E'town man's carvings return identity to Holocaust victims

JEFF MEYERS/P-R PHOTOElizabethtown doctor Herbert Savel talks about his woodcarving projects in his Elizabethtown office.

ELIZABETHTOWN — More than 1,400 victims of the Holocaust — most of them children — have everlasting life in carvings by Elizabethtown doctor Herbert Savel.

Savel, who has been practicing medicine in rural Essex County for more than four decades, has also put his heart and soul into a woodcarving project that captures the significance of the Holocaust through those who suffered through this horrifying time in human history.

“I’ve done this in part to give them back their identity,” Savel said as he sat in his Elizabethtown office.

The images of Holocaust victims that he captured are of their lives before their heart-wrenching deaths.

“These were just ordinary people, kids playing the harp, playing a violin, posing in very candid ways,” he said of the images he used to create his carvings.

PIECE OF DIVINE

Savel utilized photographs of children collected by Serge Klarsfeld in his book “French Children of the Holocaust – a Memorial” to create his woodcarvings. 

He captured the emotions of each face and attached a brief biography of each person to the carving’s back.

His first attempt at carving Holocaust victims was based on the iconic image of a boy in Warsaw, Poland, with arms raised as German soldiers stood nearby with weapons in hand. 

In that carving, Savel framed the boy’s face with a yellow orb depicting the sun and everlasting hope.

“When I finished the carving, I had a revelation,” he recalled. “It looked like a halo, and I continued using that image.

“Why do I want a halo in my carvings?” he added. “Human beings have one thing in common, and that is a piece of the divine.”

BY HEART

Seeing those images of young children who had no idea that their lives were soon to be cut short has the power to bring tears to most people even 70 years after their deaths, but Savel said it was important for him to bring the lives of those people back into focus.

He remembers the stories from each portrait by heart, recalling one touching image in which a family of four had posed for a photo shortly before they planned on going into exile to hide from German arrest.

However, the baby girl in the photo developed an ear infection, and the family agreed that the mother and daughter would remain at home to receive treatment for the girl while the father and son went into hiding. They believed mother and baby would be safe.

They were arrested a short time later and died in prison camps.

Savel personally heard from that family after they had seen his work, and he gave them the carving he had created.

HOUSE CALL

Savel learned how to carve images from wood decades ago. He was on a house call to one of his patients, Karl Huttig, and was impressed with the woodcarvings that Huttig had created and displayed in his own home.

Savel asked if he would teach him how to carve, and Huttig worked with him over the next several years in perfecting his skills.

Savel, who has not done any carvings over the last few years, would create his images in a simple block of wood, carving the faces from the photographs into the surface.

With the carving finished, he would paint the faces, adding to the three-dimensional quality that was missing in the black-and-white photos.

'IT'S THE EYES'

Many of Savel’s carvings are now on display at the Florida Holocaust Museum. 

He has also published a series of books called “Kaddish in Wood” that depict the original photos with the carvings and biographies of the victims.

His carvings are on display at Feinberg Library at SUNY Plattsburgh, and Elizabethtown Community Hospital plans to set up a display there in the near future.

Perhaps the most striking image of Savel’s efforts can be found in the doctor’s office itself. Hundreds of woodcarvings adorn the walls of its many rooms, amplifying his efforts to make sure the millions of Holocaust victims are never forgotten.

“Do you know what makes a difference (in how the carvings are depicted)?” he asked.

“It’s the eyes. They look at me. They make me cry.”