When Bruce Gendelman visited Holocaust sites in 2015, he couldn’t forget the mood or history attached to the surroundings.
Returning to his studio in Florida, the artist felt compelled to create works based on scenes linked to the era in which many Jewish residents — including some Gendelman ancestors — met gruesome fates.
“As an artist, what I wanted to do is convey a feeling in art form of this impossibly unimaginable thing that happened to not only my relatives but to humanity,” Gendelman said.
The pieces he eventually produced anchor “Sifting Through Ashes,” an exhibit that opened this week at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills.
Displayed through March 27, the nine large-scale oil paintings and 20 photographs previously viewed at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia aim to present a unique take on a turbulent time that still imparts lessons.
“The challenge is people have to start thinking about the world around them,” said Rabbi Eli Mayerfeld, the center’s CEO. “They need the lens of history. They need to understand actual events that happened in the past can inform their thinking about things going on around them.”
Gendelman’s work evolved after the journey to Poland and Ukraine with his sister and brother-in-law.
Through encounters with Holocaust survivors and witnesses and deniers, Gendelman learned his great-grandparents had been corralled, tortured, then marched into a forest, shot and hurled into a pit.
Knowledge of that and other atrocities committed by the Nazis informed the artist’s work in “Sifting Through Ashes.”
Some of the exhibitions include a 12-foot-wide mixed media piece incorporating more than 500 pounds of oil paint, wood, string and newsprint to portray a death camp’s design.
Several paintings depict the ominous chimneys at the Auschwitz II-Birkenau site. Recalling how prisoners erected the smokestacks with trowels, Gendelman wielded the tools to coat the canvas with color.
He also crafted a stark diorama to honor the grandfather who taught him carpentry and lost his parents in the Holocaust.
Myrna Partrich, a Michigan native who lives in Palm Beach, Florida, had glimpsed some of Gendelman’s artwork with her husband, Spencer, and was “extremely moved,” she said. The couple helped pave the way for the exhibit to reach the Holocaust Memorial Center.
“I wanted these to be shown as a learning experience for the public,” Partrich said. “There aren’t many survivors left in the world. ... Things like this should never happen again.”
For visitors, exploring such themes through the exhibit can also spark “a call to action,” Mayerfeld said. “We want people to gain insight into what they see around them so they can act responsibly so they can feel engaged and empowered to deal with what’s going on around them.”
Sifting Through Ashes
Holocaust Memorial Center, 28123 Orchard Lake Road, Farmington Hills. The exhibit, which also features several sculptures by Holocaust Memorial Center survivor Henry Friedman, is open Sunday through Friday and free with museum admission or membership.
Docent-led tours of the exhibit are hosted at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 4 and March 18; 7 p.m. Feb. 12 and March 12. Sign up for a tour by calling (248) 553-2400, ext. 110. For more information: (248) 553-2400.