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A school may close, leaving the fate of a historic painting in doubt

By Lisa Rozner

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    ROOSEVELT, New Jersey (WCBS) — One of the most famous paintings depicting The Great Depression is in danger of fading into history, itself.

The rare piece of arts sits inside a school in Monmouth County and is worth millions of dollars, CBS2’s Lisa Rozner reported Monday.

The 40-foot long mural, painted in the 1930s by distinguished artist Ben Shahn, is literally one for the history books.

It hangs inside the Roosevelt Public School, the only school in the two square-mile municipality.

“When I first got here I was like, do you think that every school in America has a picture of something in their building?” school Superintendent Mary Robinson Cohen said.

From left to right, the mural tells the story of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany and coming to Ellis Island.

It shows the struggle, working in the garment industry, families living in New York City tenements, and the scene of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911.

It also shows the evolution of workers rights, and, lastly, the establishment of Jersey Homesteads, which the borough of Roosevelt was formerly named. Two hundred Jewish immigrants came here to start a new life.

“When I grew up here Yiddish was spoken all over the place. Where the post office is now, there was a store and they actually had a butcher and a deli counter and a pickle barrel,” Roosevelt resident Alison Petrilla said.

And historians say the mural, itself, is in excellent condition because in the 1970s it was shipped to Italy for restoration.

“The kids really think it’s pretty magical,” said Ken Lecompte, president of the Roosevelt Board of Education.

But now the school may close and there is concern the mural will fall into disrepair. The building was built by the federal government and the deed says if it is not being used as a school, the government retains ownership.

The fear?

“The building is just going to sit here in the center of town and continue to dilapidate without any use,” Lecompte said.

The descendants of so many of the Jewish-Americans depicted in the painting make up the fabric of the borough today, and it’s a reminder to the students of how far as a country we have come.

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