The back story of the Mercer County Community College exhibition, “From Warsaw Ghetto to Darfur,” now on view at the Gallery at Mercer County College, begins in secret. On a trip to Darfur, Cherry Hill pediatrician Jerry Ehrlich said he “stuffed the children’s drawings into the pages of the New York Times” to get them out of Africa without detection. The humanitarian group for which he had volunteered his services, Doctors without Borders, would have confiscated the drawings had they found them. Much worse would have happened if Sudanese officials had discovered his ploy. But after witnessing the medical and psychological horrors burdening the survivors who had escaped genocide in Darfur and who were now deposited in the refugee camp he was administering, Ehrlich decided to risk it.
Recalling the book, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly,” which contains children’s poems and drawings from one of Hitler’s concentration camps for Jews, Ehrlich brought 25 boxes of crayons and 400 pieces of drawing paper to the kids in the Darfur camp. He was surprised to receive 157 artworks from the children, and the results now on exhibit are haunting.
Put together by the Mercer County Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center, the exhibition portrays the Holocaust and Darfur genocides mostly at a distance from the violence, although the documentary photographs of starved and abused Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, on loan from the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, are vivid reminders. In addition to the children’s drawings smuggled out of Darfur by Ehrlich are snapshots taken in the camps by Ehrlich and others. Also on display are photographer Jerry Casciano’s contemporary images of concentration camps and survivors.
Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes and Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04) attended the show’s opening on Wednesday, October 13, along with West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh. Smith, known for his support of human rights, said vehemently that “Darfur continues to fester and we [the United States] haven’t done enough. We’re AWOL frankly.”
While the more recent genocide at Darfur isn’t yet burned into our collective conscience, the Holocaust is, and this exhibition provides painful recollections. Particularly striking is the Warsaw Ghetto image of smug Nazis gazing up at the burning buildings around them, clearly satisfied with their results. Other images document the deep poverty and weakened state of Jewish children and adults, including skeletal remains thrown into open pits.
Casciano’s portraits of survivors living in New Jersey are pictured with objects that remind each of the 15 survivors of their times in the camps. One of them, Sam Kujowski, whose tragically lined face marks his history, holds a piece of bread, symbolic of his interaction with an SS guard. The guard told the starving 17-year-old that if he made furniture for him he would give him some bread. He did make furniture but never got fed, and one day was left for dead on a pile of dead and starving people. The guard came to find him and said, “Here is the bread I promised you,” and threw it on the ground in front of him. When Sam crawled on his hands and knees to pick it up to eat it, the officer kicked his teeth in.
As a U.S. soldier during World War II, Jerry Casciano’s father was a liberator of the camps. Casciano recalls that his father often spoke about his experiences, so much so that Jerry was deeply affected. “There’s this thing in me; I’ve got to go there,” he said to himself. So in 2004 Casciano and his wife toured the haunted grounds of Treblinka, Birkenau, and Auschwitz, along with the Warsaw Ghetto and Kracow. His images, devoid of people and taken in the dead of winter, capture the tone of those horrific places. Symbols can be more powerful than more direct approaches, and his shots of both the entry gate to Auschwitz and of the fork in the train tracks at Treblinka that lead to either death or survival are particularly effective.
Genocide itself has proved difficult to define, much less for governments and peoples to admit to it. The Turkish government still refuses to admit to the Ottoman genocide of Armenians during and just following World War I. The Nazis’ genocide of Jews between 1941 and 1945 led to a U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide in 1948, but it took 50 years to register the first international conviction for genocide — on Rwanda’s former prime minister.
There are many factors that lead to genocidal tendencies. In Darfur, a western region within the African country of Sudan, the Sudanese government received complaints from Dafurian Arabs that they weren’t equally represented in the government and therefore didn’t have the power to make claims on land and resources. Arabs — animal herding pastoralists — comprised only 2.5 million of Darfur’s total of 6.5 million people in 1987.
The government in turn formed a militia group called the Janjaweed in 2003 to launch a racially biased land-grab, killing or starving over 300,000 of Darfur’s black agricultural tribes. As the children’s drawings so dramatically illustrate, the government-sponsored militia came in on horseback wielding machine guns, and government forces also blew villages to smithereens from the air. An estimated 2.7 million Darfurians have been displaced from their homes.
A cease-fire agreement was signed between the government and the non-Arab rebel forces, but the tension remains. Most Darfurians are Muslim, but there is an unspoken north (Arab)-south (non-Arab) divide in Sudan that will not disappear. Almost no one, including Rep. Chris Smith and Ehrlich, is confident that the cease-fire will hold. As Ehrlich says, the Sudanese government claims that the “malnutrition [that he was treating in the refugee camp] doesn’t exist. It’s western propaganda.”
“From the Warsaw Ghetto to Darfur: Photos, Text, and Commentaries,” Gallery at Mercer County College, Communications Center, second floor, 1200 Old Trenton Road. On view through Friday, November 5. 609-586-4800, ext. 3589 or www.mccc.edu.
Gallery hours are Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Thursday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; or by special appointment.
Dale Cotton is a writer and photographer whose book, “Princeton Modern: Highlights of Campus Architecture from the 1960s to the Present,” was recently published.