ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – David Kassan spends his time creating masterpieces, but it’s who he paints that makes his work so special. For the last eight years, Kassan has painted more than two dozen Holocaust survivors across the world, filming his interactions with them, and documenting their life stories.
It started as a pastime; painting people he wanted to get to know better. After teaching a painting class in Israel and meeting a student whose parents were both Holocaust survivors, those paintings turned into so much more.
“I did a painting in 2018 at the studio we have in Sawmill. That’s 18 feet by 8 feet of 11 survivors of Auschwitz. That took about 3 years to do,” Kassan said.
For the Albuquerque artist, the project also has personal significance since some of his own family went through the horror all those years ago.
“I wanted to meet somebody that kind of came from eastern Europe, you know, almost had the same type of roots that my family did as a way of getting to know my own heritage and my own ethnicity as being Jewish.”
With Holocaust survivors in their 90s and beyond, Kassan knows a project like this is now or never. Three-quarters of the survivors he’s painted have since died.
“The first guy I started painting was Joseph, and he had passed away, literally, as I was doing the painting. I was painting his face, and I found out he had passed, and that was kind of the most heartbreaking, I think, moment I had in the painting.”
That won’t stop him from preserving the images of as many survivors as he can. Kassan hopes by sharing his pieces will make sure people never forget.
Kassan said he’s heard some harrowing stories, but they are all inspiring when you look at the growth of the families involved. He explained that he doesn’t want to focus on the negatives of the painting subjects’ lives. Rather, he wants to show the paths they’ve taken to get through those situations.
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Kassan is working on a documentary about the project that’s expected to be released in 2024. He is planning his next project right here in New Mexico by painting and interviewing the few remaining Navajo Code Talkers from World War 2.