Auschwitz survivor Avraham Zelcer stares intently into the camera. His rolled-up sleeve reveals the number tattooed onto his left forearm over three-quarters of a century ago, when he was deported to the infamous concentration camp from his native Czechoslovakia. Although the camp was liberated on January 27, 1945, Zelcer did not return to his Jewish faith until a year later.
It is understandable that experiencing the horrors of Auschwitz could try one’s religious beliefs. The camp claimed over 1.1 million lives during World War II, including almost a million Jews. Yet some prisoners managed to hold onto their faith. Their story is told in an upcoming exhibit at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, Poland, which will run through most of 2020, the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation.
“Through the Lens of Faith” focuses on 21 Auschwitz survivors who discussed the role of their religious beliefs in relation to their time at the camp. Opening July 1, the project is a partnership between three acclaimed experts in their respective fields: photographer Caryl Englander, architect Daniel Libeskind and museum curator Henri Lustiger Thaler, all of whom spoke about the project with The Times of Israel.
Over three years, Englander, the chair of the International Center of Photography, shot color photographs of each survivor while they were being interviewed by Lustiger Thaler, the chief curator of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, the first museum to address the Holocaust from a faith-based perspective. Israeli-American Libeskind — a Polish-born son of Holocaust refugees, whose projects include the Ground Zero redesign and the Jewish Museum Berlin — created steel panels to encase the photos, with glass sections displaying testimony from the interviews.
Of the 21 survivors, 11 are women and 10 are men. (Poignantly, two of the 21 have died since being interviewed.) They include 18 Jews, two Polish Catholics and one Sinti, or Romani. The number of Jews reflects the numerical value of the Hebrew word “chai,” or “life.”
“It’s really an interfaith exhibit, trying to understand the role of faith and religion for survivors able to get through Auschwitz,” Lustiger Thaler said.
Some, like Zelcer, struggled to return to their faith. Others, like Lea Friedler of Israel, said that God was working in the camp to keep them alive through a combination of miracle, blessings and messengers.
Lustiger Thaler said that “religion was, one could assume, important to the majority of people deported to Auschwitz,” including Jews, Polish Catholics and Sinti/Romani. He added that the exhibit represents “the first time this element of faith is being incorporated, and the first time it’s going to be in front of the gates of Auschwitz.”
Extending for 25 meters, the exhibit is situated on both sides of a path off the route leading to the memorial and museum. The vertical steel panels evoke the stripes of a concentration camp prisoner’s uniform, while their mirrored exteriors reflect the freedom of the wider world outside.
The location of the exhibit is “really where all people disembark when they are about to enter the camp itself,” Libeskind said. “It’s where people first encounter where they are, a large gathering point just before the entrance to the actual site… Of course, it does not negate that every place [in Auschwitz] is a place of death.”
As he noted, there is “the question of other invisible faces, those who did not survive, 99.99 percent of the story.”
The Auschwitz death toll includes an estimated 960,000 Jews, 74,000 non-Jewish Poles and 21,000 Sinti, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Lustiger Thaler, Englander and Libeskind all lost family members in the Holocaust — including members of Lustiger Thaler’s family who died at Auschwitz. (His mother was liberated at Bergen-Belsen.) The camp’s victims also include German-Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum, whom Libeskind memorialized in one of his earliest projects, the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück, Germany.
“The Felix Nussbaum Haus made me realize that when people say 6 million Jews were murdered [in the Holocaust], I realized you cannot identify with, you don’t understand, what 6 million means,” Libeskind said.
However, he added, the Nussbaum Haus showed “how the power of a single individual, a single story, told me beyond any statistic with a number of zeros after it” — just as the “few portraits” of the Auschwitz exhibit are “almost bigger than the story you read in an encyclopedia or book that can’t possibly connect you.”
“We cannot identify with one million, one thousand, one hundred people,” Libeskind said. “We might [identify] with one [person], 18, 20, 30.”
Adding a dimension
“Through the Lens of Faith” began as a concept that Lustiger Thaler successfully pitched to the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum. He brought Englander on board for the interviews with survivors over the next few years across a variety of locations, including New York, Florida, Israel, Poland and Canada.
They were children and young adults when they arrived at Auschwitz, with the youngest four years old and the oldest 20. Now, located through survivor networks at Aish Amud and through the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, they ranged from ages 80 to 102, with most in their 90s and many, including Friedler and Zelcer, having raised large families.
“These are very aged individuals,” Lustiger Thaler said. “We have captured the last living survivors of Auschwitz — a very important metaphor for the 75th commemoration [of liberation].”
Lustiger Thaler had conducted hundreds of previous interviews with survivors for Amud Aish. He said that Englander brought a new aspect to the work, “a whole other dimension — the image.”
Englander recalled facing “agonizing” decisions over the photoshoots: “Black and white? Standing? Sitting? Face shots?” She said that she “looked at tons of books, portraits in Auschwitz,” and “discussed it with a lot of people — rabbis, scholars, philosophers.”
She decided on “very colorful” portraits taken with her digital Canon 5D Mark IV.
“All of them were dressed in their best Shabbat clothes or wedding clothes,” she said. “They looked really handsome and beautiful… I wanted them to be proud. They are heroes.”
And, Englander noted, “These are not victims. They’re gorgeous people with hope, resilience, appreciation, kindness,” with most of them urging people to be kind to each other. “I learned so much from them,” she said.
So did Lustiger Thaler.
“The question is, how does that culture of faith interact with what they were experiencing, the deathworld they walked into,” he said. “There were a lot of good questions I posed to survivors around the relationship of faith individually to them and also faith collectively with other Jews.”
Survivors Zelcer and Friedler both recalled arriving at Auschwitz on the holiday of Shavuot. Each was 16 years old. Friedler arrived with her mother and two orphans. A fellow prisoner told her mother, “Stay with your daughter.” Friedler said this was divine intervention that saved the lives of her and her mother.
“I remember every single interview of the 21 very clearly,” Lustiger Thaler said. “Each one gave me another viewpoint on how to understand faith and the Holocaust, and the complex relationship between the two.”
It’s a relationship that historically has not received much attention, according to exhibit organizers. (There is also a nonreligious side to the Auschwitz narrative; its dead include 15,000 Soviet POWs, and the camp was liberated by the Red Army.) Lustiger Thaler said that as recently as the 1990s, while Orthodox accounts of the Holocaust appeared in published memoirs and stories, they were absent from the larger memorial world, which he describes as secular.
Englander said that while the Holocaust brought suffering and brutality to all of its victims, it might bring “a different, additional layer to a religious population,” such as a man whose peyos, or sidelocks, were shaved off, or a “very modest” woman forced to take a shower or use a toilet in the presence of a male guard with a machine gun.
She added that religious people who survived the Holocaust and said that God had a purpose for them were mocked by others who asked, “What God could do that to you?”
“If they committed to have new families, as some religious people did — Hasidic, Orthodox, Haredi, non-Orthodox religious — they held back their stories,” Englander said, adding that not only did they refrain from telling the next generation, they also did not share their accounts with famous Holocaust researchers such as Steven Spielberg.
“They could tell right away [the researchers] had no connection with how they felt,” Englander said, “being willing to die to hide tefillin [phylacteries] or giving [up] a piece of bread so they could have matza for the haggada for Passover.”
She called these “nuances really not seen before” in Holocaust testimony.
Libeskind recalls multiple members of his family who drew upon their religion to help them survive the Holocaust. Among them was an uncle from his mother’s side who endured Auschwitz, immigrated to Mandatory Palestine, remained in the State of Israel and founded a devout Hasidic family. Libeskind also mentioned his father’s only sister, a survivor who remarried; both bride and groom had lost children in Auschwitz.
“Strangely enough, I never thought about people I knew who survived, who did survive, and continued through their faith as Jews,” Libeskind said. “It interested me. I never thought about faith as a way to survive.”
“It’s something I was very interested in pursuing with the installation. The installation is a space, a place of encounter, between what you know and what you don’t know,” he said.
For Lustiger Thaler, it’s a different kind of mixture of opposites that make the exhibit so powerful.
“It will speak about freedom at the end of it — freedom, resilience, hope emerging from the deathworld, a life-negating place, this deathworld of Auschwitz,” he said, “a combination between meeting the holy in the space of the profane.”