TROY — From 1943 to 1944, she hid from the Nazis in a tiny room of a Christian family’s home in Nazi-occupied Poland. On Friday morning, Dr. Nelly Toll shared her story with Van Cleve sixth grade students and staff.
“There is no evidence in the pictures of war, even though any minute our door might have opened to let the Nazis in,” said Toll. “Anyone who helped hide the children would face immediate death or taken to the concentration camp. So Mr. and Mrs. W took a great chance hiding us.”
The family who took her into their home brought Nelly a box of watercolors to entertain her in her year of hiding and she created five dozen brightly colored, detailed watercolor dreams of her ideal world.
Many of the students will visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. this month, where six of the watercolors Toll created while living as a hidden child in Lwow, Poland, are part of the museum’s exhibit. The collection was acquired by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1999.
Toll’s artwork exhibit entitled “Imagining a Better World: The Artwork of Nelly Toll” features 46 digital reproductions of her paintings. Her artwork and other media also is currently on display at the Troy-Hayner Cultural Center through July 10.
“I was about six years old when the Nazis came to our town. The friends I used to have suddenly turned into enemies. There were stones thrown at me and I couldn’t understand why (because) the kids were my friends just two to three weeks before Hitler and the Germans came in,” Toll shared with the students.
Toll told them how Jewish people, especially children, were removed from their homes and moved into ghettos where many were eventually shipped to concentration camps. Toll shared how her home of Lwow was occupied by the Germans during World War II.
She and her mother Rozia, both Jewish, had locked themselves inside the home, hidden away when Nazis came to search.
Neighbors who turned in information would be rewarded with food.
“We had to whisper when we talked because my mother felt the walls had ears,” she said.
Painting and writing stories distracted Toll from worrying about her missing brother and father. She painted dozens of pictures of schoolchildren, her father, and a bouquet of roses for her mother among other colorful drawings. She never painted pictures of the war scenes outside her home.
“My mother and I would play dominoes. I pretended my mother was my girlfriend and we would play all the time,” Toll said.
Outside of the building’s secret window, Toll held onto hope her father would return from assisting his own parents and family. He never returned. Her brother was also killed by the Nazis.
Toll took several questions from students following her presentation. One student asked how she felt when her town was liberated. She told them that when the Russian Army liberated the town of Lwow, she ran into the street where Russian soldiers gave her chocolates.
In 1951, she and her mother moved to the United States, where she became a citizen, married and earned a Ph.D. in English.
Toll’s memoirs “Behind the Secret Window: A Memoir of a Hidden Childhood During World War II” won seven awards and was given a full page book review in the New York Times.
She pursued formal art training, earning a master’s degree in art and art history and education from Rutgers University. She attended the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and received a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. Toll has published three books on the topic of the Holocaust and related art. She currently resides in New Jersey with her husband, Ervin.
Toll’s exhibit will be on display at the Troy-Hayner Cultural Center through July 10. For more information, visit www.troyhayner.org