Living proof

Photographer and survivor Yeshayahu Nir has strong views on how we mark the Holocaust.

yeshayahu nir 248.88 (photo credit: Coourtesy)
yeshayahu nir 248.88
(photo credit: Coourtesy)
There's a tenet that holds that a true artist expresses his very being in every work he creates, regardless of the discipline in which he works. If that is the case, then Prof. Yeshayahu Nir is the epitome of the artistic professional. Nir currently has a photographic exhibition, entitled The Mount and the Memory, at the Jerusalem Cinematheque (until July 1). The theme is definitively - and intentionally - oxymoronic, as inferred by the some of the blurb penned by Nir. "I wrote that my photographs confront and connect the Yad Vashem site, on Mount Remembrance, with its natural surroundings. Nature is antagonistic to the site. The nature around the site is beautiful, and you see people walking and running and enjoying it every day, but the site itself is about death. For me, nature is the symbol of life, and this place [Yad Vashem] is the symbol of death, so there is conflict here." Nir has very strong ideas about the way we mark the Holocaust, and there are some stark statements in the exhibition. Take, for instance, the shot of a train carriage against the backdrop of the Russian Orthodox church in Ein Kerem. "Anti-Semitism existed long before Hitler," he says. "Christianity laid the groundwork for the Holocaust, it wasn't just the Nazis. That is the idea I wanted to get across in this picture." There can't be many exhibitions whose primary concept is mirrored so sharply by the artist himself and his personal history and life philosophy. The 79-year-old Nir was born in Czechoslovakia and fought with the Partisans until he was caught in 1944, when he was 14. He survived Auschwitz-Birkenau due to his sought-after skills as an electrician - and providence. He was an only child, and his parents and grandparents perished in the Holocaust, his father dying on his way home after being liberated from Auschwitz. Nir came to Israel in 1949 and was a founding member of Kibbutz Lehavot Haviva. He made a documentary about the kibbutz in 1959, on its 10th anniversary. He became very active in the film and photography field during his time there. He moved to Jerusalem in 1971 and today chairs the Department of Photographic Communication at Hadassah Academic College. He has a rich CV of lecturing positions around the world and a slew of cinematic and photographic endeavors. "I was in the line for selection at Auschwitz, and a boy I knew from my town whispered to me, 'Say you're 18 years old and you have a trade' and moved on," Nir recalls. "So I told the Germans I was 18 and an electrician. I'd always had good hands and fixed our electrical appliances at home and our neighbors' appliances." That saved his life. The horrors he witnessed in his youth, it seems, have done little to dampen his enthusiasm for living. "I enjoy life. I am happy, I dance and sing and enjoy music, and I live my life with love - even though my wife died only three months ago. She was the love of life." But the specter of the Holocaust is never far away. "Even so, I live my life in the shadow of the terrible memories. We [Holocaust survivors] all share anxieties like whether there's food in the house, but we all live our lives." Nir chose to portray this dichotomy in a photograph he took of himself reflected - out of focus - in a glass cabinet containing a striped garment worn by a concentration camp inmate, located in Yad Vashem. "I am not wearing the striped shirt," he points out, "but it is as if I am wearing it. For people like me, the confrontation - between life and death - is a daily confrontation." Nir's determination to live life to the full also means not dwelling on the past or using it in what he deems to be an inappropriate manner. "We the Jews, the Israelis, have to find a way to enjoy life, with the memory, and without the memory intervening in our lives, without going overboard about it and without utilizing it for manipulative ends. The Holocaust has been manipulated many times for domestic and international political and financial gain, and still is - ends that have little to do with the Holocaust. We keep on shooting ourselves in the foot over this. We are raising our children in the shadow of death instead of educating them about life. That is very damaging to us. I hope the public understands that from the exhibition." While doing the groundwork for the exhibition, Nir spent long hours at the Yad Vashem site and the surrounding area. It was a grueling task. "I'd come home emotionally drained, and my wife would ask me why I kept going to Yad Vashem. It's always difficult for me to go there, but I had to prepare for the exhibition properly," he says. While scouring the vicinity, Nir came across a surprising discovery. "I found the remains of buildings which I later learned were parts of an Arab village, called Khirbat Khamama, that had been there before the War of Independence," says Nir, illuminating another intriguing angle to his take on the context of Holocaust commemoration. "I believe that, like us Jews, the Palestinians have a right to self-determination. We are not doing ourselves any favors by denying the nakba ["catastrophe" - the term used by Palestinians to describe the creation of the State of Israel]. We should teach not only the Palestinian view of what happened here then but also our own angle. Was it that seven Jewish states invaded Palestine and drove the Arabs out from here? Is that what happened in 1948? If you teach people what really happened here, it becomes clear that there is absolutely nothing in common between the Holocaust and the nakba." More than anything, the exhibition is a personal document. The last items show Nir's mother wearing a yellow star, and his father's grave in Czechoslovakia. The picture of Nir's mother survived due to Nir's foresight in burying a photo album in his back garden before he and his family were forced to flee the approaching German army. After the war, he returned to his home and retrieved the album. "The exhibition is, for me, a very personal statement. The Holocaust is part of my life, but we must live our lives. I have lots of plans for the future."