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The Lonka project : The Faces of Holocaust Survivors

Lonka Project
Joseph Alexander was born in 1922 in Kowal, Poland. He enjoyed a stable life in Blonie until Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939. In late 1940, the German military transported Blonie’s Jews to the Warsaw Ghetto. Joseph’s father bribed some guards to let Joseph and two of his siblings escape back to Kowal. It was the last time he saw the rest Joseph Alexander was born in 1922 in Kowal, Poland and grew up in Blonie. In 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland and in late 1940, its army transported the Jews of Blonie to the Warsaw ghetto. Joseph managed to escape to Kowal with two of his siblings thanks to his father who bribed guards. This is the last time he will see the rest of his family. From Kowal, the Nazis sent him to 12 different concentration camps. After the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943, he was taken out of Auschwitz to clean up the ruins of the ghetto and then sent back to camps in Germany. American troops liberated him in 1945. He emigrated to the United States in 1949, and continued to work as a tailor in Los Angeles and is an important voice for Holocaust memory. © Davis Factor

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.

Lonka Project
Peter Bachrach was born in Bielsko, Poland in 1927, and Esther Lavon in Mikulas, Slovakia in 1926. The two fell in love as teenagers in Mikulas, where Peter and his older brother Hans found a temporary refuge after their father was killed by the Nazis. To save her sons, their mother sent them away, across the snowy mountainous border to Slovakia on December 24, 1939, to join Gordonia, a Zionist youth movement. Their mother believed that with the help of Gordonia, her sons would immigrate to Mandatory Peter Bachrach was born in Bielsko, Poland, in 1927, and Esther Lavon in Mikulas, Slovakia, in 1926. They fell in love as teenagers in Mikulas and were separated when Peter was shipped to an extermination camp in Poland. Peter managed to escape by jumping from the wagon, and wounded, he joined fellow opponents in the Slovak mountains. Esther also survived elsewhere in the mountains. When the war was over, Peter went in search of his relatives who had all perished and then set out to find Esther. She, who never thought she would see him again, had a man in her life. Peter joined the Harel Brigade working for the Israeli defense and became a lieutenant colonel. He married and divorced three times and had three sons from his unions. Esther emigrated to Israel in 1950 with her husband. The couple gave birth to two sons. Peter and Esther did not see each other again for many years. © Rina Castelnuovo
Lonka Project
Salomea Genin was born in Berlin in 1932. Her Polish-Jewish parents divorced, and she was raised in what she calls ‘a dysfunctional family’ in an increasingly anti-Semitic Nazi Germany. As a young girl she Salomea Genin was born in Berlin in 1932 to Polish Jewish parents and grew up in Nazi Germany. After Kristallnacht, her father fled. She never saw him again. Her mother went into exile with her and her sister in Australia, where Salomea stayed until 1954. In 1949, she joined the Australian Communist Party, then returned to Berlin in 1954 as an informant for the Stasi secret police agency of communist East Germany. In 1963, she moved there and realized that she was working for a “police state”. She then confessed her activities to those she had spied on. Today she lives in Berlin and has joined the association Child Survivors Deutschland – which is committed to helping child survivors of the Holocaust overcome their trauma – and has written the book “Shayndl and Salomea”, in which she describes the effects of a family’s struggle for survival in the shadow of the rising Nazi power. © Kristian Schuller

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. 

Lonka Project
Nat Shaffir was born in Iasi, Romania, in 1936. In 1942, when the Fascist Iron Guard identified his family as Jewish, armed guards took him to a nearby ghetto the same day. Nat and her sisters were no longer allowed to attend school. His father was sent to a labor camp in 1944. Nat, then seven years old, was assigned to bring food rations to his sisters. In 1945, after days of bombing, Russian soldiers liberated the ghetto and a few months later his father returned from the camp. In 1961, Nat Shaffir immigrated to the United States. © Dave Burnett
Lonka Project
Stephen B. Jacobs was born in Łodz, Poland, on June 12, 1939. Living in Piotrków, his family was separated in 1944. The men were taken to Buchenwald and the women to Ravensbrück. Stephen survived thanks to the underground resistance in the camps. He was hidden several times in the camp itself, notably in a tuberculosis ward where his father worked as an orderly and where the German soldiers did not like to patrol. He was liberated by the American army in the middle of an uprising in the camp. The family reunited after the war and fled to Switzerland, then to the United States in 1948. Interested in art, he eventually turned to architecture and earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Pratt Institute in 1965. He designed some of the first boutique hotels in New York and the Holocaust Memorial in Buchenwald. He died on December 14, 2021. © Max Hirshfeld

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.

Lonka Project
Born on March 11, 1920 in Hungary, Ben Ferencz is not a Holocaust survivor but participated in the liberation of the camps and in bringing justice for the crimes committed. He arrived in the United States with his family at the age of 10 months, thus escaping the persecution of Hungarian Jews. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1943. He then joined the U.S. Army and participated in the liberation of the concentration camps and the D-Day landings. After graduating as a sergeant, he returned to New York and was recruited for the Nuremberg trials as chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen case, as part of Telford Taylor’s legal team. He then worked for the International Criminal Court, which tries people accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes. © Andy Anderson
Lonka Project
Lia Hoover and her twin sister, Judith Barnea, were born in 1937 in Silesia, Transylvania, Hungary. In 1942, their father Zvi was taken to a forced labor unit on the Russian front. In 1944, when the two girls were six years old, the family was deported to Auschwitz. Dr. Josef Mengele chose them for his medical experiments. Once, while he was conducting his experiments on them, the twins’ mother burst into the cabin and begged him to stop. In response, he injected her with a drug that left her deaf for life. The sisters survived with their mother, and after the war, were reunited with their father. © Ohad Zwigenberg

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.

Lonka Project
Madeleine Kahn was born in 1933 in Paris. In June 1939, her parents sent her to her grandmother, who lived in Stanesti de Jos Bukowina (Ukraine) for the vacations. In August 1939, the borders closed, preventing her from returning to France. After the 1941 pogrom in Stanesti de Jos, she was sent with her grandmother and her one-year-old cousin to the Transnistrian concentration camp in November 1941. She was finally saved by the French consul in Romania who took her to the consulate in Galatz. Seriously ill, she was sent to the hospital of the sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul. The religious community hid her until April 1946, when she was repatriated to France at the age of 13 and reunited with her parents. Madeleine Kahn became a doctor, historian and writer. She moved with her husband to Israel in 2014 and lives in Tel Aviv. © Tomasz Lazar
Lonka Project
Harry J. Fransman was born in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1922. In 1940, his family moved to The Hague after the Netherlands surrendered to the Germans. Harry was sent to a labor camp and then to Blechhammer, a subcamp of Auschwitz, where he was held for three years. In 1945, he was put on a train to Buchenwald, but managed to jump off. After the war he returned to the Netherlands and learned that his family had perished at the hands of the Nazis. As an artist, he eventually settled in Australia and wrote several books about his Holocaust experience. © D-Mo Zajac

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. 

The Lonka Project is on view at The Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow from February 17 to May 15, 2022.

Lonka Project
Mordechai Perlov, a Jew of Lithuanian origin, photographed at the age of 92 in Johannesburg (South Africa). Deported by the Red Army with his family in June 1941 from the shtetl of Raseiniai to the Soviet forced labor camp network of the Gulag, his parents died of hunger and disease. At the age of 15, he managed to escape. He died at the age of 93 on January 20, 2020. © Roger Ballen
Lonka Project
Dorothy Bohm (née Israelit) was born in 1924 in Königsberg (East Prussia), into a family of Jewish-Lithuanian origin. She lived under the Nazi regime until the age of 14, when she was sent by her family to England. At the train station, her family gave her a Leica camera, the beginning of a vocation. A humanist street photographer, Dorothy was a friend of photographers such as Bill Brandt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Brassaï and André Kertész. In 1971, she co-founded the Photographers’ Gallery in London with Sue Davies, becoming one of the doyennes of British photography. In 2009, she was made an honorary member of the Royal Photographic Society. © Marissa Roth

Read more: Newly Discovered Images Shed Light on the “Green Ticket” Roundup of 1941

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