A deceased Holocaust survivor inspires Elkins Park students to write a book

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A painting by Harry Somers that hangs in the home of his widow, Joyce. She donated two of his pieces to the Elkins Park School.

Erik Angra is a documentary filmmaker. Lise Marlowe is an award-winning teacher with a thirst for history. Room 220 at Elkins Park School is a multicultural collage of kids - Jewish, Muslim, Asian, Latino - including a few who, until last fall, had never heard of the Holocaust.

Harry Somers brought them together.

Marlowe, who clinched the History Channel's teacher of the year award in 2006, was scouring online sources last summer in search of fresh ways to teach her sixth graders about the Holocaust. She stumbled on a two-and-a-half-minute trailer for a film about Somers, a German Jewish post-Impressionist painter who, as a teen, fled the Nazis via a Kindertransport rescue to England. He died in 2013.

Within days, Marlowe was in touch with Angra, who said he hadn't been able to raise enough money to finish the film. But he put Marlowe in touch with Somers' widow, Joyce, who was so pleased to make the connection that she sent two signed and numbered prints of her late husband's work to the school.

That's when Marlowe decided to turn this serendipity into a lesson: Using transcripts from Angra's hours of interviews, she drafted a kid-friendly version of Somers' story. Her students viewed Somers' paintings online and wrote poems in response.

And last month, in honor of Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day, the troupe - squirrelly, shy sixth graders and their effervescent, earnest teacher - toured a couple of local bookstores, sharing the paperback they created: Bringing Beauty into the World: The Life of Harry Somers.

The book contains a few childhood photos of Somers - one shows a pensive boy in a sailor suit - along with prints of his light-dappled, pointillist-style scenes of parks, picnicgoers, and people walking on tranquil village roads.

It was Somers' mission, says Angra, to respond to the hate he'd experienced by making art infused with beauty, color, and peace. That message resonated for Marlowe and her students, especially after last fall's divisive presidential campaign.

"The election was based on so much hate and negativity," she says. "Instead of dwelling on that, I thought, 'Let's do something positive. Let's bring beauty into the world, like Harry did.' "

The class talked via Skype with Joyce Somers. In art classes, they painted their own 12x12-inch landscapes as gifts for people they knew who needed a healing boost. And they responded to Somers' paintings with poetry.

Twelve-year-old Jewel Lear chose an image of a desert landscape: a purple-shadowed mountain with firebursts of flowers in the foreground. Her poem ends, "Yesterday is gone, tomorrow has not happened / Now is now, and now is beautiful."

At Barnes & Noble in Willow Grove, where she read from the book along with 10 classmates and Marlowe, Lear recalled that she was shocked when she learned of the Holocaust: "I never imagined something like that could happen." She was captivated by Somers' joyous, calm paintings, and by his words.

"He said in the video that if you hate people, it will stick with you and eat you alive. So he learned how to forgive. That's a really good lesson."

Elad Shoham, 12, wrote in response to a painting of two people, hand in hand, walking toward a small house in the midst of a snow-packed field. He imagined the couple in the painting had lost everything in the Holocaust; his poem asks, "I may never know how my fate could have differed . . . Would 6 million people be saved / Or washed away like a wave?"

"What I learned about [Somers'] life was that he lost everything but was able to turn it into something beautiful," Shoham said after the reading. He believes Somers' message has an urgent ring right now. "With our current president, hate crimes against certain groups of people have gone up. It's really good to educate people . . . to prevent that from happening."

Ambar Guzman read her poem while Marlowe showed the image that inspired it: an open window and a vase of bright flowers, a creamy blue ocean in the background. "The flowers . . . represented everything he wanted to do with his paintings - how he was able to stick through the years, to stay alive, to be able to tell his story," Guzman said. "That's kind of inspirational."

Angra eventually cobbled together the money to finish his 26-minute film, "Portrait of Harry"; it premiered on public television in April and is streamable on the World Channel until May 24. But telling Somers' story in the first place was an ethical quandary; at the time Angra met Somers, the painter was 90 and terminally ill, with a constant oxygen tether and limited stamina.

He knew he was dying, Angra said, and he wanted to share memories he'd barely told anyone, including Joyce, his second wife. "But his health was failing," and the interviews, often emotional, taxed Somers' dwindling strength.

"We had to take breaks," Angra recalls. "He'd get excited at times and want to show me his paintings. For the first time, someone was trying to tell his story."

Joyce Somers listened to those conversations in the couple's home in Phoenix, Ariz., hearing some details of her husband's life for the first time. She knew his parents and a sister had died in concentration camps, and that after the Kindertransport to England, Somers had made his way to Australia, and, in 1946, to the United States. But she had always trod gently around the topic.

In the film, Somers' voice halts, and his eyes fill, as he explains that the Holocaust snatched nearly everyone he loved. "I saw him cry for the first time," Joyce Somers said. "I don't think he had shared that with anyone."

Somers lived for another year and a half after Angra's interviews. "There wasn't a day when he didn't attempt to paint, up until the very end," Joyce Somers said. She is thrilled with the film, with the book, with the idea that her husband's humility and compassion will live alongside his thousands of paintings.

She is especially touched that Somers' legacy is having an impact on young people. "The depth of these kids, who are 12, is absolutely phenomenal. I never realized that kids that young have this type of soul.

"My joy is keeping his life story alive," she said - an exhortation that people "seek beauty, that they seek fairness, that they prepare themselves for adversity, that they think of others."

Today, one of Somers' prints hangs in the office at Elkins Park School; students held a bake sale to raise the $300 framing cost. One flight up, in Room 220, the lessons carry on.

"We have students who go through so many struggles in their lives," Marlowe said. "I think it's important to show kids how people like Holocaust survivors could go through such a horrific event . . . and not dwell on the hate. To see that there's hope, that there's good in life."