GRANITE FALLS, Minn. - A dark foreboding led Roman Vishniac to risk his life to photograph the lives of Jewish children in Nazi-occupied villages in eastern Europe on the eve of World War II.
Decades later, those photographs would become the inspiration for the art of Judith Gidali Baron, whose happy childhood in Marosvasarhely, Hungary, ended at age 15. Packed into a cattle car with her parents and two sisters, they rode for three days to reach the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where a large, smoking chimney and its peculiar smell, barking dogs, brutal guards and the finely dressed Dr. Josef Mengele waited.
"We lived in fear every minute,'' Baron, 89, told a hushed crowd who came to hear her story in early May at the Fagen Fighters Museum in Granite Falls. She is among the few remaining survivors of the Holocaust in Minnesota who continues to bear witness.
Her story, and the 18 watercolor artworks of children she created based on photographs in Vishniac's book, "Children of a Vanished Land,'' are now part of the museum's exhibit on the Holocaust. At a dedication ceremony for the exhibit, she spoke just feet away from a cattle car like those used to transport Jews to concentration camps.
Most of us have studied the Holocaust in the abstract, said Diane Fagen, who along with her husband, Ron, made possible the museum dedicated to telling the story of America's greatest generation. "We are about to make it very real this afternoon,'' she said by way of introducing Baron.
Dr. Mengele and the guards separated men and women as they reached Auschwitz. He used his stick to motion for Baron's mother and 12-year-old sister to go to the line that would have led them directly to the gas chambers and crematorium.
Her mother spoke German and persuaded Mengele to allow her and her 12-year-old daughter to go instead in the line with Baron and her older, 18-year-old sister. They were placed in Barracks B. Sometime later, Baron and her older sister were moved to Barracks C for those capable of slave labor. She knows that her mother and younger sister soon met the fate of those deemed unable to work.
She never saw her father after arriving at Auschwitz.
When the Russian Army advanced toward Auschwitz, Baron said she and her older sister were again packed into a cattle car and transported. This time it was to Bergen-Belsen in Germany. "That was really hell on earth, filthy, full of bugs and things, slept on the floor,'' she said.
Baron said she and other camp inmates merely existed as a way of defiance. Surviving was their way of fighting the Nazis, she explained. Her older sister became sick with typhus and died, and that's when her hope was lost too, she said.
She only remembers waking up sometime after her sister's death in a clean, well-kept room of 12 beds and nurses in white. The British had liberated her camp.
She was carried on a stretcher to a ship and transported to Sweden. Her Belgian doctor told her the care there was her only hope of recovery.
She met her husband to be, Fred, at the hospital in Sweden. He also was a Holocaust survivor.
She and her husband would enjoy 65 years together, and start their own family as immigrants in the United States. He had family in the U.S, and they helped him immigrate to New York City, Baron said. He did not enjoy the big city, and when he learned that Minnesota was home to many people from Sweden, he persuaded her to move here.
Through the years, her husband often spoke to groups about his experiences in the Holocaust, but Baron said she did not.
"I never could,'' she explained. "I had the feeling that if I started speaking and you felt sorry for me, I would start to cry.''
After her husband died four years ago, Baron said she became "strong" and began to speak in public about her experiences.
Through her life, she created oil, acrylic and watercolor paintings, some of them inspired by the photographs of Vishniac as well as her own memories. The children in his photographs might very well have crossed paths with her at the concentration camps, she said.
She developed the 18 artworks based on "Children of a Vanished Land'' to mark the 18th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. "It means life,'' she said.
Baron said she is motivated to speak about her experiences in part because she knows there are few witnesses remaining. But most of all, she said it's important for children to learn history.
"In history you can see what is wrong and what is right. Follow what is right. Be kind to other people, do not have any kind of wrongdoing against anyone,'' she said.
Her Jewish faith teaches her to never carry hate in her heart and to love her neighbors and her enemies. "I could not love my enemies, but I tried not to hate them,'' she said.
She lost her entire family, home and all that she owned to the Holocaust. Years later on a visit to Hungary, a distant relative surprised her. She had been able to recover candleholders, a table cloth and a wall hanging that once belonged to Baron's mother. They are her only remaining connections to her family and home.
"Everything else is gone,'' she said.