From darkness to light
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From darkness to light

Oakland artist creates Holocaust commemoration for Philadelphia yeshiva

The sculpture is the one Edna Dagan made for the Politz Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia.
The sculpture is the one Edna Dagan made for the Politz Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia.

Gold plaques engraved with the names of 126 souls who perished in the Holocaust hang on copper wires from the top tier of a black wrought-iron chandelier. Forty-eight silver plaques engraved with the names of survivors hang around the smaller lower tier.

Candle-shaped bulbs shed light on the plaques and the ragged barbed wire encircling the fixture. A Star of David fills the circle of the bottom tier.

This unusual sculpture was created by Oakland artist Edna Dagan on commission from the Politz Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia. The names for both tiers were submitted by members of the local Jewish community as representative of the millions who suffered and died at the hands of the Nazis.

Ms. Dagan was chosen for the project by Karen Krebs-Wellerstein, the day school’s director of development and marketing.

Edna Dagan

“Politz Hebrew Academy just celebrated our 39th year,” Ms. Krebs-Wellerstein said. “We’re an Orthodox day school with over 400 children. Besie Katz, the woman who started the school, felt strongly that it’s up to every Jew to remember the holy martyrs and survivors of the Holocaust. As children of survivors, she and I both felt it is important to put these names somewhere visual for people to see and touch.”

Finding the right artist to fulfill that vision happened by serendipity — or, if you will, destiny.

“I met Edna at my daughter’s wedding; she’s my son-in-law’s aunt,” Ms. Krebs-Wellerstein explained. “She’s a phenomenal person. Her husband, Jacob, showed me a catalog of her artwork and it was just amazing. She invited us to her home where we saw more of her outstanding artwork. So I felt very comfortable that she would think out of the box.

“I explained to Enda what we were envisioning, and she came up with a magnificent design. It took many months to complete. But her vision came through. The chandelier perfectly symbolizes darkness to light.”

Some of Ms. Dagan’s work.

The sculpture hangs in an alcove at the junction between the school’s three buildings.

“The parents and faculty are absolutely in awe of it. They really spend time looking at the names, and that’s what we wanted,” Ms. Krebs-Wellerstein said.

Ms. Dagan does not know any of the people memorialized on her sculpture. As the child of a Holocaust survivor, however, she felt a strong affinity for the project.

Her Polish father, Abraham Lippe — also known as Abraham Milch, because in large Jewish families some of the male children took on their mother’s maiden name to avoid compulsory military service — was the youngest of nine brothers and the only one in his entire family left alive after the war.

Ms. Dagan was raised in Haifa. She studied painting and drawing in the 1970s and 1980s. But her first career was as a classical pianist and piano teacher, which she did for 42 years. She and her husband came to New York as students, he to Columbia and she to Juilliard. “When we started to raise our three children, I didn’t want to perform all over the world and leave my kids, so I started to paint and sculpt besides teaching piano,” she said.

The family went back to Israel for a few years, then returned to the United States and lived in Glen Rock for seven years and then in Ridgewood for 12. In the mid-1980s, Ms. Dagan studied sculpture at Ramapo College with Judy Peck, Joan Fine, and Judith Weller.

In 1997, Ms. Dagan won first prize for sculpture in a competition at the New Milford Art Center. Her works also appeared that year in group and solo exhibitions at venues including Ramapo College, Wayne YMHA, The Sky is the Limit Gallery in Kingston, N.Y., and Ozone Gallery in New York City.

Between 1998 and 2016, her works were exhibited at the Javits Center in Manhattan, the Artist’s Gallery in Ridgewood, the Bergen Museum in Paramus, and the Hertz Corporate Center in Ramsey, among other places. She made six commissioned paintings for an auction in support of Hurricane Katrina victims, held in Ridgewood.

When their kids were grown, Jacob and Edna returned to Israel for about 10 years to care for her elderly mother. During that time, she exhibited in several galleries and at Sheba Medical Center. Ultimately, they went back to New Jersey to be near their family.

“We have three children and six grandchildren here — a daughter in Franklin Lakes, a son in Westfield, and a son in Long Island, all married with children — and they wanted their parents back,” Ms. Dagan said. “So after my mom passed away, we rented a house in Oakland and have been here for six years.”

In her home studio, she sculpts in wood, clay, and stone. Many of her creations are bronzed and incorporate the shapes of musical instruments. Recently, three of her sculptures were included in a Power of 13 group exhibition in Ceres Gallery in Chelsea; most of the group is from Bergen County.

After completing the components for the Politz Hebrew Academy Holocaust memorial sculpture about a month ago, Ms. Dagan and her husband drove to Philadelphia and spent some 10 hours assembling it on premises.

Ms. Krebs-Wellerstein said that a formal inauguration ceremony will be planned as soon as Pennsylvania allows gatherings.

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