The 12 enlarged photographic portraits on display at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh do not portray victims or even those who merely survived the horrors of the Third Reich.
Instead, they show the faces of Jews who persevered through astonishing strength and hope — faces reflecting an inspiring vibrancy and indisputable love for life.
The photographs, which are accompanied by written and videotaped interviews of each survivor, comprise “In Celebration of Life: Living Legacy Project,” the inaugural exhibit of the new home of the Holocaust Center at 826 Hazelwood Ave. The exhibit premiered last Sunday night, Oct. 18, as part of the grand opening of the Center. The event attracted 270 guests, including many of Pittsburgh’s remaining survivors.
“I just had the moment I was most looking forward to,” said Lauren Apter Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center, early in the evening. “Two survivors who hadn’t seen each other in a long time just found each other and embraced beneath their photographs.”
The Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh was created in 1981 by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh as a living memorial and a comprehensive resource center for people throughout Western Pennsylvania, Eastern Ohio and Northern West Virginia to learn about the Holocaust through educational resources, events and programming. The Center also partners with other organizations, individuals and institutions to convey the contemporary relevance of the Holocaust and its lessons.
The Center’s new home in the East End in Squirrel Hill Plaza features 2,300 square feet of single-floor space for exhibits, tours, education, research and reflecting. The new Center marks the first time in the institution’s history that it has its own dedicated space, independent of another institution. From 2011 until now, the Center was housed in office space provided by the Federation on McKee Place in Oakland. Prior to that, the Center was located within the Jewish Community Center offices in Squirrel Hill.
Although there are 55 Holocaust survivors currently in the Pittsburgh area, only 29 so far have agreed to be photographed for the exhibit and to record their stories, said Hannah Wilson, the building and collections coordinator of the Center and curator of the exhibit.
“We are trying to get all 55,” said Wilson, but some survivors are reluctant to participate.
“Some of them are good at telling their story and have been telling it for 70 years,” she said. “But for some it’s harder.”
Elizabeth Brown, 96, has no reservations about recounting her abuse at the hands of the Nazis. She is one of only 350 women out of 1,300 who survived what is now known as the Death March to Volary.
In January 1945, approximately 1,000 female Jewish prisoners were evacuated from the Schlesiersee camp in western Poland, a region annexed to Germany, and forced on a death march in a southwesterly direction. More women were added along the way as the prisoners passed through other camps. The women marched through snow while hungry and sick, with the march ending in the town of Volary in Czechoslovakia.
“I was 25 or 26,” recalled Brown, as video images of her were projected on a nearby screen. “I remember every minute of it. I wish I could forget. We were liberated by the American Army on the 85th day of the march, after marching 375 miles. I faced [commander Alois] Dörr. I faced that monster. I looked him right in the eyes. I was not afraid of him. I don’t know where I got that courage.”
Brown still has an original map of the March, which was used in the Nuremberg trials. The Holocaust Center will be making a copy of it, she said.
Brown was pleased to be at the opening of the new Center, she said, and to participate as part of its first exhibition.
“It’s wonderful,” she said, “and it’s wonderful to take part in it.”
The 12 survivors whose photographs and stories are currently on display are: Moshe Baran, Elizabeth Brown, Irene Furst, Sam Gottesman, Manny Kolski, Solange Lebovitz, Fritz Ottenheimer, Judah Samet, Harry Schneider, Herman Snyder, Sam Weinreb and Yolanda Willis.
After six or seven months, the exhibit will rotate to feature other survivors participating in the project: Edith Balas, Shulamit Bastacky, Helen Bayer, Edith Bell, Sarah Brett, Walter Boninger, Miriam Kreiger, Hana Kovanick, Paula Levin, Leon Metzler, Sarah Reichman, Isadore Small, Irene Skolnick, Moshe Taube and Bronia Weiner.
The photographs of the exhibit were taken by Ryan Michael White, with Garret Jones as videographer and Laila Archuleta as video-editor.
Harry Schneider, 78, survived the atrocities of World War II when he was a young child but still has vivid memories of the struggles his family faced under persecution in Russia, Poland and Austria. He now serves as co-chair of the Pittsburgh Holocaust Survivors Association. He is happy with the new Center, he said, and the additional space it will provide for education.
“There is more room here,” he said, “not only for the survivors, but for other people to come in and see the place. You have to remember what happened, otherwise the same thing could happen again. I’m not sure anything can be done about anti-Semitism. But you have to just keep on hoping.”
Sunday’s event also included the presentation of the first annual Holocaust Educator Award to Barbara Burstin, a lecturer in Jewish history and Holocaust studies at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University.
“She is one of the most vocal advocates for Jewish history in Pittsburgh,” said Bairnsfather. “She had to be the first person to receive this award because her work is at the pinnacle.”
Having the new stand-alone Center will be a valuable resource for the community in its imperative to remember the Holocaust, according to Rabbi Danny Schiff, Pittsburgh’s Federation Scholar.
“The Holocaust is one of the seminal events of Jewish history that must never be forgotten,” Schiff said. “Having a place for memory and for learning and for teaching whatever lesson can be learned from these horrendous events is critical. And now we have a place that’s accessible to the community and offers a chance to explore the significance of the Holocaust in real depth.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.