Stories of hope at new Auschwitz installation


Eva Kor recently passed away at the age of 85. The name may not be instantly recognisable to some, but she was a remarkable person who must have been a highly emotionally robust individual.

Kor, who was born in Transylvania, Romania, was on an annual trip to the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, a place she first fatefully encountered in 1944, when she was 10 years old.

Crucially, she was a twin, and although her parents and two other siblings perished, she and her twin sister, Miriam, somehow managed to survive being subjected to life-threatening experiments by Dr Josef Mengele, ‘The Angel of Death’.

“Forgive your worst enemies,” Kor said in a video interview recorded during her last visit to the Auschwitz Museum, just a few days before she died.

“The moment I forgave the Nazis, I felt free from Auschwitz and from all the tragedy that had occurred to me,” she added.

Kor did not just sit about dispensing goodwill to those in her vicinity. She was very active in spreading her positive message across the globe.

That included founding the Candles Holocaust Museum and Education Centre in Terre Haute, Indiana, where she moved from Israel after serving in the IDF for eight years.

Kor’s incredibly healthy outlook on life, despite her unimaginably horrific childhood experiences and the loss of her family, also resonates in the Through the Lens of Faith artistic installation which opened near the entrance to Auschwitz on July 1.

The exhibition will remain in situ until October 31, 2020 – the year that marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp.

The installation was designed and compiled by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, and photographer Caryl Englander, and by curator Dr. Henri Lustiger Thaler of Amud Aish.

It comprises portraits of 21 survivors of Auschwitz, including that of Zelcer, taking in 18 Jews, two Polish Catholics – 102-year-old Helen Dunicz-Niwinska and 96-year-old Zofia Posmysz, and one German Sinti Free Christian called Peter Höllenreiner.

Through the Lens of Faith is well-named. The title references the religious ethos the sisters took with them as they entered the gates of Auschwitz and passed under the infamous wording Arbeit Macht Frei – “Work sets you free”.

As they state in the text that goes with Englander’s photographs, in one way or another, they came through the hell of their interment with their faith unshaken.

That is, all except Zelcer, who was born in Czechoslovakia and today has 24 descendants. His commentary concludes with the words: “It took me a year after liberation to return to my faith.”

Had he been around to see the installation go up, Viktor Frankl would, no doubt, not have been surprised by the survivors’ sunny philosophy.

The famed Viennese neurologist and psychiatrist, who died in 1997 at the age of 92, survived no fewer than four concentration camps, including Auschwitz.

In his bestselling tome, Man’s Search for Meaning, he states: “In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen.”

The new installation draws you in, on a physical and emotional level, although you have to get there first.

As Libeskind notes of the walk-through work: “Three-metre-tall vertical steel panels line up on both sides of a path that veers off the route leading to the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum.”

The fact that you have to stray from the beaten path to the entrance to the camp may be both a boon and a challenge.

“You can walk through it on your way in, or on your way out,” says Lustiger Thaler.

It remains to be seen how many of the hordes of visitors to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum actually find their way over to the boulevard of remembrance.

However, whoever does take a left turn from the car park will find the trip stirring, uplifting and eminently rewarding. The 21 sentinel-like columns offer you an immersive experience.

Englander’s portraits are recessed, set behind a dark glass pane or window, with a text containing some biographical details of the survivor in Polish and English, and with a brief vignette of their Holocaust experience.

Polish-born 96-year-old Yitzhak Baruch Schachter, for example, relates how he and his brother were taken to Monowitz, “a working sub-camp of Auschwitz”, and how they slept eight to a bed. “When one moved, everyone had to move in the same direction to keep covered.”

The bottom familial stats line notes that Schachter has 118 descendants, including 90 great-grandchildren and nine great-great-grandchildren. That’s some going.

It is an arresting portrait. The black kippa-clad character, complete with grey beard, has rolled up the left sleeves of his black jacket and white shirt to display the tattooed number on his forearm.

That is dramatically offset by a smile which seems to convey a sense of defiance — I survived Auschwitz and I am still, happily, here — coupled with fathomless sadness. It makes for a powerful visual and emotional balancing act.

The seemingly cursory bio cover to each portrait works well. After you finish reading, you pull the window open and find yourself looking at someone who feels familiar.

After all, they have just told you something about themselves. It follows the installation’s positive pointer — one of undimmed faith. The curator was keen to shine a light on that optimistic line of thought.

“Stories of survival and faith, as a way to understand the experience of the victim, are insufficiently represented in Holocaust museums and memorials, survivor-testimony archives, and Holocaust scholarship in general,” he posits in the exhibition catalogue.

The survivors’ faces express a range of emotions. Not all of them convey a sense of joie de vivre.

While you would never have guessed that 85-year-old Rabbi Nissan Mangel, a great-grandfather of nine, and 93-year-old Joseph Bistriz, who has 17 fourth-generation progeny, went through the horrors of Auschwitz in their youth; Hungarian-born Wolf Greenwald and Romanian-born Julius Meir Tauber, both 91 — the latter has 90 great-grandchildren —appear pensive, at the very least.

But the vast majority are smiling, while 93-year-old Chaya Rubin looks as if she has just heard the funniest joke in the world.

Rubin,who has 55 offspring across three generations, encapsulates her optimistic faith-based outlook, even in the darkest of dark times, in the reminiscences on the window that covers her picture:

“We sang a song of hope, every night, that my aunt wrote: ‘Oh Jews, we have troubles, but when Moshiach comes, our prayers will have been accepted’.”

Libeskind to get that buoyant mindset out there. The 73-year-old architect, who was born in Poland to Holocaust survivors just one year after the end of the Second World War, has addressed the Holocaust in various projects across the world.

I asked Libeskind how the new installation at Auschwitz differs from his other Holocaust-related works. Once again, hope raised its pretty face.

“In a way this is unprecedented at Auschwitz,” he notes. “This is not a poster, something put up on a two by four. It is something for the future. It is not just about the past.” Therein lies the crux of the installation ethos.

“This is about survivors. You can read their stories, which I think are very moving. So this is something new in this setting which hasn’t really changed since I was a kid,” Libeskind adds.

Unlike many Holocaust survivors who kept their thoughts and remembrances bottled up inside, either because they felt ill-equipped to deal with them, or because they didn’t want to burden their offspring with their traumas — although, naturally, that was all too keenly sensed by the next generation or two — Libeskind’s parents wanted their son to have some idea of what they had been through. That included a trip to the location in question for the youngster.

“I was here in 1956. I came with my parents. It was a museum. My father lost all his family here. My mother lost most of her family here.

“My parents had principles. I think it would have been inconceivable not to come here and bring their kids with them.”

The Libeskinds did not shy away from confronting their excruciatingly painful past. The architect’s parents were clearly looking toward the future. And look where their son is today.

“It is strange for me to sit here,” Libeskind confesses. “This was a place of death, everywhere. It wasn’t just at the gates, it was everywhere around here.

“So, this is a special place to build something, and to communicate this idea that Caryl [Englander] had, of a survivor’s story which has a future.

“This is something interesting that involves you. It isn’t just a monument or a memorial.”

The designer approach kicks in.

“This is something that touches you in some way, through the reflection of light on different levels. There is light around, and there is darkness in the glass.

“Then, when you open it, you see the light removed from you, to somewhere else. So it is a kind of a dialogue with the viewer. When you look at the portrait, your eyes intersect exactly with the missing piece of the wall.”

By that, Libeskind was referring to the gap between the photograph and the steel panel.

The constructional interstice offers a glimpse of the grass and trees to the rear, completing the confluence between the horrors perpetrated just a few metres away — and not so long ago — the mostly smiling countenances of the 21 sitters who survived the ordeal with their faith in humanity and God intact, and the beauty Mother Nature bestows upon us.

How the survivors are presented to us is very much down to the way in which Englander perceived them and their story.

She spent three years travelling the world, interviewing and ultimately photographing the remarkable people she encountered.

She was also very much aware of the sands-of-time dynamic, and the fact that the remaining Holocaust survivors will not be with us for many more years.

“I have rushed to every possible interview,” she says. “If someone says they are available, I get there, no matter where they are, immediately. I am going to continue until I get through all of them.”

For the photographer, her work won’t end there. “At that point, who knows if it’s going to be their children who are going to tell their stories, if the [survivors’] stories are untold?”

While Englander is clearly enthused by her important work in this field, she says she was not initially overly excited about the project when Lustiger Thaler broached it.

“I was a little reluctant to do it in the beginning. I thought more Holocaust things, more interviews, everyone going to say more [of the same].

“But Henri said to me, ‘Trust me, these religious stories have never been told. People were just mocked when they came out of the camps and said they were still religious’.”

Englander agreed to dip a toe and was quickly sucked in for the whole ride.

“I said, ‘All right, let me go to one interview and see how I feel’.’ I was such a fool to think that,” she chuckles. “First of all, people [the interviewees] called me up afterward and said it was such a cathartic experience for them.” Englander was taken aback. “I asked them, ‘Why? You’ve had all this time.

[Film director Steven] Spielberg came to you [from the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation]’.

“It was just, maybe, the right time for them. They know this is the time to tell the real story.”

We can expect more where Through the Lens of Faith came from. “I don’t know how to continue but we’re not stopping because this is only about 21 people.”

Englander says that while the project may have offered the survivors “some release”, she also got a lot from the venture.

“I heard so many amazing stories. Lea Friedler [who lives in Gush Etzion] was performing abortions [in Auschwitz] with her mother when she was 17.

“If Mengele saw a woman showing [pregnant] he’d take her in for experiments.

“They’d do abortions in the middle of the night, and hide the foetus in all the excrement. So many stories.”

As Libeskind observes: “We can’t understand the millions that were murdered in the Holocaust, but we can understand one person’s story?”

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