Holocaust survivors photographed as tribute to their triumph

The Lonka Project, inaugurated at the UN on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, involves 250 photographers from 26 countries

Anne Frank's friend and step-sister Eva Schloss celebrates her 90th birthday in London. (photo credit: STUART FRANKLIN/MAGNUM PHOTOS/ THE LONKA PROJECT)
Anne Frank's friend and step-sister Eva Schloss celebrates her 90th birthday in London.
For well-known Israeli photographer Rina Castelnuovo, the Holocaust has always been personal.
Her mother, Eleonora Nass, affectionately known as Lonka, survived five concentration camps, including Auschwitz. In her merit, Castelnuovo together with her husband, also a seasoned photographer, Jim Hollander, started The Lonka Project.
From February 2019, they scoured the world to find Holocaust survivors and photographers who would capture images “in the context that makes a unique and memorable statement” about their lives.
It’s also a “tribute to the last Holocaust survivors, who are still with us.”
Today there are at least 250 photographers from 26 countries involved in the project.
In their illustrious careers of reporting, the two have met hundreds of photographers, many of whom they approached. But the project is not just limited to news photographers. There are also a number of famous photographers from commercial, art, fashion and studio fields.
“What really started all of this was the passing of my mom in 2018,” Castelnuovo told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. “I realized I didn’t know much because, to protect my sister and I, she didn’t talk about it.”
However, about seven years ago she went with her mother to Poland and filmed the trip, which was a difficult experience.
“It’s been some seven years, and I still can’t bring myself to finish editing the video – I’ve tried,” Castelnuovo added.
There is also a close personal connection for Hollander, who in the 1980s came to Israel, “and in old Tel Aviv – not the Tel Aviv we know today – the people sitting in the cafés had numbers on the arm, and the people he would meet all had numbers.”
Hollander had always wanted to photograph survivors, but as a news photographer he was unable to do so.
But at the beginning of 2019, as antisemitism and hate crimes were on the rise and surveys about the lack of knowledge of the Holocaust were being released, the time had come to act.
Despite their busy schedules, the couple realized that it was now or never, and “we decided we needed to do something, so Jim said let’s go out and do this.”
Castelnuovo said that as the duo started contacting photographers, “we were met with positive reactions; everyone was so welcoming about the idea... so that part went relatively smoothly.”
She emphasized that all the photographers are professionals, and they volunteered their time and talent to do this.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
“Getting access to living survivors was difficult because there’s no list of living survivors,” Castelnuovo said. “There are lists of those we lost in the Shoah, but a lot of organizations are not willing to share private information, so we had to rely on personal contacts and connections.”
Castelnuovo also stressed that photography is a good way to connect to the younger generations.
The themes of the pictures show the lives, homes, careers and families survivors have built despite the horrors that they endured, with Castelnuovo highlighting that “they are very proud of this” feat.
“The younger generation want to see this – they want to see their [the survivors’] victories, the triumphs, and what’s behind that person, to watch them laugh and be active,” she said. “They want to see the power of life.”
Addressing what the project means to her personally, Castelnuovo said she is deeply moved that she can do this.
“My mother was the most modest person on earth,” she recalled. “She was never in any paper, and to see her name associated with it.... I don’t know if she would have approved or not, but I’m doing something I feel strongly about, and those who are helping us in Europe and around the world also have a personal connection.”
The exhibition was inaugurated at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on January 27, marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Simultaneously, also on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a multimedia screening of the project was also shown at the Yad Mordechai Museum in Israel and Willy-Brandt Haus in Berlin.
In December, The Lonka Project was invited to the UN by the Israeli mission and Ambassador Danny Danon, with the help of the Center Organization of Holocaust Survivors in Israel’s chairwoman Colette Avital.
“By then we had a huge collection of photographs, and we had to work hard and work quickly to put the exhibition together,” Castelnuovo said, making it clear that none of the pictures are from the archives and all of them were taken over 2019.
Asked about how many photographs they have collected so far, she said: “We’ve stopped counting,” adding that some of the more interesting countries where survivors were photographed include Chile, Bosnia, Australia and Ireland, “and we are still expanding.”
Among the many subjects photographed are Anne Frank’s friend and stepsister Eva Schloss; one of the youngest Auschwitz survivors, Ryszard Horowitz; and Ginette Kolinka, who has dedicated her life to preserving the memory of the Holocaust.
From the UN, the plan is for the exhibition to travel around the US. In 2021, the exhibition is also headed to Moscow and South Africa, and the aim is to get it around the world.
“This exhibition is timeless,” she stressed, highlighting that “in 10 or 20 years’ time from now, it will be much more important than it is today” because by then we may have no survivors left to tell their stories.
Castelnuovo said that as photographers they don’t usually express their message through words, but she said the message of the project is of tolerance.
“It’s a call for tolerance because the world has not rid itself of antisemitism and ethnic hatred,” she concluded.