Artist Helaine Sawilowsky is the first to admit that her actual genetic relationship to the Frank family is a bit distant. Nevertheless, Sawilowsky has always felt an affinity for Anne Frank and the tragic story of the Frank family — Germans who hid from the Nazis in Amsterdam for two years before being discovered in 1944 and sent to death camps. Anne and her sister Margot died of typhus in Bergen-Belsen; their mother, Edith, starved to death in Auschwitz. Only Anne’s father, Otto, survived. It is Otto Frank to whom Sawilowsky recently traced her lineage.
Last month, on the occasion of the worldwide commemoration of Anne Frank’s 90th birthday and the 75th anniversary of the Franks’ arrest, Sawilowsky participated in an event at the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect in New York. She showed her Anne Frank paintings at the gala.
Sawilowsky grew up in the Deep South, in Meridian, Mississippi, where her father, Rabbi Milton Schlager, was the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel, a Reform shul.
Sawilowsky said perhaps her visceral connection to Frank comes from a childhood of witnessing anti-Semitism firsthand.
Just after midnight on May 28, 1968, during what came to be known as the “Mississippi Burning” era, Temple Beth Israel was bombed, reportedly with more than a dozen sticks of dynamite, destroying parts of its religious school and damaging a synagogue wall.
In a JTA article the day after the bombing, it was reported that Schlager was a member of an interfaith committee addressing “night bombings of houses of worship, which included five Negro churches.” On the Friday night before the bombing, a collection was taken up at Temple Beth Israel on behalf of the black churches.
“This hasn’t happened to me. It happened to the people of Meridian,” Schlager said in the article. “It is not a Jewish matter, it is not my synagogue, it is one of the synagogues of Meridian.”
Sawilowsky, who was six at the time, said, “I grew up with FBI in my yard, with sharpshooters in my yard.”
“We lived three miles away. Luckily, it was bombed on a different day than we worship so we weren’t all blown up. But we had FBI taking us to school. So I had experienced anti-Semitism firsthand. I actually saw the damage,” she said. “We went back years later, my husband took me back, and the [broken] glass is still there. The temple was made of beautiful glass. And they put some of the glass back into the actual temple to remember.”
Pieces of the temple’s glass, shattered in the bombing, are today part of the temple’s front windows.
Sawilowsky, her husband and two teenage children, now a modern Orthodox family, have made Park Heights their home since relocating to Baltimore in 2012 after living in “every Southern state.” She has worked for years as an art teacher, especially in underserved communities.
They are members of Congregation Tiferes Yisroel, on Park Heights Avenue, led by Rabbi Menachem and Rebbetzin Bracha Goldberger.
Sawilowsky only found out about her Anne Frank connection last year, but she said, “I was told my whole life I looked like her. My sisters and I have been talking, and we think our parents [knew], but did not share that. My father didn’t like to talk about the Holocaust.”
“I’m not an immediate cousin, but I’m not too far away,” she added. “I’m close enough that you can see the relationship all the way down… through Otto Frank’s mother.”
Another distant relation of the Franks, who contacted Sawilowsky through a genealogy site, met her recently at the Chicago airport. He is related to Edith Frank and the two met on the day after Anne Frank’s birthday.
“We met and exchanged conversation. It was very fascinating,” Sawilowsky said. “He’s a rabbi and he showed me his lineage.”
About two years ago, Sawilowsky was able to start doing her art full-time when her children became teenagers.
“I’ve always been involved with art. It was something I really didn’t have time to do, mostly teaching when they were younger,” she said. “I’m starting to really enjoy it. My husband has to remind me to go to bed because I lose track of time.”
She says the Anne Frank series she recently completed, in honor of Frank and her 90th birthday, was the first time she had tackled producing Anne Frank images.
“This is a special series I wanted to do, which really added to the event,” she said about the center’s 2019 Spirit of Anne Frank Awards Gala held June 17 at New York’s Edison Ballroom, where the guest speaker was Broadway performer Joel Grey.
Sawilowsky said making the Anne Frank paintings was a challenge and a “journey” for her as an artist.
“It was hard. Anne Frank is mostly [seen] in black-and-white photos. So I had to make the decision, if I was going to represent her, I wanted to bring her back to life in color,” she said. “I read that Anne Frank had green eyes and I have hazel-green eyes, too. I decided, like an actor, to go into this kind of world of hers and create what I thought were pieces that represented her in different ways.”
“I went on a journey into that world. And I remember a couple of nights getting up having nightmares,” she added. “I told my husband, and he said, ‘You’re reading so much about the Holocaust; you’re reading about Anne; you’re related to Anne. There has to be a mixture of feelings.”
Sawilowsky is currently painting a series of Holocaust images and hopes to collaborate with museums on events to talk about Anne Frank’s life, the Holocaust and share her work. Like the Anne Frank series, she said working on the Holocaust paintings has been an emotional journey.
“It’s an emotional feeling, that you want to have the impact,” she said. “That you want to remember and never forget.” JT