It’s been said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” insomuch as that even poetry — the first art — requires us to attempt to come to terms with the inexplicable. One might then assume that any art born of an attempt at interpretation of absolute evil is bound to fail. But what of the many books, exhibitions, and theatrical productions that trace their genesis to our human search to comprehend the Holocaust? Of those, there are many that use photographic portraits of survivors to show us the faces of the lucky ones, the ones who slipped through the Nazi regime somehow and are now honored by the simple fact that they survived.
Books such as Mark Seliger’s landmark When They Came to Take My Father tapped this vein of typology by featuring numerous survivors, all photographed in various locations by the same photographer. The chilling book, The Irreversible by Maciek and Agnieszka Nabrdalik, features dramatic black and white photographs of men and women who appear to be coming forward from the darkest of shadows. Both have contributed to a paradigm from which to examine this extended group of individuals. Additionally, Martin Schoeller, B.A. Van Sise, and others have created extensive bodies of work highlighting survivors, wholly photographed by each as well. This is where The Lonka Project came in and challenged the prevailing narrative.
In 2018 — when photojournalists Jim Hollander and Rina Castelnuovo decided to address the continuing chasm in public awareness about World War II and the Nazi regime and started The Lonka Project — almost one-fifth of the French population had no idea what the Holocaust was, and over 40% of Americans could not identify Auschwitz. Rina’s mother, Lonka (Dr. Eleonora Nass) had survived five concentration camps and became the inspiration to try a different approach to holding on to the uniqueness of individual experiences that many survivors still held inside.
Through The Lonka Project, Jim and Rina set out to approach things with the simple mantra of a one subject/one photographer construct that would soon ripple across the globe and attract numerous marquee names from the world of photography. Eager to participate (since most survivors are quite old with several dying almost every day), diverse talents such as Roger Ballen, Alec Soth, Marissa Roth, Gilles Peress, Lori Adamski-Peek, and David Burnett fell in step with the “no rules but with absolute control” of the edict given to all.
With the added caveat that “every picture must be accompanied by the story of survival and a full life lived”, many photographers (I included) selected a subject through whatever means they had at their disposal; in other cases, the principals of the project helped locate survivors. The story of my subject, Stephen B. Jacobs, caught my producer’s eye as we started researching possible subjects, and though Stephen has since passed away, his “full life lived” was powerful and engaging.
Andy Anderson’s close-up of Ben Ferencz’s 99-year-old hands holding a portrait of himself in military uniform from eighty years prior, captures that ineffable something that occurs when a thoughtful image-maker recognizes when a gift has been handed to him. Ohad Zwigenburg’s photograph of Mengele-surviving twins Lia Hoover and Judith Barnea includes a pair of shadows on the wall behind them that adds a chilling reminder of what might be seen as ‘the inexplicable’, an embellishment that adds a level of gravitas to an already challenging subject.
Yet are all these faces and all these stories going to have any meaningful effect, and lend impact to the slippery slope of denial that has reared its head recently? Is the proliferation of ‘art after Auschwitz’ doomed to play to an audience of one; to be seen and read by those who already know something about this darkest of chapters? In the end, survivors left with the burden of bearing witness carry an enormous responsibility to share their stories no matter the method or outcome. To address that gaping chasm that grows larger every day, the stories of brutality in that “hell on earth” should be mandatory for all schools. Yet by early 2022, only nineteen states in the US have a mandate to include Holocaust education in schools. Constant reminders about the death camps can only go so far; indeed, the passing on of the truth about the war to those who were not there is very difficult, as the histories of the survivors are so difficult to communicate.
Rina and Jim’s resolve to pursue this universal body of work is nothing short of miraculous. Inspirational at its core, The Lonka Project is ongoing and very much alive. It has been exhibited at the UN, the Willy-Brandt-Haus in Berlin, and most recently at Safra Square in Jerusalem outside the walls of the City Hall. Unfortunately — just a few months ago — the portrait of 94-year-old Peggy Parnass by Axel Martin was defaced for the fifth time since April in what Jim Hollander describes as an anti-feminist act and not antisemitism, and most likely perpetrated by fiercely insular ultra-Orthodox forces. And because the world may interpret this as a form of antisemitism, it is heartening to see that on January 20 of this year, the Israeli resolution that denounces any denial and distortion of the Holocaust and events surrounding it was adopted by the UN.
As Jim writes, “…in Israel the Holocaust is everywhere. Monuments, personal stories and even days when two-minute sirens wail, and the country comes to a complete standstill in memory and appreciation.” So, it is fitting that a project of this scope and ambition was born in the very place where thousands and thousands of survivors settled after the war, a place where Jews would not be persecuted anymore regardless of their level of religious expression.
Max Hirshfeld is an American photographer who grew up in a house full of books and music to parents who survived Auschwitz and settled in small-town Alabama. His father, a child prodigy who played piano with The Warsaw Philharmonic at the age of nine, pushed him to explore the arts with a curiosity born from generations of intellectual and artistic pursuits.