From his childhood in Lithuania to his imprisonment in Siberia to his remaining years in Israel, the story of artist David Labkovski’s life is depicted in the artwork he left behind. His paintings and sketches depict Jewish life in Eastern Europe before, during and after the Holocaust and will be featured in the Arizona premiere of “Documenting History Through Art,” an exhibit at the East Valley JCC in Chandler that opens on Nov. 8.

This exhibit is part of the David Labkovski Project, whose mission is to teach lessons of life, survival, tolerance, acceptance and the importance of bearing witness to history.

Who is David Labkovski?

The exhibit “Documenting History Through Art” follows the course of Labkovski’s life through his artwork. He was born in 1906 in Niebel, White Russia and spent his childhood in Vilna (which is now Vilnius, Lithuania) and was nurtured by a thriving Jewish community at a time of cultural and artistic vibrancy.

He attended Tarbut Hebrew High School and continued his studies at the College of Painting and Decorative Design and in 1932, he moved to Moscow and worked as a painter and decorator at a Jewish theater then studied at the Academy of Art in Leningrad.

In 1940, he was conscripted in the Red Army then was arrested for anti-Soviet behavior and spent three years in the Gulag in Siberia. He used his artistic skills to survive the camp, by becoming a tattoo artist and a sketch artist for guards and fellow prisoners. Upon his release in 1946, he returned to his childhood city, which had been devastated by the war and by the Nazi occupation. After the war, he remained behind the “Iron Curtain” for over a decade before receiving permission to immigrate to Israel in 1958.

He and his wife, Rikva, moved to Sefad where he spent his time painting. His paintings contain multiple collections: “The World That Was” depicts memories of his childhood town, Vilna; “In Exile: Siberian Deportation” is almost entirely self-portraiture, showing the despair and dehumanization faced in the prison camp; “The Depths of Darkness” portrays the destruction of Vilna and documents survivors’ testimonies; and “Hope, Renewal, Resilience” features landscapes, florals and portraits of his life in Israel.

He chose to not sell most of his paintings because he wanted to keep them together to bear witness to history. The artist died in 1991 in Israel at age 81.


Exhibit events

In addition to docent-led tours of “Documenting History Through Art,”  available by appointment, the EVJCC’s Center for Holocaust Education and Human Dignity will have additional programs related to the exhibit:

Tuesday, Nov. 6

10 a.m. Stephanie Wolfson, director of education and curation of the David Labkovski Project, will lead a book club discussion and presentation about illustrations David Labkovski created based on author Sholem Aleichem’s stories. Cost is $10. Reservations required, financial assistance available. (Group book discussions can also be scheduled Nov. 9 and Nov. 12-15, with a minimum of 10 participants.)

Thursday, Nov. 8

6 p.m. Opening lecture by Leora Raikin, executive director of the David Labkovski Project, and Labkovski’s great-niece, who will speak about “Connecting Generations Through Art: The Life and Journey of Lithuania-Israeli Artist David Labkovski (1906-1991)”

7 p.m.: Paint workshop that teaches how to paint in the style of David Labkovski. Cost of the workshop is $15 and requires a minimum number of attendees. (Group paint workshops can also be scheduled Nov. 9 and Nov. 12-15, with a minimum of 10 participants.)

Friday, Nov. 9

9 a.m.-2 p.m. Open for workshops, group discussions and group tours. 10 a.m.: Free screening of the Arizona premiere of “Robbery of the Heart” to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht. This documentary follows a Holocaust survivor who returns to his hometown of Wetter, Germany on a journey of cultural and spiritual rebirth.

Sunday, Nov. 11

4-5 p.m. VIP reception

5-7 p.m. Opening reception and lecture by Leora Raikin, who will speak about the legacy and responsibility of bearing witness in her talk “Documenting History Through Art from the Jerusalem of Lithuania, to the Gulags of Siberia, to Israel and America: The Life and Journey of the Art and Artist David Labkovski.”

Group tours, workshops

Organizations and schools can sign up for docent-led group tours 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday, Nov. 9 and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Thursday Nov.12-15. Book discussions and workshops can also be arranged for groups with a minimum of 10 participants. For group tour reservations, call 480-897-0588.

All events take place at the EVJCC, 908 N. Alma School Road, Chandler 85224. The exhibit, film screening and lectures are free, donations are appreciated. The exhibit is appropriate for middle school students and older. A portion of the exhibit will be on display at the EVJCC through Jan. 13, 2019. After Nov. 15, hours will be 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Wednesdays, with a reservation. Sponsorship opportunities are available.