For the first time in two years and in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah), a multimedia exhibit of gritty imagery and eyewitness testimony is being shown at Pleasanton's Firehouse Arts Center through May 28.
"A lot of it is black-and-white paintings," said Larry Lagin, a local painter and president of the East Bay Holocaust Education Center. "There is some color in a few of the paintings, but it's mostly black and white and it's kind of harsh. The brushstrokes are kind of brash, but I hope people can see some of the emotion that I felt while doing these paintings."
Feeling compelled to tell the stories of hope, resilience and faith, Lagin began painting images he found in photography owned by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and through additional Holocaust photography research as part of a graduate level painting project at University of California, Berkeley.
"I looked through hundreds of photographs," Lagin said, "and basically I didn't want the photographs to be graphic. We're dealing with a very sensitive subject, and as I was developing this, I wanted it to be educational and end with a message of hope and survival."
Lagin said after finishing the paintings, he wanted to add another layer to the project as he fleshed out the idea of turning it into an exhibit. He reached out to University of Southern California's Shoah Foundation to pair his images with some of the foundation's 57,000 first-hand testimonies of Holocaust survivors and paired video testimony with his paintings to take viewers through World War II's timeline.
"The first painting is a picture of a boy," Lagin said. "He's wearing athletic shorts. It was taken before the war and he's smiling. He looked just like my two kids going off to soccer practice and he could be any kid."
While the first image portrays happy youth, the boy featured became a victim of the Holocaust at age 10, Lagin said, and the paintings quickly turn from smiling to somber as the timeline continues. Children being separated from their parents, dying from starvation in the streets of Warsaw and the simple image of a remembrance candle take viewers on a journey through the war.
"The last painting in this series, which is the seventh painting along the journey, shows three kids laying on the ground in the Warsaw Ghetto, starving. I couldn't do that painting for three years. I just couldn't get myself to do it, but I knew it had to be done," Lagin said. "It was gut-wrenching to actually do that painting."
Lagin said the final image of the remembrance candle with a Star of David was a way to remember and honor the estimated 6 million victims, 1.5 million of which were children.
"It took a lot of thought and many years of product development," Lagin said. "It was really hard to do and it was an emotional experience trying to develop it. I actually felt like it became a mission -- almost a labor of love. I felt compelled to do it and it was an honor."
In addition to the exhibit, EBHEC is hosting a talk and book signing with Henry Michalski, son of Holocaust survivors and author of "Torn Lilacs: A True Story of Love, Defiance and Hope" next Tuesday (April 12) at 7 p.m.
"It's a story about his parents surviving the Holocaust," Lagin said. "They're Polish and were imprisoned in (Joseph) Stalin's gulags after the war so it was a 10-year struggle for them ... I think it's important to have these personal stories. They are the most endearing and often the most difficult to hear."
The Firehouse Arts Center is at 4444 Railroad Ave. in downtown Pleasanton. The free exhibit is viewable in the Harrington Gallery during regular gallery hours, Wednesdays to Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Michalski's book will be available for purchase at his event.