‘Survivor’ portraits a moving testament to those forever changed by Holocaust

‘Survivor’ portraits a moving testament to those forever changed by Holocaust

The acclaimed British portrait photographer Harry Borden spent five years traveling the world photographing Holocaust survivors. In the introduction to “Survivor: a portrait of survivors of the Holocaust,” Borden explains that at age 40, already a celebrated photographer of “famous people,” he decided to do something meaningful. The son of an atheist Jewish father, Borden was raised with little Jewish identity other than hearing from his father that the Nazis would have killed them. This memory inspired Borden to create this stunning publication — a sizeable accomplishment in both physical dimension and content.

The first 215 pages of “Survivor” contain striking color portraits. Each survivor, at the end of his or her photo session, handwrote a “note.” Easily as compelling as the photographs, these handwritten notes are published opposite each photograph. The notes form the narrative of the book.

The remainder of the book includes biographies of each survivor. “Survivor” is thus an important contribution to Holocaust studies and a moving tribute to the resilience of Holocaust survivors. Author Howard Jacobson describes the survivors in the foreword to the book: “In the face of so much to be appalled by, [Borden’s] subjects give a degree of hope, if only by the quiet, unanswerable quality of their endurance,” he writes.

Several themes emerge, distilled by the brevity of the published notes. Survivors write of the last memories of parents and siblings and the joys of having their own children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They write with pessimism and optimism. Many survived as children, some hidden or sent away, presumably but not always to safety, on Kindertransport; others survived concentration camps and labor.  

Cesia Altstock (page 52), born in Lwów, Poland, and Manek Altstock (page 54), born in Zloczów, Poland, are husband and wife. Each remembers a traumatic parting with a parent. Cesia and her mother were forcibly separated; Manek’s father told him to run. They never saw their parents again. Lucia Rosenzweig (page 84), born in Kraków, wrote simply, “In memory of my parents.”

One photograph that is especially evocative is of identical twin sisters Stephanie Heller and Annetta Able (page 100). Born in Czechoslovakia, they were imprisoned in Theresienstadt and later deported to Auschwitz. By that time nearly 20 years old, Joseph Mengele selected the twins to be subjects in his medical experiments. The experiments caused both women terrible pain, but they were spared the life-long physical problems that befell many surviving Mengele twins. Both became mothers.

Anyone who has read Affinity Konar’s “Mischling,” a gripping fictional account of twins in Auschwitz, will be moved by the story of Heller and Able. Reading their biographies in the second part of Survivor, I felt relief that although their lives took them to many different parts of the world, including Israel and Kenya, they live together now in Melbourne, Australia. Their notes leave us with messages of hope: “Life is beautiful, do not hate anybody, be a good example to all around you.” And “I hope that our past will teach the new generation to live in peace and harmony together.”

Other survivors offered darker messages about the present and future. Borden photographed Henri Obstfeld (page 35) in close-up. His intense stare draws the reader. Born in Amsterdam in April 1940, Obstfeld’s parents placed him in hiding with a gentile couple, where he lived as their nephew. Obstfeld and his parents were reunited after the war. “And what has the world learned of all of this?” he wrote.

Sculptor Maurice Blik (page 40), photographed in his studio, offers a counterpoint. Like Obstfeld, Blik was born in Amsterdam one year earlier. He was deported to Bergen-Belsen, and remained there until the camp was liberated by the British in 1945. His mother and sister also survived Bergen-Belsen. He began to create sculptures in the late 1980s and is now, among other honors, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in England.

“There is a mountain of literature, film, music, painting, sculpture, archive and history that refers to the horror of the Holocaust,” wrote Blik. “Little is said of those survivors who, despite their pains and loss, made a success of their lives. I wish to move the story on to honour and celebrate those of us whose rich and full lives have embraced the future.

“Survivor” succeeds in moving the story toward honoring and celebrating survivors. Borden shows his subjects in their own homes. In his photographs, he does not shy away from the complexity of survival — a cause for gratitude in some manifests as debilitating guilt in others. The inclusion of notes from each survivor adds immeasurably to the value of the book as both tribute and historical source.

“Survivor: A portrait of the survivors of the Holocaust” will be available to peruse at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. It is a moving testimony to the triumph of the spirit, and even more moving as we approach Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, later this month.

Lauren Bairnsfather is director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.