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The Last Album
By Ann Weiss
The photos in this article are from The Franklin G. Burroughs Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum's fall photography exhibition and depict the people, the times and the memories most cherished. I found them by accident, and this accident has changed the course of the rest of my life.
Stories have always been important to me. The stories I was accustomed to hearing were the happy stories my own family would tell, gently and lovingly, when I was a child. They were my mother's stories about relatives I never knew, streets I never walked, and adventures I never had. Through her stories, I came to know the people she loved and the times she cherished. And I was able to "meet" my family who were murdered years before I was born.
Both my parents are survivors of Nazi concentration camps, and both knew, firsthand, the barbarity of what one individual is capable of doing to another. But these aren't the stories I heard, not for a very long time---not until I was older, and not until I asked.
Instead, I heard stories of life and of love, of family holidays and family vacations, of innocent carefree times, and then later, much, much later, of the devastating times that both defies words and defeat understanding. With these stories as my foundation, the firmament of my adulthood, I walked into Auschwitz for the first time.
I did not know what I would see, nor could I anticipate its impact upon me. I knew only that I was ready to face this cursed place that had taken on mythic proportions in my consciousness. Auschwitz-Birkenau was the largest of Hitler's death camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau - its very name had become an archetype for death.
When my group was led through the camp, now a museum, the tour guide began reciting her rote presentation, ticking off facts as if they were a grocery list. Suddenly, in this place of death, I felt a strong need to breathe life, to be alone, and away from the droning voice of the tour guide. I needed both silence and space, to breathe, to think, to feel. As the group proceeded to the next room, I remained behind.
It was as simple as that. The group walked ahead, and I stayed behind.
For a long time, I remained in a gallery filled, floor to ceiling, with shoes, thousands of pairs of shoes left from the last few days of killing at Auschwitz-Birkenau. The shoes were broken and bent, with holes in their soles, abandoned witnesses to what no words could express. I stayed with the shoes, and thought about the lives of their owners. Time ceased to exist for me, only the shoes. Eventually I "returned" to the present and found myself completely alone in Auschwitz.
Panicked, I began to run, from gallery to gallery, and from building to building, searching for someone from my group, searching for anyone alive. Eventually, in the distance, I heard a sound and made my way toward it. I ran into an employee, a woman, who pulled me aside in the deserted hallway and, quite remarkably, asked me, "Do you want to see what's in this room?" Though I was nervous, I immediately answered, "Yes." A locked door was unlocked, and it was then that I saw the amazing photos that were to change my life.
What are these photos?
They are the most cherished photos carried into Auschwitz-Birkenau by Jews who were deported there. Although millions of personal photos were carried into Nazi death camps by people forced out of their homes, virtually all of these photos were destroyed, according to Nazi order.
As James E. Young, respected Holocaust scholar and author of The Texture of Memory, explains in his introduction to The Last Album:
"This truth was brought home to me in an unexpected aside from a survivor ... in Israel, Yehuda Bacom, an artist and survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau....When I asked him if he knew where these drawings might now be found, he suddenly sat upright and looked at me quizzically, "You don't know? It was common knowledge at the time...that there was a separate crematorium in the gas chamber complex for the victims' personal effects, where all their letters, photographs and drawings were burned. They didn't want to destroy us only but also all of our words, our lives, our memories. For this alone I can never forgive them." (Last Album, W. W. Norton, 2001, p. 16).
Just as prisoners' personal photos were confiscated and destroyed at Auschwitz, so too were such photos confiscated and destroyed at all Nazi camps. Millions of photos were brought and destroyed, together with their owners. This collection alone remains, and the stories of their owners, a treasured legacy.
Unlike most Holocaust accounts, which of necessity tell the story of death, The Last Album tells the story of the life. Before they became victims, they were people living their lives. And it is these lives we see depicted in the photos they carried: Holidays, family vacations, children going to school, sweethearts falling in love, weddings, babies.
When they were forced out of their homes, they grabbed their most precious photos. And it is these photos that I saw for the first time, by accident, in a locked archive in Poland four decades later. It is these photos with which I have traveled the past fifteen years, searching the globe for their rightful owners, and their identifications and stories as well.
Let me say, at the onset, that although I had hoped to find my own family in these photos, that did not happen. Yet something else, quite remarkable, did: These photos began to feel like family. Even from strangers who had no personal history with the photos, I heard the same comment again and again: These pictures look like my own family album.
Throughout these many years, the most remarkable moments of the project have been those times when I was able to reunite people with photos-- in some cases, the last photos---that belonged to their family. In many cases, these are photos that no one knew even existed.
A few such stories follow:
Cvi Cukierman and the Gayleh Rifkeleh Pastry Shop:
When my photo exhibition was in Michigan, a woman asked me, "Do you know who this is?" The man, son of a prominent family in Bendin, Poland who owned the most popular pastry shop in town, had been identified to me many, many times before. Instead of just listening politely and letting this Holocaust survivor tell me the story (again), I turned to her in frustration and admitted, "Yes, he has been identified many times, but I have never met anyone from the family." She beamed at me, and said, "That's because there is only one person left in the world, he lives in Israel, and he's my friend!"
The next week, I was on a plane to Israel, and I met Cvi Cukierman, the last member of the original Cukierman family. He was the nephew of the man in the photo, Binim Cukierman, a much beloved figure in the town. Binim was a baker by profession, but he loved to have a good time, and every day, at 2:00 (having started work at 4:00 in the morning), he took off his apron, got himself spruced up, and went to meet friends
Sometimes he went to the sports club, where he was a talented soccer player or played cards. Sometimes, he played violin in the orchestra. Other times, he would ski or swim or hike, often taking his young nieces and nephews on vacations with him. Cvi remembers learning how to ski at the famous resort of Zakopane with his uncle.
Cvi's personal history is both dramatic and heroic. He made a daring escape from a Nazi concentration camp, knowing that if he stayed much longer, he would surely die. His uncle and cousins, both prisoners in the same camp, survived only few more weeks. Later Cvi made his way to the Middle East, smuggling himself through borders, and swimming the last few miles when the British refused to allow his ship to enter. He fought in Israel's 1948 War of Independence, side by side, with his Palmach commander, Yitzhak Rabin, and helped to get food to the starving people in Jerusalem during the seige. He married his sweetheart, Minna, also a survivor of the Holocaust, and together they created a new family. When he thinks of his murdered family, he looks around his table now, filled with children and grandchildren, and he declares powerfully, "This is my revenge on Hitler!"
When I brought him the photos of his family, including his father, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins, he shed the first tears he has shed in fifty years, and said to me, "You have released my tears. Now I can show my family who I am, who I come from. Now I can die a rich man!"
The father, Artur Huppert, looked like a movie star. He was photographed many times, in dramatic poses, with each photo illuminating an aspect of his privileged lifestyle. Elegant settings. Elegant clothing. But when he and his wife, Grete, had their first---and only---child, it was clear that all attention now was focused on their beloved little Peter. Little else mattered as much as capturing Peter's smile and sharing vignettes of his life with family far away. Though I traveled to many locations looking for members of the Huppert family, in the end, it was from the inscriptions on the photos themselves that I learned about the family.
On the backs of the photos were inscriptions of exuberance characteristic of new parents:
My Peterle is laughing at the world. He thinks it all belongs to him. He should be [laughing] and healthy until 120.
(Note: "Until 120" expresses a traditional Jewish wish for attainment of the full measure of life, signified by 120 years, the age of Biblical Moses when he died.)
Though Artur and Grete lived in Czechoslovakia, they frequently sent inscribed photos to family members in Poland. And Artur even managed to devise a three-generation portrait, with Peterle and Artur holding portraits of geographically separated family.
As the political situation became more dangerous, Artur's inscriptions begin to reflect his heightened concern:
My child Peterle, 20 months and I turned 31 on 9 July 1940.... My poor child doesn't know what a bitter world he was born into, nor ought he to know that. 30 June 1940
Ironically, when I had almost despaired of ever finding a living member of the Huppert Family, I met Artur's namesake right in my hometown of Philadelphia. Although the Philadelphia Arthur is a distant Huppert relative from the Polish, not the Czechoslovakian, part of the family, it is clear that genetics trumps geography: He has the same unmistakable and beautiful Huppert eyes!
Though there are many photos already identified and many photos already in the rightful hands of family members, there are still many more left to discover. As of this writing, I continue the effort to unite families with their photos, and to preserve memories of the past as stories for the future.
The Franklin G. Burroughs Simeon B. Chapin Art Museum's fall photography exhibit The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau runs from September 22, 2005 and ends January 1, 2006.
The above personal stories by Author Curator Ann Weiss tell how the exhibit came to fruition and some of the positive results that it has produced in uniting families with a piece of their heritage.
For further information, or to contribute to this effort, see: www.thelatalbum.org.
from the October 2005 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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