Hundreds of photographers worldwide capture Holocaust’s last living survivors
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Hundreds of photographers worldwide capture Holocaust’s last living survivors

Photojournalists Rina Castelnuovo and Jim Hollander turned to colleagues around the globe for The Lonka Project, which has been featured as 2-week exhibit at the United Nations

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

  • Danilo Nikolic, born February 5, 1938 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the first bombs fell on Sarajevo (April 1941) the Nikolic family escaped and his father joined the partisan movement 1942 and 
went missing in action in Slovenia in 1945. Danilo never found the remains of his father. He and his mother remained under difficult conditions from 1943 until 1945. 
In the summer of 1945, they arrived back to Sarajevo after the liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Out of the 47 members of his mother's closest family, only her sister and brother survived the war.
Danilo Nikolic lived in Sarajevo during the 1992 siege of the city which lasted exactly 1425 days (Courtesy Armin Smailovic/The Lonka Project)
    Danilo Nikolic, born February 5, 1938 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the first bombs fell on Sarajevo (April 1941) the Nikolic family escaped and his father joined the partisan movement 1942 and went missing in action in Slovenia in 1945. Danilo never found the remains of his father. He and his mother remained under difficult conditions from 1943 until 1945. In the summer of 1945, they arrived back to Sarajevo after the liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Out of the 47 members of his mother's closest family, only her sister and brother survived the war. Danilo Nikolic lived in Sarajevo during the 1992 siege of the city which lasted exactly 1425 days (Courtesy Armin Smailovic/The Lonka Project)
  • Gabriel Moked, August 20, 2019 in his Tel Aviv apartment (Courtesy Eyal Warshavsky/The Lonka Project)
    Gabriel Moked, August 20, 2019 in his Tel Aviv apartment (Courtesy Eyal Warshavsky/The Lonka Project)
  • Judith Rosenberg, in her Glasgow, Scotland apartment holding a cardboard cut-out of her husband Harold, who found her and liberated her from Auschwitz. She is 93 (Courtesy Judah Passow/The Lonka Project)
    Judith Rosenberg, in her Glasgow, Scotland apartment holding a cardboard cut-out of her husband Harold, who found her and liberated her from Auschwitz. She is 93 (Courtesy Judah Passow/The Lonka Project)
  • Yossi Weiss, 82 years old, was born in 1937 in Bratislava, Slovakia. He was transferred to Zilina camp in 1941, and from there to the Novaky camp, both in Slovakia. His father was killed in the camps and Yossi was 5 when he last saw him. He and his mother and fled to the forests and lived in hiding in the forests with the partisans, suffering cold and extreme hunger. After the war they returned to Topolcany where they lived in great poverty, moving from place to place. At the age of 11, he was separated again from his mother who he never saw again. He immigrated to Israel alone and enlisted to the Israeli Navy at the age of 17 and spent 64 years at sea, and only stopped sailing in 2018, last year. Yossi Weiss is married to Michal and they have 4 children and live in Zichron Yaakov. Photographed on a ship in Haifa port in May 2019 (Eldad Rafaeli/The Lonka Project)
    Yossi Weiss, 82 years old, was born in 1937 in Bratislava, Slovakia. He was transferred to Zilina camp in 1941, and from there to the Novaky camp, both in Slovakia. His father was killed in the camps and Yossi was 5 when he last saw him. He and his mother and fled to the forests and lived in hiding in the forests with the partisans, suffering cold and extreme hunger. After the war they returned to Topolcany where they lived in great poverty, moving from place to place. At the age of 11, he was separated again from his mother who he never saw again. He immigrated to Israel alone and enlisted to the Israeli Navy at the age of 17 and spent 64 years at sea, and only stopped sailing in 2018, last year. Yossi Weiss is married to Michal and they have 4 children and live in Zichron Yaakov. Photographed on a ship in Haifa port in May 2019 (Eldad Rafaeli/The Lonka Project)
  • Ryszard Horowitz, known as one of the youngest survivor of Auschwitz (Courtesy Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos/The Lonka Project)
    Ryszard Horowitz, known as one of the youngest survivor of Auschwitz (Courtesy Gilles Peress/Magnum Photos/The Lonka Project)

When Rina Castelnuovo’s mother died last summer, the Israeli photographer who spent decades shooting stories for The New York Times found herself carrying the weight of her mother’s Holocaust past.

“I’d been running away from that all my life,” said Castelnuovo, whose parents were Holocaust survivors who rarely spoke about their tragic histories. “I was raised in a house of silence. I knew what is a barrack and what is a Nazi, but when my mother passed away, overnight, the responsibility of the past was transferred to us.”

For Castelnuovo and her husband, fellow photojournalist Jim Hollander — an American who came to Israel to cover the first Lebanon War in 1983, met Castelnuovo and stayed — the response was to create The Lonka Project, named for her mother, Elenora “Lonka” Nass.

“We said, ‘What can we do to help Holocaust survivors so that their stories don’t disappear into the dust?'” he explained.

They wanted to do something visual that would appeal to a younger audience.

The two turned to their photographer colleagues and contacts worldwide and asked them to meet and take a portrait of a Holocaust survivor.

“They were all asked to do the same thing, but without any direction from us,” said Hollander. “Get to know the survivor and then take the portrait. However you want. It could be with a huge camera, with an iPhone, and that’s what makes the exhibit so fascinating.”

Four survivors in Tel Aviv. (Ziv Koren/The Lonka Project)

As of now, more than 250 photographers have taken pictures of survivors in more than 25 countries. It seem like the project will continue for some time, according to Castelnuovo.

The project, begun last year by the photographer pair, turned into a two-week exhibit at the United Nations to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, and can be screened as a video in Israel, Germany, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Hollander’s hope is to bring the exhibit to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv at the end of April, when Israel marks its own Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“It’s diverse and varied and uplifting in a way,” he said, reflecting on the collection of 92 photographs he had hung at the UN. “We asked the photographers not to take head shots, but to take a picture that represents their spirit of life, to show more than just a picture of a face.”

As they began contacting photographer colleagues from the field, everyone wanted to participate, and each one brought someone else.

For some of the photographers, like Anna Patricia Kahn, a photojournalist who represents photographers at Magnum Photos, the project offered an opportunity to connect to her own background as the daughter of two survivors.

Tomasz Lazar photographing his mother, Madeleine Kahn (Courtesy Anna-Patricia Kahn/The Lonka Project)

“I think it has to do with the medium of photography,” she said. “It’s about making sure you’ve kept the moment of something really important and given it over to other people. It’s the essence of that moment.”

She also reflected on the ability to draw so many photographers to the project, from all backgrounds, and how everyone automatically agreed to the project, with the knowledge that survivors will soon vanish.

“All of the Holocaust survivors are like my parents, and they’re old,” said Kahn, whose mother was in a concentration camp at the age of seven, and whose father was hidden from the Nazis.

“There wasn’t one person who didn’t say ‘Yes, it’s an honor, I’ll do it,'” said Kahn.


Ginette Kolinka, a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp who has dedicated her life to the preservation of the memory of the Holocaust. Her entire family was killed by the Nazis. (Jane Evelyn Atwood/The Lonka Project)

Ninety-year-old photographer Harry Benson spent 15 minutes in Florida with 92-year-old Aron Bielski, the youngest of the four Bielski brothers. The siblings formed their own partisan group during the war that was depicted in the 2008 film “Defiance.”

Benson said he did not know that much about Bielski beforehand.

“It doesn’t do you good to know that much about people before you’re with them,” said Benson. “I want to get as close as I can get to a person and then get the hell out.”

Benson is a renowned news photographer, working for “Life Magazine,” “Vanity Fair,” the “London Daily Express,” covering two wars in Israel, and photographing the last 12 American presidents.

“I have photographed people like him before, survivors,” said Benson. “They weren’t quite like him. He was fine, but he did behave the way someone on edge behaves. I’m not sure he wanted to be photographed, but everyone enjoys moments of fame.”

Photographer Ed Kashi, who is known for capturing sociopolitical issues and who photographed survivor Moshe Avital, said this was the first time that “explicitness” was his mission.

Avital, 92 and living in Long Island, New York, was supposed to be experimented upon by Josef Mengele, but was arbitrarily spared, while the rest of his family was sent to the gas chambers.

“To think this human had been picked out of a line by Mengele himself, it raises the hairs on the back of your neck,” said Kashi. “It’s one of these moments where you pinch yourself to think that you get to meet people like this and learn a little bit firsthand.”

Portraits and videos of Moshe Avital, 91, a survivor of the Holocaust, in his home in New Rochelle, New York on July 21, 2019 (Ed Kashi/The Lonka Project)

Kashi said he found himself thinking about how important it is to tell the story of Avital and others.

“I’m almost assimilated too well into America, almost erased my connections to the past, but I also recognize how important it is to keep these kinds of stories alive,” said Kashi, who is Jewish. “I left that photo session and couldn’t wait to tell people,  to share with them about this incredible man I met.”

For Castelnuovo, the stories are all reminiscent of those she knew to be true of her mother, who as a young teenager from Krakow was sent to the ghetto, and subsequently survived four different concentration camps after her father and brother were killed. Castelnuovo’s father was hidden for a year in an underground cellar with his parents, and then joined the partisans.

“My parents wouldn’t talk,” said Castelnuovo.

Their friends were all survivors, with women who would cover the blue tattooed numbers on their arms with long sleeves in the summer.

“You sort of spend your life running away until you catch up sometimes,” she said. “You grow up with a lot of compassion for the suffering of others. My mother would cry in front of anything.”

Her father is 94. Her mother was one year older, although she always said she was 10 years younger.

Ohad Zwigenberg photographing Lia Huber and Judith Barnea (left), the last surviving Mengele twins in Ra’anana (The Lonka Project)

For Hollander, the connection to the Holocaust and survivors has come primarily through his marriage to Castelnuovo, but he vividly remembers his very first exposure to survivors and their arms tattooed with blue numbers, seen on the streets of Tel Aviv during his first visit.

As he watched people sitting at cafes on that first trip, he noted how many were of Polish and German origin, sitting huddled together, “quietly talking for hours.”

As he stayed in Israel, covering the conflict and the ebb and flow of Israeli life, he was amazed that people who had survived such horrors came to Israel and made a new life for themselves, quietly, reservedly.

He had the idea for The Lonka Project about 30 years ago, but said Israel’s relentless news cycle never allowed time for it.

Now that Hollander is in semi-retirement, he had more time to consider it, and was floored when, watching the news last winter, he heard that many young French did not know what the Holocaust was, despite living in a country that had once been occupied by the Nazis.

The project took on a life of its own, he said.

“Most [photographers] said yes, but then how do you find a Holocaust survivor?” asked Castelnuovo.

The pair were aided by various contacts, including several non-profits that have lists of survivors. Most survivors responded positively, said Castelnuovo.

“They all want to send their message, they all call for compassion and humanity, especially this year, at this time,” she said. “It’s important for them to let the world know.”

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