The photos on exhibit at Emory University’s Visual Arts Gallery are no different than the snapshots found in any family album. A father cuddles his toddler. A smiling bride and groom toast the camera. Class pictures. Holidays at the beach.
But they are not from just any album. These images of family and happy times were the ones that Polish Jews chose to take with them when they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of them perished at the hands of the Nazis.
These mementos of the life they were leaving were contraband. The Nazis intended to expunge the Jews from history, and they wanted no evidence of their existence left behind. Their owners hid the photos in shoes and garments, even wadded them up and pressed behind them behind their teeth, to avoid confiscation.
Somehow, and at great peril, they managed to preserve these photos at the camp. They are among the 2,400 found in 1945 after the liberation, the only such cache yet uncovered. For reasons unknown, the photos languished in a storeroom until photographer Ann Weiss chanced to discover them on a tour of the Auschwitz museum in 1986.
Weiss photographed them and has spent years talking to survivors and their relatives and friends as well as researching archives to chase down every scrap of information about the people in the pictures. Through this painstaking and often painful process, she’s put names to those faces and gathered the stories of their lives, which are compiled in her book, “The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Symbolically, she made them humans again.
The exhibit is part of a campus-wide program “Testaments of the Heart,” inspired by Weiss’ book, which encompasses talks, tours and a concert. Selections of photos are also on exhibit at the Center for Ethics, School of Medicine, Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts and Cannon Chapel.
This arrangement makes them available to people who might not go to the art gallery, but it isn’t the optimum way to see them. The display at Cannon Chapel comes without any explanation; the average passer-by would have no idea what makes the photos important. The Center for Ethics includes informational labels, but the workaday environment dissipates the sacred aura one feels so keenly in the gallery.
Context is critical to the impact of this work. The gallery offers information, a contemplative space and the experience of a critical mass of images, an environment which helps the viewer get the most out of the material.
Those who perished during the Holocaust are usually pictures as victims — if not dead, then hollow-eyed emaciated wraiths. Weiss’s important work offers a counterbalance: They become individuals with personalities, promise, accomplishments. Remembering Rozka Sztajnbok and Binim Cukierman in the bloom of their lives is both a way to honor them and a victory of sorts over the Nazis, who wanted the world to forget.
“Testaments of the Heart: Photographs from ‘THE LAST ALBUM: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau.’ “
Through Nov. 12. Noon-4 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; Noon-4 p.m. Saturdays. Visual Arts Gallery, Emory University. 700 Peavine Creek Dr. 404-727-6315. http://visualarts.emory.edu/
Lecture: “Photography and the Shoah” by Emory professor Jason Francisco, 7 p.m. Oct. 14.
Bottom line: Six million becomes more than a number in this powerful evocation of the individuals who lost their lives during the Holocaust.
Catherine Fox is chief visual arts critic of ArtsCriticATL.com
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