HOUSTON, TX (Aug. 31, 2010) – For Wendy Cohen, daughter of Holocaust survivor Bill Morgan, not knowing what the family her father was forced to leave behind looked like was an unbearable agony. He had to leave with nothing, not even a photograph.
Holocaust survivor Walter Kase with artist Lois Gibson and portrait of his sister, Rysia.
“Having visited his hometown, the ghetto where his family was last seen alive and all the various hiding places which enabled him to survive, I was able to put some closure to a lot of unanswered questions, but the most important piece of my father’s past was still left to my imagination,” she said. “What did his family look like?”
Shortly after Yom HaShoah services in April this year, she recalls standing next to her father. “During the service, he was very upset and said, ‘I can still remember their faces.’”
Only a few days later, Cohen was watching the evening news when a story broke about a criminal wanted by police and a sketch was shown of the suspect. “I realized that it may be possible to bring to light the faces of family members lost by Holocaust survivors,” she said.
The result was a new project at Holocaust Museum Houston – the “Soul Survivor Project” funded by Cohen and her husband Howard – that aims to give Houston-area survivors something more tangible to remember lost relatives by than just a memory – the faces of their loved ones as they remember them.
Cohen contacted Holocaust Museum Houston and then the Houston Police Department, who referred her to forensic artist Lois Gibson, billed by The Guinness Book of World Records as “The World’s Most Successful Forensic Artist,” and Gibson agreed to use her skills to help survivors recall their families.
Gibson’s sketches have helped law enforcement bring in more than 1,060 criminals, and she has appeared on numerous national television programs for her law enforcement work over the years. But she had never done this type of recall work before.
“The drawings I am doing for these survivors are much different from the drawings I do for law enforcement agencies,” Gibson said. “I am able to make the drawings I am doing for these Holocaust survivors into beautiful portraits of people that are loved. The police sketches are of hated, wanted criminals. My burden for the Holocaust survivors is huge; I need to create a lasting image of someone who was taken away in a most brutal manner. I need to give them a lasting portrait so that loved ones image won’t be lost to the following generations of relatives.”
Gibson sits with each survivor for one to two hours and listens as they describe the face of a relative lost in the Holocaust. The end results are lifelike portraits that eventually will be placed on exhibit at the Museum. So far, four have been completed, but the Museum hopes to continue the project as long as funding permits.
“The sketches for my Holocaust survivors are easier in that my ‘witness’ who is describing the individual has seen them much more often and for a longer time than my crime witnesses,” Gibson said. “However, the immense grief at having lost their loved one in such a horrendous way and all the other struggles and losses they went through during that time cause them to block more of their memories than victims of street crimes. It has been a struggle laced with grief to have them relive seeing those faces again after all these years.”
“It is impressive,” said survivor Walter Kase, whose youngest sister Rysia was lined up with other children in a Jewish ghetto in Poland and shot to death. “It is exactly as I remember her,” he said of her drawing.
Holocaust Museum Houston is dedicated to educating people about the Holocaust, remembering the 6 million Jews and other innocent victims and honoring the survivors' legacy. Using the lessons of the Holocaust and other genocides, the Museum teaches the dangers of hatred, prejudice and apathy.
Holocaust Museum Houston’s Morgan Family Center is free and open to the public and is located in Houston’s Museum District at 5401 Caroline St., Houston, TX 77004. For more information about the Museum, call 713-942-8000 or visit www.hmh.org.