Rail cars have an indelible, chilling connection to the Holocaust, a tie that was not lost on St. Francis High School teacher Kathy Carlisle.
Carlisle, a rising national Holocaust artist and educator, was killed Dec. 8 at age 52 when she was struck by a train near the east Sacramento high school campus while taking photos.
Now, the legacy of her passion and work will be in the spotlight in hopes of galvanizing the next generation of teachers, as the University of Minnesota this week begins an exhibit of Holocaust-inspired photos shot by Carlisle's students.
The exhibit, "Illuminated Memory," will open Tuesday and run through April 13 at the Regis Center for Art at the university, said gallery director Howard Oransky.
The exhibit's run coincides with Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday. It is a collection of about 40 photos by Carlisle's students.
Carlisle and Oransky corresponded for a year before Carlisle's death, organizing the event, Oransky said.
He said the exhibit could be a nationwide model for combining studio art and historical study, and he plans to use the university's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies as a platform for Carlisle's concepts.
"It's an amazing example that academic and artistic study can reinforce each other," Oransky said.
The students in Carlisle's spring 2012 photography class were assigned to research the Holocaust from 1933 to 1945, choose a single person from the Holocaust, either a survivor or someone who perished, and tell their story through photographic imagery.
The students then wrote a statement explaining their creative process and its connection to their historical research.
The results became an online exhibit, which can be viewed at http://stfrancisholocaustphotography.blogspot.com/p/holocaust-project-description.html.
The exhibit also was shown at the KOH Library and Cultural Center at Mosaic Law Congregation, 2300 Sierra Blvd.
Liz Igra, founder and president of the Central Valley Holocaust Educators Network, said Carlisle attended four of the group's workshops for teachers.
Carlisle also was one of 26 teachers and civic leaders in the country awarded a fellowship to study the Holocaust at the Memorial Library in New York City last summer. The program was designed to encourage teachers to think creatively about methods of teaching the Holocaust.
"She felt very drawn to this history and she always wanted to know more," Igra said from her Sacramento office. "Through the lens of the Holocaust, she could see the connection to every aspect of human existence. She was able to combine all the resources - literature, documents, diaries - and present it to her students so that each one was able to understand the history and how they saw the world, and express what they learned."
Igra showed the student work to Oransky. He said he was immediately impressed and was inspired to work with Carlisle to bring the group exhibit to the university.
Carlisle had assembled all the artwork and helped organize the exhibit before her death. A St. Francis High colleague, Mary Stember, sent remaining photos and materials to Oransky after Carlisle died.
Carlisle was apparently taking photos of an oncoming train on the Union Pacific tracks near 65th Street and Elvas Avenue when she was hit by another train coming from behind her.
Aaron Hunt, a UP spokesman, said the train crew sounded the horn and applied the train's emergency brakes before striking Carlisle.
UP has a policy prohibiting trespassing on railroad property for the purposes of taking photographs, Hunt said.
Carlisle is survived by a husband and three children.
Igra, who became a close personal friend with Carlisle, believes the teacher was working on a Holocaust-related project when she was killed.
Many Jews were deported by rail car during the genocide of World War II.
The first image of the St. Francis High online exhibit is a photo of railroad tracks.
"I know why she was there, I can guess why she was there," Igra said. "The role of the railway was intertwined with the Holocaust and the fate of many, many people, and she felt it conveyed a very important message."
Oransky said Carlisle was likely immersed in the pursuit of her art when she died.
"Many people don't understand that when an artist is doing work, it's normal for an artist to become completely absorbed in what they're doing. They become 100 percent focused on what they are doing. This shows how deeply she was involved in her craft as an artist."
Call The Bee's Anne Gonzales, (916) 321-1049. Follow her in Twitter @AnneGonzo.