, and her Ph.D. from Penn.

Over the years, Toll’s childhood art has been exhibited in many different museums and institutions around the world. She has donated pieces to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem in Israel. The first comprehensive exhibition of her work was at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif., and the University of California, Santa Cruz in the 1990s.

An exhibition of her work was featured at the Massillon Museum in Massillon, Ohio, in 2014, which has been developed by the museum into “Imagining a Better World: The Artwork of Nelly Toll,” a traveling exhibit containing reproductions of her work. The exhibition recently closed at the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio and is currently showing at the Dennison Railroad Depot Museum in Dennison, Ohio. Next year, it will be on display at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada.

Heather Bullach, traveling exhibits coordinator at the Massillon Museum, says Toll's paintings make a wonderful traveling exhibit because of how powerful and universal her story is.

“It’s very specific in that she was a Jewish girl who was persecuted for her faith and ethnicity, but there are universal themes of bullying and acceptance that can really speak to anybody,” she says. “It’s really fascinating being drawn into the imagination of little girl who created these really beautiful, happy scenes when she was surrounded with such tragedy.”

In January, as part of official events marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day and 50 years of German-Israeli relations, the exhibit “Art from the Holocaust: 100 Works from the Yad Vashem Collection” opened at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, the largest-ever presentation of artwork from the Yad Vashem Art Collection outside of Israel.

The exhibition, which closed on April 3, featured artwork from 50 artists, 24 of whom were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. Two of Toll’s paintings were featured in the exhibit; she is the only artist still living among the 50 artists displayed.

“Ms. Toll’s paintings fit the theme of the exhibition, namely the tension the artists felt between their desire to document reality and their need to break free through their art to the realms of imagination and beauty,” writes Eliad Moreh-Rosenberg, co-curator of the exhibition and director of the Art Department at Yad Vashem, in an email. “The two pieces chosen reflect her ability as a child to escape through art to an alternative world enabling her to do everything she is not able or allowed to do as a persecuted Jew.”

Toll and her husband, Ervin, attended the opening of the exhibition in Berlin and she sat next to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

“The city is beautiful,” Toll says. “We were treated beautifully,”

Toll still paints. While the paintings in her youth were detailed watercolors, she now uses acrylic to create large, abstract paintings.

Toll remained very close with her mother before she passed away.

“She was a super lady,” she says. “I wish she was here to see all this happening.”

GSE Lecturer Found Peace During Holocaust Through Art