Nelly Toll was deprived of a proper childhood during the Holocaust. When the Germans occupied Poland in 1941, the 6-year-old Jewish girl was hidden away in the house of a Catholic family, and Toll watched the world from a distance, dreaming of a day when she could take a simple walk with her father.
She was afraid to even speak aloud, because she was told the walls “have ears,” and if one neighbor reported her whereabouts, it would certainly lead to arrest and death. She lived in the shadows, and her mother became her best friend, her doctor and her teacher, and although Toll got bored like a typical 6-year-old, her family couldn’t risk her exposure.
But when her mother gave her a box of watercolor paints, it changed Toll’s existence. “Once that watercolor box came into my possession, my whole life changed,” said Toll, who was the guest speaker at the recent City of Akron Holocaust Commemoration at the Akron Summit-County Public Library. “I emerged into a different world. A world of fantasy.”
Toll found beauty amid suffering and began to paint images of what a normal childhood would look like, from playing outside to taking a walk with her father.
One painting depicts Toll sitting at a table with a bow in her hair, playing dominoes with another child. “Every day, even though we never went outside, my mother combed my hair and put my bow on. I only had one dress.”
She and her mother were liberated in 1944, and Toll wrote a book about her ordeal, “Behind the Secret Window,” based on her childhood diary, which sold more than 50,000 copies.
Also at the event, called “Women of the Holocaust: Stories of Loss, Resistance and Survival,” winners of the 26th annual student arts and writing contest were honored. Toll’s visit gave even more relevance to this yearly contest that channels creativity in the face of adversity.
“You shouldn’t be a silent bystander,” Toll said to the students in attendance. “You should speak out if injustice is made.”
Toll’s artwork is showcased throughout the country. Her exhibit, “Imagining a Better World, the Artwork of Nelly Toll,” runs through May 18 at the Massillon Museum. For information, visit www.massillonmuseum.org.