Alive! Educational Restitution After Genocide, a cultural project developed by Drexel University’s Rakhmiel Peltz, Professor of Sociolinguistics and Founding Director of the Judaic Studies Program alongside Kathleen Carll, Associate Director of Judaic Studies, delivers an intimate peek into the life and times of Toby Knobel Fluek, a survivor of the Holocaust. After this devastating time in history, Fluek turned to the vehicle of painting imagery from her childhood to express the motifs of life that transpired in her Polish community prior to World War II.
The collection of art inspired the making of the film namely titled Toby’s Sunshine, a biopic that took over six years to develop. The documentary was originally proposed to debut in Yiddish but was ultimately published in English given Fluek’s expansive grasp on the language. Snippets from the perspectives of other Holocaust survivors have since been shared on the official website — alivetobysunshine.com.
Carll, who played an administrative coordinator role throughout its development, shared that the tenacious project seemed ambitious at times. “The making of the film was an exciting, long and challenging project with changes in personnel and direction along the way. I often could not see how it would be completed,” she expressed. The initial screening of the film eventually made its way to Drexel’s very own Mandell Theater in 2008.
The documentary spans over the life of Fluek, a survivor whose roots trace back to the small town of Czernica, Poland. Within its quaint surroundings, it was home to a niche community of Jewish, Polish and Ukrainian people. In her biogrpahy, Fluek shared that as early as the third grade, an instructor acknowledged her creative gift — one that would later beacon into full fruition once more after the war persited, becoming a therapy of sorts.
In the wake of September 1939, life was abruptly interpreted by the plights of eviction throughout the countryside. Her painting, “The Sounds of War,” showcases a vivid snapshot of the rapid change that swept her surroundings by the hands of Nazis. In the time span of two short years, the Nazis had swiftly sustained evacuating all Jews into distinct ghettos.
Toby’s fateful journey from enclosure in the ghettos to freedom includes her brave escape with her sister Surcie, as they sought shelter in a barn for the period of a year, despite losing several loved ones in the process. In the years following her marriage to her husband Max Fluek in 1949, she gained momentum in documenting her experiences through artwork.
“Toby is one of the few survivors who emphasizes the life before the Holocaust … As we argue on the website, every language and culture is worthy of keeping alive,” Peltz expressed on the value of maintaining Fluek’s story.
“The great importance of sharing Fluek’s story is in the telling of the details of her family and community life in Europe before World War II. The project serves to help record the culture that was eliminated,” Carll expressed.
Isabella Wilson, a second-year anthropology major who worked closely as a volunteer researcher on the project, also shared similar sentiments on Toby’s inspiring light. “I am completely fascinated by her ability to focus on the positives in her life despite the horrors that she lived through … I wish I could have had the opportunity to meet her, but I am glad that I was able to work on this project and catch a glimpse of who she was. None of us can truly know or understand what she experienced, but her story has taught me the true strength that humans are capable of,” she shared.
Bearing in mind the content of Fluek’s story, it is important to preserve its narratives and others that were active during this chapter in world history. The power and courage embedded within her story significantly impacted the lives of a multitude of individuals and their perceptions of the world.
“It is absolutely essential to share her story, and stories of whomever can relate something about their life before the war and the period of the war itself,” Dr. Adina Cimet shared. Cimet, a sociologist who worked as a part of Drexel’s Judaic Studies Advisory Board for many years, played a role in the orchestration of the global classroom themed on the facilitation of reeducation and restitution post-genocide.
“There is so much that was destroyed: first and foremost, people and lives, but also buildings — synagogues, schools, old age homes, old study locations — books, treasures of the mind, journals, magazines, traditions, music and language…. and the great potential of 6 million lives,” Cimet shared.
The global classroom counterpart of the endeavor, one that partners up with connections in Lublin, Poland, has since attracted a diverse range of students. People from all walks of life interested in understanding the deeper complexities of genocide reconstruction open their cultural narratives into a gateway of understanding. The course covers nations that have encountered these decimating fragmentations from genocide and includes further explorations of Rwanda, Yugoslavia and the Native Americans.
Carll also reflected on the overall integrity of the project. “I am still amazed and impressed at the final version of the film — the work of so many varied people over a span of years came together to create this beautiful piece. The website is a way to put the film into a context of larger importance and greater understanding,” she said.
“Despite that the story of her life and survival were so hard and the suffering she endured, her husband endured, she was holding onto the voice of her message. She connected with her grandchildren, and together, they pulled to live with dignity and meaning,” shared Dr. Cimet.
Toby Knobel Fluek lived on courageously until the age of 93 when she passed in 2011. Her artwork and bravery continues to be studied and told throughout various parts of the world.