Co-curated by Yad Vashem Museums Division Director Vivian Uria and Anke Degenhard of Germany, the exhibition is the fruit of a cooperative project between Yad Vashem and award-winning portrait photographer Martin Schoeller. The commemorative venture presents images of 75 Holocaust survivors from Israel, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
German-born Schoeller, one of the world’s most prominent contemporary portrait photographers, photographs all his subjects – whether public figures or anonymous individuals – in the same way, using special lighting and photographing in extreme close-up. The result in this case is compelling portraits that capture the weathered faces of Jewish men and women who lived through the atrocities of the Holocaust. Each photograph conveys more than words ever could. Every feature, presented in great detail and larger-than-life, provides a piece of personal and collective history.
For Schoeller, who has lived for some 25 years in the US, this project is a vehicle to combat hatred and rising antisemitism:
“Growing up in Germany, it feels like we talked about the Holocaust in all of our classes. I grew up with this incredible sense of guilt and shock, which led me to question my own identity. How could people from my country commit these horrendous crimes? I do think that people have a responsibility for their future. If everybody looked at their own history and tried to learn from it and then went on to use that knowledge to better themselves and society, ultimately, I think that is what will bring us all forward as human beings.”
Accompanying the portraits are messages from the survivors for the generations to come. Their tenacity and creativity empowered them to articulate meaningful ideas of renewed purpose for the Jewish people and for all the nations of the world – messages of human decency and dignity. Many urge future Jewish generations to treasure and safeguard the State of Israel; others encourage young people to volunteer or seek out the good in others, in order to improve the world and give purpose to life.
Their words are replete with hope and faith in humanity. Yona Amit urges:
"People should remember that God created us all as equal beings. We must create a world based on respect, tolerance and equality."
Sara Leicht echoes this sentiment:
"The most important thing we can do is to love. To love more and to love everyone. To be kinder, more humble and more generous, and to be better people. To love our fellow human beings, whoever they are."
"The legacy of the Shoah that these survivors nurtured with such fortitude and commitment is now bequeathed to us, and their hopes for a better future are now ours to treasure and to realize,"
stated Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev in advance of the exhibition's opening. "As we go forward in the twenty-first century, we recommit to maintaining accurate Holocaust memory and to building more humane, tolerant and democratic societies for the sake of the generations to come."
The project, an initiative of the Chairman of the German Friends of Yad Vashem Kai Diekmann, also includes a book published by Steidl Press containing the 75 portraits together with a foreword by former German President Joachim Gauck. The exhibition (including an accompanying movie), organized by the Foundation for Art and Culture based in Bonn, Germany, is being offered for display in museums throughout Europe and the rest of the world.
At the exhibition opening event, Chancellor Merkel stated:
"Every lecture we hear, every memory we read, every photo we see, every memorial we visit, makes us aware of our responsibility, which is to safeguard the memory of the crimes committed by Germany during the Shoah. We owe it to every single victim. We owe it to everyone. And we owe it to future generations as well."
Kai Diekmann pointed to the powerful impact of the project:
"These heartrending portraits serve as a warning to us to remain ever-vigilant and watchful, and act as both a monument and as a reminder to learn from history."
"Survivors: Faces of Life after the Holocaust" was generously funded and supported by RAG-Stiftung.
This article originally appeared in the "Yad Vashem Jerusalem Magazine," volume 91.