ESSEN, Germany (AFP) — For decades Naftali Fuerst stayed silent about his horrifying childhood experiences of three Nazi concentration camps and a death march.
So even he was surprised to find himself on board a Luftwaffe plane heading for Germany and a photography exhibition in which he stars.
“I don’t know if I am dreaming or if it is true… because 75 years ago, I was suppose to be already in another world,” the 87-year-old said on board the plane, in a video posted on Twitter by the German Defense Ministry.
“To have such an experience, to be given this honor 75 years later, that’s unbelievable.”
The Slovakia-born grandfather is one of 75 people whose portraits appear in the “Survivors — Faces of Life after the Holocaust” exhibition by acclaimed German photographer Martin Schoeller.
The show is one of numerous events worldwide to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps later this month.
Born in Bratislava in 1932, Fuerst and his family spent time in the Sered concentration camp in German occupied Slovakia before being deported to Auschwitz in 1944, where he was separated from his mother and father.
Vor dem Flug nach Deutschland: Naftali Fürst, einer der letzten Zeugen, überlebte #Auschwitz-Birkenau und den Todesmarsch nach Buchenwald. Darüber schwieg er 50 Jahre. Heute bringt die Bundeswehr ihn und seine Familie, hier die Tochter, nach Essen, zu #Survivors. @KaiDiekmann pic.twitter.com/M3gkmVrSdR
— Christoph Strack (@Strack_C) January 21, 2020
In January 1945, as the Red Army approached Auschwitz, he was forced onto a death march and eventually ended up at the Buchenwald camp in Eastern Germany.
After the war, he emigrated to Israel, where he worked as a photographer and a driving instructor.
Yet it would be 50 years before he spoke of his experiences — even to his family.
“I had only six happy years of childhood,” he said in Essen on Tuesday. “Since then, I have lived 81 years in the shadow of the Shoah.”
‘Preserve the incomprehensible’
In the exhibition, Fuerst’s face gazes from one of the 75 images with a fixed stare and a gentle half smile.
It is one of a series of enormous, detailed portraits, each of them depicting a Holocaust survivor who now lives in Israel.
Opening the exhibition at the Ruhr Museum in Essen on Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel hailed the portraits as “a truly impressive work.”
“Each portrait is a reminder to us to step up for humanity, to not be silent and not look away when somebody’s dignity is attacked,” she was quoted as saying in a tweet by spokesman Steffen Seibert.
New York-based photographer Schoeller took all of the photographs in Jerusalem last summer.
«Eine ganz besondere Verantwortung»: Es soll ein starkes Zeichen dafür sein, wofür Deutschland und die Bundeswehr heute stehen. Die Luftwaffe hat am Dienstag den Holocaust-Überlebenden Naftali Fürst (87) aus Tel Aviv nach Deutschland geflogen.… https://t.co/ZhnnkCh4gW JuedAllg pic.twitter.com/Q3l6WRHEJf
— Jewish Community (@JComm_NewsFeeds) January 21, 2020
At a press conference on Monday, the 51-year-old described taking the photographs as “the most emotional project of my life.”
Known for his intimate, close-up portraits, Schoeller’s previous subjects include Merkel herself, former US president Barack Obama and pop star Taylor Swift.
“Survivors” is a cooperation between the Foundation for Art and Culture in Bonn and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.
The exhibition will stay in Essen until April, before traveling to other cities across the world, including Toronto and Maastricht.
It has also been published as a book, which publishing house Steidl describes as “an attempt to preserve the incomprehensible for generations to come.”
Its launch comes just days before the start of the Fifth World Holocaust Forum at Yad Vashem on Thursday.
More than 40 world leaders will travel to Jerusalem for the forum, including German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and French leader Emmanuel Macron.
In Germany, the anniversary arrives amid growing concerns over a rise in anti-Semitism.
The interior ministry recorded 1,799 anti-Semitic offenses in 2018, the highest number in over a decade.
In Essen on Tuesday, Merkel reaffirmed her government’s commitment to fight anti-Semitism, which she said was “an attack on the fundamental values which hold our society together.”