Interview'There's a strength in them, they found a way through'

Life after hell: Thriving US Holocaust survivors chronicled in photo-driven book

‘Invited to Life’ by B.A. Van Sise takes a new approach to survivor testimony, showing how people who endured terrible evil rebuilt lives and pursued their dreams in a new country

  • Detail of a photo of Holocaust suvivor Sally Fishberg, left, with granddaughter Hannah, featured in 'Invited to Life,' by B.A. Van Sise. (Courtesy/ B.A. Van Sise)
    Detail of a photo of Holocaust suvivor Sally Fishberg, left, with granddaughter Hannah, featured in 'Invited to Life,' by B.A. Van Sise. (Courtesy/ B.A. Van Sise)
  • Holocaust survivor and magician Werner Reich poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
    Holocaust survivor and magician Werner Reich poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
  • Holocaust survivor and educator René Slotkin poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
    Holocaust survivor and educator René Slotkin poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
  • Holocaust survivor and hiking enthusiast Sam Silberberg poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
    Holocaust survivor and hiking enthusiast Sam Silberberg poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
  • Holocaust survivor and educator Irving Roth and great-granddaughter Addie pose together for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
    Holocaust survivor and educator Irving Roth and great-granddaughter Addie pose together for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
  • Holocaust survivor and painter Fred Terna poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
    Holocaust survivor and painter Fred Terna poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
  • Holocaust survivor and Park East Synagogue Rabbi Arthur Schneier poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)
    Holocaust survivor and Park East Synagogue Rabbi Arthur Schneier poses for 'Invited to Life.' (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)

Stark images focus on old people against a black background. Their wizened faces project a quality not immediately obvious. Some look straight into the camera with eyes that have seen the worst that can happen.

That intangible quality becomes clear turning the pages of “Invited to Life: Finding Hope After the Holocaust,” by B.A. Van Sise.

It’s a desire to live.

The book’s premise is to show Holocaust survivors emerging from darkness to light in the United States. Usually, when they recount their stories, it is of the hell on earth they endured. Van Sise takes a far different approach: He explains how they continued, found love, created families, and forged new careers, all in a new country where they did not know the language.

Van Sise looks at how they lived.

Naturally, this is a Holocaust book. How can they not mention the families and lives lost? Sometimes, their World War II experiences are detailed; other times, they’re dispatched concisely.

Holocaust survivor and magician Werner Reich poses for ‘Invited to Life.’ (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel)

“Everybody asks me about it,” survivor Werner Reich tells Van Sise. “Everyone asks how it was. I don’t know what they want me to say. Yeah, I was in Auschwitz. It was lousy.”

Since Van Sise began this project seven years ago, he photographed and interviewed 140 people, 90 of whom are in the book. Since delivering the book, at least 27 of those featured in it have died. Some had been presumed dead many years before, before proving otherwise.

“Helena Weinstock, almost thrown into the grave at Bergen-Belsen, who survived the camp that killed Anne Frank, who nearly starved, now spends her evenings as a competitive ballroom dancer. She has, like so many of the survivors, found a comfortable rhythm in America,” reads the book.

She became a ballroom dancer — in her 90s.

Photographer B.A. Van Sise speaks about Holocaust survivor photography installation ‘Eyewitness’ at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, May 2017. (YouTube screenshot used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The absolute grit of those featured shines through. When possible, Van Sise photographed survivors with family. Sally Frishberg is shown with her granddaughter, Hannah.

“You can’t just live in camps forever; you have to take responsibility for our lives,” declares Frishberg in a professorial tone. “Our children deserve and grandchildren deserve a better world than that.”

“Her granddaughter Hannah, an off-beat beat reporter for the New York Post, has just arrived for the photoshoot, donning a helmet that makes its wearer both sound like Darth Vader and be impervious to the ongoing pandemic,” Van Sise writes. “There’s a worldwide crisis on, after all. For Sally — sporting a far less imposing cloth mask — worldwide disaster is not a novelty. She’s spending this second one in a comfortable Brooklyn home with her husband; she spent the first one hiding in a Polish attic with fourteen people.”

Detail of a photo of Holocaust suvivor Sally Fishberg, left, with granddaughter Hannah, featured in ‘Invited to Life,’ by B.A. Van Sise. (Courtesy/ B.A. Van Sise)

Van Sise also included essays by writers Sabrina Orah Mark and Neil Gaiman and one by actress Mayim Bialik. Mark writes about visiting Yad Vashem. Gaiman salutes his 103-year-old cousin, who survived the Radomsko ghetto. She defied the Nazis by hiding a copy of “Gone with the Wind” in a brick wall, then sharing the story with everyone.

Bialik writes about her grandparents.

“The fact that I was alive was a miracle to them,” Bialik writes. “Being alive is, indeed, a miracle.”

A photojournalist, Van Sise, 39, was in the Dominican Republic for his first travel assignment since the coronavirus pandemic when he spoke with The Times of Israel about his book as pro-Communist protests were wending through the streets.

The following interview was edited for clarity.

Holocaust survivor and educator Irving Roth and great-granddaughter Addie pose together for ‘Invited to Life.’ (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)

The Times of Israel: Let’s begin with a little about you. Where are you from?

B.A. Van Sise: My mother was Italian but of Tunisian and Libyan descent. My father was an American sailor of Dutch descent. My mother was a waitress in a restaurant. My father was a sailor in a restaurant, and I came to exist in the way that sailors have always made people. And I was raised until I was eight in Italy.

Are you Jewish?

I’m of Jewish descent. I do practice a little bit. I practice in the sense that I eat too little on Yom Kippur and I eat too much on Passover.

You write that this book began with a newspaper assignment. How did it evolve?

I was working for The Village Voice as a photographer. And I pitched my editor at the time a story because, in late 2015, there was a man running for president in America who was talking a lot about refugees and how they’re not letting in their best people and how we should build a wall to keep us free. And I wanted to do a refugee story. I wanted to do a story about what it looks like when you have refugees come to America looking back on the fullness of their lives.

‘Invited to Life,’ by B.A. Van Sise. (Courtesy/ B.A. Van Sise)

So, I reached out to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City, and I said, “Can you help me find like a dozen Holocaust survivors who came over after the war? I’d like to interview them and to do a spread.” And they said, “Okay, sure, I will do that.” And I photographed 37. And while I was putting this together, The Village Voice utterly and totally collapsed. Not my fault.

With The Voice gone, how did the project continue?

The director of that museum said, “Hey, sorry about your beloved Voice. We have an idea. Can we put your photographs up on the exterior of our museum for six months?” It turned into four years.

And then a couple of years passed, and then the pandemic hit.

And I had this weird thing happen where I kept thinking, really constantly, about these survivors who I photographed. I don’t know if you’ve met many Holocaust survivors, but there’s a strength in them. They do not actually match at all the public perception or the public depiction of always depicted as being these sad, pathetic, feeble, victimized people. And they’re more than that. I kept thinking about the fact that every one of them had a worse lot in life and found a way through.

Holocaust survivor and educator René Slotkin poses for ‘Invited to Life.’ (Courtesy of B.A. Van Sise / Design by Grace Yagel via JTA)

As the survivors die, why are their stories critical to tell?

Something the general public needs to understand is what these folks bring to the American fabric and what thread they stitch our national quilt with. It’s really, really important that the general public understands that these are American stories, and these are American stories of perseverance. It’s the act of starting over, and it’s having what we think of wrongly is just true American grit. I’ve never met stronger people. What does the world look like, and what does the topic look like when they’re gone?

Invited to Life: Finding Hope after the Holocaust by B. A. Van Sise

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