Auschwitz victims’ family photos exhibited in Eugene
By JOSEPH A LIEBERMAN
article created on: 2011-05-01T00:00:00
A camera aperture opens, light enters for a fraction of a second, and a moment in time is captured on a roll of film. Children, smiles, a sweetheart, a wedding toast and sunshine; years pass, they grow, change, and disappear, but their images are preserved for a while longer, until those, too fade away. But not always.
“The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau” is a miracle of survival, the only set of concentration camp victims’ “transport photos” known to be in existence. These were the cherished personal possessions of Jewish deportees being sent to the death camps of wartime Europe, carefully packed in their belongings, then snatched away by ruthless guards as part of well-constructed efforts to dehumanize them.
An exhibit of these photos opens in Eugene on May 6 at the DIVA gallery (Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts) at 280 W. Broadway, and is expected to run through June. A concurrent exhibit of additional photos from the collection will be held at Temple Beth Israel. This is the only showing on the U.S. West Coast.
Since hundreds of thousands of the people who were interned in these camps brought along at least a few photographs, it’s a chilling thought that out of all the densely packed trains and trucks arriving there, only these photos, from a single transport group that originated in the town of Bedzin, Poland, survived. The Bedzin ghetto, at the time of the deportation, was crowded with Jews from various places in the Zaglembie region of Silesia, Poland.
These pictures remained unseen and untouched for 41 years, from the time of the liberation of the death camps in 1945 until 1986. Then, as part of a diplomatic mission to Poland that included a group tour of Auschwitz, Dr. Ann Weiss, an author, researcher and educator, was accidentally let into the archive holding them. There before her lay several thousand precious photographs confiscated from families and individuals.
The poignant images immediately overwhelmed her. “I could not speak. I could barely breathe,” she wrote. “The familiar refrain ‘six million’ translated into six million times the individual, six million times Naftali and Raizele and Tzipohorah and Emanuel. Six million pairs of eyes.”
Weiss, herself the daughter of two Holocaust survivors from Poland, began a 15-year struggle to first gain permission from the government to copy the photos, and then to find the relatives of the people in the pictures. She finally negotiated the right to publish some 2,000 of these images, and dedicated herself to preserving them. At the same time, she began trying to identify the individuals in the pictures, seeking out surviving family members and friends to discover the stories of these people in order to celebrate their tragically shortened lives.
Weiss states, “The Nazis wanted their victims to be dead and dehumanized. They took away their names, replacing them with numbers. They destroyed their personal photos so that we could not see their faces. Not only did the Nazis destroy their lives, but they even tried to destroy the memory of their lives. With these photos, they can be remembered as people, not bodies, and in this sense, they live.”
“Eyes from the Ashes,” a documentary film based on her research into the photos, premiered in 1989. In 2001, Weiss completed a book, published by W.W. Norton, sharing the same title as this exhibition, which Weiss also prepared and curates.
Ironically, as the exhibit was being prepared for Eugene, a member of Temple Beth Israel recognized her father as a young man. Deborah Strochlic told The Jewish Review, “Bedzin, Poland, was where my family lived. I actually didn’t know about the photo of him in this collection until I opened the website and saw him there. I was in total shock!”
Strochlic said she was scrolling through the website photos and there he was near the end, one of three men who have their arms around each other. “He’s the one on the left, leaning on his knee,” she explained. “The photo was from before the war. He wasn’t in Auschwitz, but many of his family members and friends died there, and this photo was inside one of their suitcases.”
Since then she’s been in touch with the author and the gallery. “It’s been very exciting to see this unfolding. I hope lots of people from around Oregon will come see the exhibit,” Strochlic said.
The exhibit, offers a fresh, humanistic perspective on the victims of history’s greatest crime. It consists of more than 75 photographs and maps. The documentary film will be shown at both DIVA and TBI. Weiss will be in Eugene the week of the opening to present the film and will have copies of her book for sale.
More information is available at diva.proscenia.net/lastalbum/index.htm.