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During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, many Jewish religious figures actively supported African Americans in their fight to secure equal rights. One of those Jewish leaders was Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. A Polish refugee whose family had been killed in the Holocaust, the distinguished rabbi is often remembered for his front-row position, walking alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1965 march in Selma. Like Heschel—whose likeness she would later sculpt—Erna Helft Weill fled Europe to escape the persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime and later used her talents to denounce racial prejudice and violence. In a profile published in the October 1965 issue of The Crisis—the official publication of the NAACP—Weill summarized her position on the civil rights struggle, saying “we must all do something for this cause in our own way. This is my way.”

Along with her husband Ernst and their two children, Weill went first to Switzerland in 1936 before immigrating to New York the following year. A native of Frankfurt am Main, Germany, Erna had attended the Goethe University Frankfurt, where she studied sculpture under Helene von Beckerath, a student of August Rodin. She also investigated Jewish philosophy in classes led by Martin Buber, a prominent scholar and author whose teachings inspired Weill to explore Jewish themes in her art.

Over the course of her career, Weill worked as a sculptor and instructor in the greater New York area. She taught students of all ages in a number of settings including the Brooklyn Museum, Jewish community centers, and her own studio. She especially enjoyed her classes for children, in which she advocated the “scribble method.” “Stimulate the child,” she advised,” but never interfere with his work. His designs should be his own, never copied. Let your child have the fun of discovery.”

In her own practice, Weill used an array of materials to model objects of diverse scale, the vast majority of which explored Judaism and the Civil Rights Movement. One dramatic four-piece bronze sculpture, Mothers of Birmingham, is a heart-wrenching homage to the anguished mothers of the four African American children killed in the Alabama church bombing of 1963. The quartet—which was exhibited in the New Jersey Pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair—was borne, Weill stated, “out of horror at cruelty, out of compassion for the suffering.” Not long after its display at the fair, Weill donated the sculpture to Fairleigh-Dickinson University in Teaneck, New Jersey, saying she would find it “repulsive to make money out of this tragedy.”

While delivering a lecture at that university in October 1966, Dr. King encountered Mothers of Birmingham. Moved by the powerful presentation, King agreed to sit for photographs for Weill. Weill completed her dignified portrait bust of King—which she described as “a study in the power of peace”—not long after his assassination. A bronze casting was presented to the National Council of Jewish Women, which in turn donated it to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Weill gave a second version to Coretta Scott King, who installed it at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. Weill’s papers are held by the American Archives of Art; that inventory includes correspondence between the artist, Dr. King, and Mrs. King. It also contains letters from and pictures of the completed portraits of several of Weill’s other subjects, including Leonard Bernstein, Golda Meir, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Elie Wiesel. The artist’s sculpture was included in group shows at the Montclair Museum, the Newark Museum, and the Jewish Museum, as well as in select New York galleries.