The Unbelievable Story of Nelly Toll

Photo: Nelly Toll
Photo: Nelly Toll

One of my jobs as a mom is to keep my children fed and clothed. Oh, and safe. It’s sometimes hard for me to imagine how parents in other cultures, and in other time periods, coped with these same responsibilities. Most of us have read The Diary of Anne Frank. It’s easy to feel disconnected from the events of World War II, and the way families were torn apart. It seems like those things happened several lifetimes ago.

Unbelievably, there is a woman named Nelly Toll, who lived through those years, and is still alive to tell her tale. She was only 8 years old when she and her mother were forced to hide from the soldiers who patrolled the streets in her hometown of Lwów, Poland. It was 1943 and not a good time to practice the Jewish faith.

Photo: Nelly Toll
Photo: Nelly Toll

For over a year Nelly and her mother lived in secret, trying to cope with the alternating boredom and fear. As a coping exercise, Nelly’s mother would whisper happy stories to her. Nelly began to paint watercolor pictures of the fantasy stories she would then create in her own mind. Her little black diary became a mixture of tragic stories of losing family members and fanciful tales, intertwined with happy, brightly colored watercolor pictures.

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Nelly and her mother survived their ordeal and eventually found themselves in the United States. Nelly’s journal also survived, along with sixty of her watercolor paintings. In her adult years, Nelly became an inspirational teacher, counselor, and art therapist, specializing in helping those who have been through traumatic events.

In 1993, Nelly published her memoir, Behind the Secret Window. It was a mix of her journal entries, stories, and her bright watercolor paintings.

Photo: Puffin Books
Photo: Puffin Books

As a mother I cannot comprehend having to endure such a trial with my 8-year-old child. And it’s even harder to comprehend how an 8 year old could spend a year creating their own happy, optimistic stories and paintings, in the midst of such hatred and angst.

After winning many awards, there is now an Indiegogo campaign to bring Nelly’s book to video, in a documentary film, entitled Imagining A Better World, The Nelly Toll Story. Combining rare archival footage and 3D animation of Nelly’s watercolors (which hang in museums around the world), they plan to tell her story in a cutting edge virtual reality format.

Along with the creation of the documentary, Diane Estelle Vicari, the director, has partnered with the Massillon Museum in Ohio to launch a traveling exhibit of Nelly’s artwork. This means you may actually get the chance to see her paintings in your own neighborhood. Imagine bringing history to life for your kids, by showing them a captivating documentary, then taking them to a local exhibit featuring the artwork they saw in the movie.

Photo: Nelly Toll
Photo: Nelly Toll

If you’d like to help bring this documentary to reality, head over to the Indiegogo campaign page. There are some pretty special rewards for making a tax deductible donation. The sooner these film makers can get their financing, the sooner this amazing story can be told to a much wider audience. And the sooner we can have another quality resource to help us tell our children about the past, while making it come to life for them.

Share the awesome video of this project with your kids, friends and family. You can find it here.

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