Making the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting personal

American illustrator keeps the victims of the Pittsburgh massacre close to heart.

November 21, 2018 18:00
4 minute read.
Illustrations memoralizing Tree of Life victims

Illustrations memoralizing Tree of Life victims. (photo credit: VESPER STAMPER)


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The 11 victims of the Tree of Life Congregation shooting in Pittsburgh, PA on October 27 weren’t targeted as individuals, and that was the point. To the gunman, they were Jews, and that’s all that mattered.

In the aftermath of the tragedy, in the midst of news reports, condemnations, analysis and opinion, illustrations of the individuals who had been slain started appearing on Twitter – a social media platform not especially known for showcasing art.

The portraits were drawn by illustrator and writer Vesper Stamper. While her accompanying text acknowledges the motives for the killings, her illustrations held a place separate from the hatred and violence of the events. Her pencil drawings, on the pages of an artist’s notebook, showed us the individuals in poignant detail. It was a powerful response to antisemitism.

There is Richard Gottfried, with a quaffed goatee and a sideways glance, appearing bemused. “He was 65 years old, a dentist who often treated patients who could not afford it,” says the accompanying text.

There’s Sylvan and Bernice Simon who, at 86 and 84, still look like they have their whole lives ahead of them. The text reads: “They were married 62 years ago at this same synagogue, where they perished together.”

 Sylvan and Bernice Simon were married 62 years ago at this same synagogue, where they perished together. (Vesper Stamper)

Jerry Rabinowitz is drawn well-dressed and wearing a decorative kippa. He looks handsome and joyful. The description reads that he “had a reputation for being a compassionate doctor, especially to those patients who were HIV+ at a time when the disease had more stigma than it does today.”

Jerry Rabinowitz had a reputation for being a compassionate doctor, especially to those patients who were HIV+ at a time when the disease had more stigma than it does today (Vesper Stamper)

Just prior to the Tree of Life attack, the 41-year-old artist completed a six-week course, “Antisemitism: From its Origins to the Present,” through Yad Vashem.

“The way I’m best equipped to combat antisemitism,” says Stamper, is through humanization, through my artwork. When I was drawing from each photograph, I looked straight into their eyes for an hour or more. The text was synthesized from articles I read. I felt as if I were meeting them for the first time.”

Aside from appearing on Twitter, the illustrations are on Stamper’s Instagram and Facebook accounts, which have fuller written descriptions of each individual and of the project. Her Instagram account also contains two time-lapse videos of her pencil work.

Stamper, who was born at an American army base in Nuremberg, Germany, grew up in New York City. She has been an illustrator for 20 years. Her mother is a convert to Judaism. “My Jewish upbringing is one of the great treasures of my life,” she says.

Cecil Rosenthal and his brother David [also slain] lived semi-independently with help from a disability-services organization. They were important to the Synagogue community (Vesper Stamper)

“My grandfather taught me by example. He had this infinite interest in people – that people are really bottomless. He used to always be drawing people out in conversation,” says Stamper.

Tim O’Brien, current president of the Society of Illustrators and a prolific illustrator and portrait painter, says “Nothing makes us feel more powerless than watching others suffer, watching hate have its moment… Artists provide both distance and analysis that pulls us in to feel strong emotions. It is precisely this pulling-in that Vesper Stamper’s drawings do. Her sketches of the victims show relatable and happy people.

“We can feel who these people are and celebrate their lives,” he says.

“When I was illustrating the Tree of Life victims,” says Stamper “I so deeply wanted to know them.” Several of the victims’ relatives have contacted her to express how moved they were by her renditions of their loved ones.

Irving Younger was known as big-hearted with a ready sense of humor. He seemed to embody his children’s belief that the "breakdown in society can only be healed through respectful engagement and action." (Vesper Stamper)

Lately, Stamper has been traveling to promote her illustrated novel What the Night Sings about a young Holocaust survivor. (The book was reviewed on July 12, 2018 by The Jerusalem Post.) It was recently nominated for a National Book Award in the United States.

In the novel, the young survivor, Gerta, who is beginning her life anew says “Why go on living, when you know the end from the beginning?,” but later goes on to assert: “I step out of invisibility. I have a name.” In both projects Stamper deconstructs antisemitism by making the victims’ personhood visible.

Ultimately, she says, “My aim is to have people join me. There are not enough people fighting this. If there is any possible way I can encourage people to join me in fighting antisemitism, welcome aboard.”

Melvin Wax did everything from small tasks to leading services. His wife died two years ago and he lived simply, with a quiet gentleness (Vesper Stamper)

Rose Mallinger, 97, was the oldest person killed. She looks to have had a vibrant personality, and is well put together, with her brows done, lipstick perfect and carefully chosen jewelry and coiffed hair (Vesper Stamper)

To see all 11 portraits from Vesper Stamper’s Tree of Life series, go to @vesperillustrat on Twitter or @VesperIllustration on Instagram, and on her website:

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