For Holocaust survivors, the power of old family photos
In 1953, Israel’s prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and its president, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, signed into law a proclamation designating a day each year for remembering the victims as well as the heroes of the Holocaust. The Knesset chose the 27th day of the month of Nisan for that day — Yom HaShoah — which began this year on the evening of May 4.
As photos are a powerful means of evoking memory, The Chronicle asked three local Holocaust survivors to share family photos taken prior to or during World War II and their accompanying memories.
Schneider was just 2 years old and living in the small shtletl of Lomazy when the Germans invaded Poland on Sept. 1, 1939. Through a series of fortunate events, he said, he was able to survive, although many family members were brutally murdered by Nazis.
Shortly after the German army invaded Poland, Schneider’s family hid in the nearby forest and remained there for two years until they could escape to Russia. Schneider’s parents, his uncle and his older cousin, Baruch, who his parents were raising, lived outdoors together, foraging for food, and often eating raw potatoes that they “borrowed” from farmers. Schneider’s mother was pregnant with his younger sister during this time, giving birth once they were in Russia. His grandmother, who was too old to travel, and an uncle who stayed with her, did not leave Lomazy and were murdered along with the rest of the remaining townspeople.
“For two years, we were wandering around in the woods,” Schneider said. “It was like the movie ‘Defiance.’ I’m not sure if we were with the Bielski brothers [an organization of Jewish partisans who rescued Jews during the Holocaust, living in the Polish forest], but my cousin said for a short time we were with them.”
After the war, Schneider’s family left Poland because their home had been destroyed and because of the rampant anti-Semitism there. They spent four years in displaced persons (DP) camps in the American Zone in Austria and immigrated to the United States in 1950, settling in Washington, Pa. Schneider married a Squirrel Hill native and has lived in Pittsburgh ever since.
Throughout the struggles of Schneider’s family — living in the forest, then in a remote part of Russia from 1941 until 1945, then the DP camp — his mother held on to the family photos.
“When my mother passed away, I found all these pictures,” Schneider said. But while there are several photos from before the war, there are none from the time the family was in the woods or in the Ural Mountains, near Siberia, as there were no photographers.
Schneider’s mother also kept photos from the DP camp as well as the family’s passports.
“It means a lot to me to have all these pictures,” Schneider said. “They show what happened before the war and after the war. It’s important to show what happened to the family and what each one in the picture looked like.”
Schneider did not join the Holocaust Center until he retired, he said.
“I didn’t feel like I was a survivor because I was not in a concentration camp,” he said. “But after I retired, I decided to see what could be done. Now I’m co-chairman of the survivors’ organization, and I speak at schools and do interviews.”
Out of 3 million Jews in Poland before the war, only 10 percent survived, Schneider pointed out.
“It’s a miracle,” he said. “I’ll always wonder why it was me. I don’t have an answer. I still wonder, and I still ask questions to try to figure out how this all happened and why I survived and why most people didn’t. There’s no answer.”
When Solange Lebovitz returned with her family to their Paris apartment after the war, everything was intact, and all the family photos remained where they were left.
Her family had moved to Paris from Sighet, Transylvania, in 1925 when “things got not good for the Jews there,” Lebovitz said. Sighet was the birthplace of Nobel Laureate and writer Elie Wiesel. Lebovitz and her younger sister were both born in Paris.
Lebovitz, 85, has photos of her entire family that pre-date the war and also photos of herself as a young teen being hidden during the war in Couterne, a village in Normandy, by a Catholic couple named Barbier.
Lebovitz was one of six children. The family of eight split up during the war, and miraculously, all of them survived.
In 1939, France and England declared war on Germany after Germany invaded Poland. The Germans invaded France in 1940.
After La Rafle Du Vel D’hivre in July, 1942 — during which about 13,000 Parisian Jews were arrested, housed in an auditorium for a week and then shipped to concentration camps — some of Lebovitz’s family left Paris and went to Limoges. When life became difficult in Limoges, Lebovitz’s parents moved about 100 kilometers away and rented a room at a farmhouse.
The family was spread out around the country. Two brothers joined the partisans and various family members were arrested from time to time, although all managed to be released.
“It was a miracle that all eight of us survived,” Lebovitz said. “My cousins did not survive. We were able to move back to our apartment in Paris in 1944.”
Among Lebovitz’s pre-war photos is one of her 102-year-old grandmother taken prior to 1939 and one of her, her mother and her sister taken in 1930.
In 1952, Lebovitz came to the United States, marrying a distant cousin who she met when he came to France to visit his sister after the war.
When Lebovitz’s daughter was in college, she decided she wanted to get an education as well. She enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and eight years later graduated cum laude with a double major in English literature and French literature. She has written more than 1,000 poems, many about the Holocaust.
Baran, 95, has just one photo that pre-dates the war: an image of him at age 7 with his brother, Joshua, 5.
Baran did not even know the photo existed until he visited relatives in Shreveport, La., about 12 years ago.
“My cousin’s children had the photo,” he said. “On the back was my mother’s handwriting, sending it to her niece, Gloria. I was taken aback. I don’t remember ever seeing it before. When I saw this photo in Shreveport, I was elated.”
It is no wonder that no other Baran family photos survived the war save the one that was sent overseas.
“We had no photos left from before the war,” Baran said. “We were forced into the ghetto [in Poland], and we didn’t take anything with us. The photo made it out because it was mailed in 1927, 12 years before the stuff started.”
Baran was born in Horodok, a shtetl in Eastern Poland. In addition to his brother, he had twin sisters. One sister and his father died during the war. His other sister, his brother and his mother survived.
On Sept. 1, 1939, Poland was attacked by Germany, and on Sept. 17, the Soviet Union invaded the part of Poland where Baran lived. Jewish life thereafter disappeared he said, because of the enforcement of communism.
In June, 1941, when Germany attacked the Soviet Union, Baran and his family were forced into a ghetto.
“There were 20 homes for 300 families,” he said. “There was no sanitation, no running water. I don’t remember anything from the ghetto. We knew what was coming, though; it was only a question of time.”
Baran and his brother moved to a forced labor camp in the next town. The rest of his family left the ghetto and hid on the property of his uncle. Two months later, the original ghetto was destroyed, along with every other ghetto in the neighborhood aside from the labor camp where Baran and his brother were working.
Baran learned the resistance was forming, and he wanted to join, but knew he would need weapons to do so. He figured out a way to retrieve the weapons that the Germans were collecting from the Russian army, and with those weapons, he joined the resistance that had set up camp in the woods.
“The first morning, I went to the edge of the forest, and I looked up and saw the sun,” Baran recalled. “It was a revelation. I never looked up once the Germans came. We were like caged animals. I looked up and saw the birds.”
After the liberation, Baran was drafted into the Russian army, but it was demobilized after one year. He and his family then left Russia, and they were placed in a DP camp in Austria, where he met his wife. They came to the United States together in 1950, sponsored by cousins in Shreveport. It was the children of those cousins who he visited decades later, who had kept the photo of him and his brother all those years.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.