Portraits of survival

A collection of striking images shows how survivors not only endured the Holocaust but established flourishing families.

By
April 9, 2010 22:37
Shulamit Katan (center, holding sign) and her fami

nitzolim 311. (photo credit: .)

Nitzolim (Survivors)
By Aliza Auerbach | Yad Ben-Zvi | 205 pages | NIS 163

On the cover of veteran photographer Aliza Auerbach’s new coffee-table book, Nitzolim (“Survivors”), is a fascinating portrait of Sarah Rubin, a Holocaust survivor who was born in Poland in 1928 and now lives in Bnei Brak.

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It is the face of a woman who has known suffering, and yet – like Mona Lisa – she seems to have a wry smile on her lipstick-coated lips and a twinkle in her eyes.

Rubin says her entire family was wiped out at Treblinka, and she was left “an orphan in the world.” She was taken to Auschwitz and then Theresienstadt.

“In March 1945, I took three potatoes that I found in a field, and was sentenced to hang,” she says. “When the noose was around my neck,  the Allied forces bombed the camp, and I was saved.”

In 1947, she started a new life in Palestine, married and had three children. After leafing through the photographs of the number and yellow star she wore during the Holocaust, and the gripping story of her husband, Yehuda Rubin, also a survivor, you find a black-and-white photograph of the two together and then – over the page – a marvelous color picture of a smiling Sarah and Yehuda Rubin with their three children and 19 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The picture speaks volumes, and it is the first of a series of poignant portraits of survivors, with their horrific stories, and their families in Israel today. 

In the preface to the book, Auerbach writes that when her father, George (Gidon) Auerbach, read Mein Kampf in Cologne in 1933, “he understood that he had to leave Germany.”

He, his wife and daughter made it to Haifa in 1934, and they had three more daughters, and over the years, 13 grandchildren and 29 great-grandchildren.

ALIZA AUERBACH, who was born in 1940, began her photographic career in her 30s, specializing in portraits, stills for movies and photojournalism, freelancing for The Jerusalem Post in the 1970s and ’80s.

She considers this the third book in a trilogy. The first, Rishonim (1990), dealt with the pioneering period of Israel in the 1920s. The second, Olim (1992), documented the influx of immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union.

Over the years, as she made friends with survivors and their children, the idea of publishing a book on them took shape.

“One day, over five years ago, while I was watching a documentary on Holocaust Remembrance Day, I suddenly knew that the survivors and their families would be the subject of my next book,” she writes. “This work would complete my trilogy.”

Knowing that meeting with the survivors “would not be easy,” she decided at the same time to begin photographing the sea to “calm my soul.”

Auerbach says she sought a broad range of survivors to represent a variety of communities, “not just those who are taken for granted.”

“I therefore made an effort to find survivors from Bulgaria, Libya and Tunis,” she says. “They are the last people who felt comfortable being called ‘survivors’ because they weren’t sent to concentration camps and did not experience the cruelty of the Holocaust in its entirety, as did the Jews of Eastern Europe.”

She also made a conscious decision to focus on survivors who had made Israel their home, but she selected people who lived across the country.

“I asked each one of those who I photographed to write a brief essay on their lives,” she says. “Here and there I wrote the story of a survivor who made it clear that he could not deal with the task of writing.”

She concludes by dedicating the book to the survivors, as “an appreciation for their courage, determination, willpower and spiritual strength.”

THE STRING of survivors included in Auerbach’s book begins with the Rubins and Ze’ev Birger, the Jerusalem Book Fair’s veteran director, who hails from Lithuania. They run a range of people and places, from Germany, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Hungary to Romania, Yugoslavia, Slovakia, Macedonia and Greece.

Each has an incredible story to tell, and each makes a fascinating subject for a photographic portrait. The personal pictures are also accompanied by private items that reflect each survivor’s personal horror.

And in between the tales of the survivors are photographs of railways taken in Jerusalem, and the Mediterranean Sea taken off the Israeli coast.

According to Auerbach, these “symbolize life and death but bring hope for the future in the last photo,” which is a view of a light turquoise sea through a dark cave.

The book ends with the story of Jerusalem resident Shulamit Katan, who survived the Shoah in France, although she was born in Hamburg in 1922.

“My great joy is that all my offspring have followed the way of the Torah, love one another and are in excellent contact with me,” she writes.

On page 201, there is a lovely photograph of Katan with her 140th great-grandchild, and the next page features a picture of her huge family in Jerusalem.

Shulamit is holding a sign that says “maman” (French for mother) in Hebrew, while one of her great-grandchildren is wearing an “I love New York” T-shirt.

It is unfortunate that this wonderful book of photographs is available, for now, only in Hebrew, but it is a highly recommended purchase for anyone interested in the subject of survivors, their Shoah stories and their families today.

As the number of survivors dwindles, what remains is their pictures in the minds of their offspring, pictures that books such as this enhance beautifully for generations to come.


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