ST. PETERSBURG — She wasn’t ready to get rid of her mom’s most valuable possessions when she buried her in 2011.
It wasn’t until last year that she could actually start contemplating it. That’s when she finally searched "Holocaust museums" on Google. She carefully picked about 20. Then she penned a list. It took months to phone all of them. But she narrowed it to two finalists. She visited those in person.
Ultimately, the Florida Holocaust Museum won.
The art collection of Holocaust survivor and artist Toby Knobel Fluek was donated to the museum in June by her daughter, Lilian Fluek Finkler. It includes more than 500 pieces of art and personal objects.
The artist’s work shows what her life was like as a Jewish teenager hiding from the Nazis during World War II. Ever since the museum hosted a travel exhibition of the artist’s work in 2005, curator of exhibitions and collections Erin Blankenship has kept in touch.
More than a decade later, the pieces are back in St. Petersburg to stay.
The daughter explained why her mother’s art has endured.
"Her interpretation of what was going on is very simplistic," Fluek Finkler said, "so it packs a powerful punch."
• • •
The artist’s collection includes paintings, drawings, charcoals and sketches, as well as historical documents she kept such as her marriage certificate and identification card. It also features some of her handwritten stories and family photos. The daughter declined to say how much the collection was appraised at.
When viewed in chronological order, the art pieces walk viewers through Knobel Fluek’s life. It starts with her childhood in the small village of Czernica, Poland, where she was born in 1926. The daughter said her mother was an artistic girl, but the family didn’t have money to send her to lessons. She worked instead and didn’t attend an art class until she was in her 30s.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. The artist was in her early teens. Warsaw surrendered on Sept. 28 and so began five years of brutal Nazi occupation, which cost 6 million Poles their lives.
In 1942, the family was driven from their village and forced into the Brody Ghetto. Most perished, but the artist and her mother survived.
Knobel Fluek went on to craft pieces inspired by her childhood in a Polish village, her experience running away from the Nazis and hiding in a ghetto, her time at a displaced persons camp after the war ended in 1945 and her first impression of the United States when she arrived by sea in 1949.
"Each painting is like an episode in her life," Blankenship said.
• • •
The artist also wrote about these episodes in her book, Memories of My Life in a Polish Village, 1930-1949. The Florida Holocaust Museum shared some passages that describe the inspiration behind some of her artwork:
• After her family was forced to leave their village farm by the Nazi invasion, the Fluek family went to the Brody Ghetto.
The painting Aron Arrested depicts the capture of the artist’s brother. It is a black-and-white depiction of two young boys being marched away by a third man armed with a rifle. The artist wrote that her brother was taken from the Brody Ghetto and sent to a work camp.
• In March 1943, they heard a rumor that the Nazis were about to kill everyone. "The panic was indescribable," the artist wrote. "Men and women were distraught. Some were crying, others praying."
But her parents refused to leave the hiding place they had built. Her sister Surcie, however, wanted to escape and the artist went with her.
The painting Leaving My Family depicts that emotional moment when the two sisters say goodbye to their family. "It was very difficult leaving the rest of my family for the first time in my life," the artist wrote.
• The Nazis started killing everyone in the Brody Ghetto on May 21, 1943. Knobel Fluek’s painting Burning Hospital, depicts a building in flames.
The Nazi SS set the hospital on fire and shot anyone who tried to run away. The artist’s sister, Lajcie, died in the fire.
• • •
The museum, at 55 Fifth St. S, is cataloging Knobel Fluek’s donated works and will create an exhibition. It will take years to digitize all of it, Blankenship said, so it may be years before an opening date is set.
The museum focuses on educating people about the Holocaust by telling stories of survivors one at a time, Blankenship said. That’s why the museum wanted to obtain Knobel Fluek’s artwork.
The daughter said while researching museums, she felt like some of the staffers acted like they were doing her a favor by taking her mother’s collection. She feared they would pile her mother’s collection inside a closet and fail to preserve, curate and properly display it.
The Florida Holocaust Museum, the daughter said, was different:
"They were willing and excited to not only take it, but take care of it — not just house it, but use it and share it."