by Maxine Fischbein
(AJNews) – The searing black and white portraits speak to the heart with a power that transcends words.
Here to Tell: Faces of Holocaust Survivors – an exhibit honouring 161 Holocaust survivors who made their homes in Calgary or are otherwise connected to the city – opens at the Edison Building, the pop-up location of the Glenbow Museum, on May 27.
Glenbow VP Engagement and COO Melanie Kjorlien recalls the Zoom meeting when she and Glenbow CEO Nicholas Bell first met Marnie Bondar and Dahlia Libin, co-chairs of the Holocaust and Human Rights: Remembrance and Education Department of Calgary Jewish Federation and Remembrance Department of Calgary Jewish Federation and the visionaries behind the Here to Tell exhibit and book.
“We were really captivated emotionally by the content of the exhibition and the passion of Marnie and Dahlia to bring these stories to Calgarians,” Kjorlien told AJNews. “I was brought to tears.”
“What an important educational moment, to really bring forward the stories and lived experiences so that people never forget about what happened and just really understand and embrace these individuals and recognize who they are, what they lived through and what they overcame.”
The Glenbow is dedicated to ongoing programming despite the closure of its main site for renovations.
“We spent some time looking for a space that would be really well equipped to host traveling exhibitions from other museums and countries,” Kjorlien told AJNews. “We also wanted to showcase local community-focused programming, and that’s where the Here to Tell project fit really well within our vision for that satellite space.”
While the hardcover book features the same photos and stories as the exhibit, Kjorlien encourages Calgarians, and others to experience Here to Tell in person.
Bondar and Libin worked closely with photographer Marnie Burkhart and a local printer that specializes in high-end high-resolution printing of photographic images, said Kjorlien.
“It’s worthwhile to make the trip. You are going to experience it in a much bigger way than you would by looking at the book.”
It is, of course, painful to confront the humiliation, brutality and loss that Holocaust survivors experienced at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. But in a world still darkened by antisemitism, racism, xenophobia and totalitarianism, we must contemplate the faces and stories of those who courageously bear witness and compel us to do no less.
Many were the sole survivors of their families. They lost their homes, families, communities and ways of life. Yet they resisted and endured, dared to hope and love, and built new families, lives and communities.
The resiliency and hope exemplified by the survivors is what will remains long after one has experienced Here to Tell.
The making of the book and exhibit
It was Bondar and Libin’s goal to honour Holocaust survivors by capturing their images in the fullness of lives well-lived.
In the initial stages of the project, they reached out to the survivors and descendants they already knew, encouraging them to take part in Here to Tell. Ads were placed in Jewish Federation publications and in the Jewish media and news of the project quickly spread by word of mouth.
Participating survivors and descendants responded to a questionnaire that asked for a few sentences about the survivors’ lives before, during and after the Holocaust and their words of wisdom for subsequent generations.
Armed with that information, individuals guided by volunteer coordinator and second generation survivor Sylvie Hepner began shaping the brief biographies that would accompany the photos.
“Our volunteers did an amazing job in creating those initial drafts,” recalls Libin. “Next, we needed a professional who could bring a unified voice and style to the project.”
That is when I became part of the story I now write.
Close to two years ago, Bondar asked me if I could recommend someone to edit the exhibit and book.
“I think I can help you with that.”
The words flew out of my mouth before I could even consider the enormity of the journey I was about to take. I spent the first few months just reading and thinking about how to do justice to the lived experiences of the survivors – how to convey their essence and make each stand out as the extraordinary and whole individual they are or were.
Guided by my own curiosity, I spoke to as many of the survivors and descendants as I could in order to bring additional details and stories to the telling.
It was not long before I was shaken to the core by the story of Leopold Jazwicki.
A survivor of numerous concentration and slave labour camps and a death march, Leopold made it through the war only to be savagely stabbed in the head, left for dead and very nearly buried alive during the Kielce pogrom in 1946. Shattered by his experiences, Jazwicki – the sole survivor of his family – nonetheless chose life, immigrating to Canada, marrying and raising a family in Ontario.
Jazwicki’s daughter, Marnie Burkhart, is the Calgary photographer who produced the unforgettable portraits for Here to Tell.
“When we met her, we knew right away that Marnie had the talent, personality and background to actualize our vision,” said Dahlia Libin.
“We wanted black and white photos that would focus sharply on the eyes of the survivors and capture every line in their faces,” recalled Marnie Bondar.
Those wrinkles form the roadmaps to exceptional souls and are a source of celebration; many local survivors achieved what six million, or two thirds of European Jewry, were denied – the privilege of growing old.
“The lives of Holocaust survivors are an extreme contrast to the lives of most people who will see these photos,” Burkhart said. “Black and white sets the photos apart. It takes us out of the normal, everyday realm.”
Delivering on Libin and Bondar’s specs, Burkhart took what she describes as “tight-in headshots with selective focus where the eyes are sharpest.”
“Everything else falls away, because this is about what those eyes have seen,” Burkhart says.
Here to Tell does not end with the horrors seen by all those eyes. It was of paramount importance to Bondar and Libin that Burkhart’s lens would capture the sparks of hope that propelled the vast majority of survivors to move forward and live life as fully as possible.
While the survivors she met inspired her, the assignment was emotional for Burkhart who cannot remember a time she was not aware of the tragedy that befell her father and his slain family.
“It is scary when you are a little child and you learn about this even from day one,” Burkhart said.
While she knows a great deal about her late father’s experiences, Burkhart now regrets that she did not ask him more questions.
“I think my father would have been so proud that I photographed survivors,” Burkhart says, adding that she was moved, in particular, by Holocaust survivors from Poland like Lea Kohn and Bronia and Sidney Cyngiser, who lived not too far away from her father and made her think of him with longing.
“When I told Sid that I was the daughter of a survivor, he started to cry and I clicked the button…and that is the photo we used,” Burkhart said.
The photoshoots got underway in the spring of 2020. COVID-19 was running rampant, but Bondar and Libin knew they could not wait for it to pass. Many survivors had already passed away and several more were lost in the interval between the launch of the project and the photoshoots.
Bondar and Libin worked quickly, preparing for photoshoots in garages and backyards, well-ventilated locations that reduced the risk of transmitting COVID-19.
After Burkhart photographed each living survivor, she harmonized those portraits with vintage photos of survivors who had passed away. Often she had to extract survivors’ images from group photos. The quality of images varied, and Burkhart worked painstakingly to improve the look of the vintage photos.
Burkhart then photographed those images in the hands of second, third and even fourth generation survivors, having created a system for invisibly suspending the photos so that they were perfectly straight.
Bondar and Libin encouraged descendants to wear treasured jewellery or other items that had belonged to their loved ones, adding additional layers of meaning to the images.
During the photoshoots, videographer Fidele Arcuri and photographer Adam Brener captured compelling behind-the-scenes images of survivors. Those unscripted moments led to a powerful 30 minute documentary that will be screened in conjunction with the Here to Tell exhibit and poignant behind-the-scenes photographs that grace both the exhibit and the book.
While laser-focused on sharing survivors’ stories, Bondar and Libin have a few of their own.
Bondar was motivated by the unbreakable bond she shared with her grandmother, Freda Plucer, who passed away shortly before the pandemic.
“I had just finished treatment for breast cancer,” recalls Bondar, “and my Babi got me through it.”
“The whole time I was sick, she was my person. When I lost my hair, I told myself that hers had been forcibly shaven. When I was tattooed for radiation, I remembered that she was tattooed under duress at Auschwitz,” Bondar said.
When Plucer passed away, Bondar was devastated.
“Now I had to be my Babi Freda’s person,” she recalls.
The words of writer and film director Jamie Anderson – Grief is just love with no place to go – resonated with Bondar.
Working with Libin every step of the way, Bondar – the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors – poured all that pent up love into a living tribute to her Babi Freda, encompassing as many other Holocaust survivors as possible.
“There was no better way to honour my Babi’s tremendous legacy,” Bondar said.
Dahlia Libin is also motivated and centred by the immense love with which she was showered by her grandparents, all of them Holocaust survivors.
“I was always very close with my grandparents. They were an active part of my life. We didn’t even leave a room without saying I love you,” Libin said.
“When they passed away, the reality that I didn’t know enough about them really hit me full force,” added Libin, who began to explore her roots in earnest.
“Learning the truth about where our family came from, the slavery and the sadness and the trauma, is part of our identities,” Libin said.
“We understand very well the reality of having family ripped away. My parents didn’t know the love of grandparents and extended family, so we are all just incredibly grateful to have family.”
“Here to Tell is the opportunity to honour my remarkable grandparents in a public setting. I’m really proud to do that.” Libin said. “I am part of their legacy, and to be able to honour them and so many other survivors on such a large scale is meaningful beyond words.”
Libin and Bondar are devoted to educating and empowering second, third and fourth generation descendants.
“Very soon we will live in a world without Holocaust survivors,” notes Libin, “But their stories remain. They live within us.”
Fourth generation descendants will be the first that may not personally know the survivors. Transmitting their stories will require increasing effort as generations come and go.
That is why Libin and Bondar have worked hard to make fourth generation survivors a part of Here to Tell. Their images are captured in the exhibit, book and documentary. Some as young as 12 and 13 are among the 100 avid volunteers supporting the project.
Reaction to Here to Tell
Child survivors Ann and Morris Dancyger were among the early participants in Here to Tell. Ann Dancyger says they had concerns about putting their Holocaust experiences out there for the world to see.
They were not alone.
Several survivors became increasingly frightened at the thought of appearing in the public eye at a time when racist and antisemitic acts were proliferating. In the end, some were too traumatized to complete the Here to Tell journey; they are lovingly but anonymously acknowledged in both the exhibit and the book.
Thankfully, the Dancygers stayed the course. They believe Here to Tell is a Holocaust remembrance initiative that is very different than most that have preceded it.
“The stories are very personal,” says Ann, adding that this approach is more relatable than history lessons that emphasize statistics too enormous for most people to comprehend.
“We are absolutely humbled by the book and by the whole project from start to finish: the emotion, tenderness, sensitivity and attention to detail,” says Vyetta, Sunderland, daughter of Holocaust survivor Eva Muskovitch.
“You can feel the consciousness of the intent and it is so, so powerful,” said Sunderland. “I can hear the book talking to me, see and feel the way it all came together.”
At first Eva Muskovitch was reticent to share her book with her caregiver and friends. She didn’t want anyone to touch it, so sacred did she consider the contents.
Sunderland, on the other hand, plans to share Here to Tell with as many friends, neighbours and colleagues as possible.
“I hope that we wear these books out by sharing them,” says Sunderland, who looks forward to taking her mother as well as friends to the exhibit in the hope of sparking meaningful conversation.
Sunderland was deeply affected by the words of one survivor who expressed the simple hope that her children would never experience war.
“It broke my heart,” Sunderland recalls. “Just look where we are at today.”
Indeed, images of another war in Europe bombard us together with other assaults on democracy and human rights, many of them disconcertingly close to home. If there was ever a time that we need to reflect on the experiences and the wisdom of Holocaust survivors, that time is now.
Here to Tell: Faces of Holocaust Survivors opens in Calgary at the Glenbow at the Edison (150 – 9 Avenue SW) on May 27 and runs through July 3. Hours of Operation: Wednesdays noon to 5 pm; Thursdays and Fridays noon to 7 pm; Saturdays and Sundays noon to 5 pm.
Maxine Fischbein is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.