Britain’s Duchess of Cambridge has honored two Holocaust survivors she photographed for a project marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day as among the most “life-affirming people I’ve ever met.”
The future Queen is among more than a dozen photographers taking part in a UK Jewish News-initiated project that will lead to an exhibition of 75 powerful images of survivors and their families to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
The initiative – a joint collaboration between Jewish News, the Royal Photographic Society (RPS) and Holocaust Memorial Day Trust – aims to honor the victims of the Shoah and acknowledge the full lives that survivors built for themselves in the UK.
The Duchess met Yvonne Bernstein and Steven Frank, along with their grandchildren, at Kensington Palace this month, spending nearly two-and-a-half hours listening to their stories of survival and taking two of the four images published today. Also featured in this first group of photos are John Hajdu and Joan Salter, both photographed by members and fellows of the Royal Photographic Society.
Monday’s Jewish News front page features Steven Frank, 84, who survived multiple concentration camps as a child but lost his father at Auschwitz, alongside his granddaughters Maggie and Trixie Fleet, aged 15 and 13. Also in the image – for which the Duchess took inspiration from the style of Johannes Vermeer – is a cooking pan which Steven’s mother kept with them throughout their time in the camps.
She would accumulate crumbs and add water to create a paste to feed her sons to help stave off starvation. Frank also brought a tomato from his garden — something he has grown since helping a fellow prisoner in Theresienstadt to grow the fruit in the camp.
Frank, who travels throughout Britain to pass on the lessons of the Shoah, said: “I hope that the people who look at these pictures not only look at the beauty of the photography, but they will also think of the people behind the photos and the families they lost.”
The remainder of the 75 photos will be taken by RPS fellows over the coming months, ahead of the exhibition later this year. Organizers hope to inspire people across the UK to consider their own responsibility to remember and share the stories of those who endured persecution.
Justin Cohen, co-publisher of Jewish News, said: “Each of these striking photographs remind us of the strength of so many survivors in building new lives and families after coming face to face with Nazi evil, but also of the millions who were murdered and the many more millions of children and grandchildren who were never even born.
The duchess took the photographs to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which falls on Monday.
“With fewer survivors with us to relay their experiences, the work of the Duchess and the other photographers will help ensure the truth is never forgotten, and its lessons for fighting hate today are brought to the fore,” Cohen said.
Olivia Marks-Woldman, chief executive of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said: “The exhibition will be a fitting way to mark 75 years since the world was left scarred by the Holocaust. The survivors featured in these portraits all have very different stories, but each of their lives has been fundamentally changed by the trauma and loss they experienced. What connects these individuals is that, after systematic persecution, they all made the UK their home and the country has been enriched by them and their families.”
For her photo with granddaughter Chloe Wright, Germany-born Yvonne Bernstein, brought a brooch and a 1939 ID card stamped with the letter ‘J’ which identified her as a Jew. She was a hidden child in France and recalls vividly the fear when the Nazis came for them. Although Yvonne, her cousin and her aunt were released, her uncle was sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered.
While Yvonne said it was important that what her aunt did for her isn’t forgotten, Chloe, 11, added: “I’m happy my grandma’s story is being shared, because it raises awareness. Her story gives more perspective on the history, so you don’t just see what’s written in books, but hear what people witnessed first-hand. I also want to share my grandmother’s story when I’m older.”
Her message was echoed by the Duchess, a patron of the RPS, who said it was “a true honor to have been asked to participate in this project and I hope in some way Yvonne and Steven’s memories will be kept alive as they pass the baton to the next generation.”
Dr Alan Hodgson, President of the Royal Photographic Society, said: “The power of photography to document and give insight is evident in these photographs.
“These portraits provide a direct connection to those who were witnesses and, crucially, bring in their children and grandchildren who will be so important in ensuring their stories and experiences remain relevant.”
Yvonne was born in Germany in 1937, and named Ursula. Her father was in Amsterdam on business when Kristallnacht took place in 1938, and was advised to stay there and go into hiding. After months of hiding, he got a visa to go to the UK and work in the jewelry business in Birmingham.
Yvonne’s mother then managed to get a domestic visa to work for a vicar in Nottingham, but she could not bring Yvonne with her. They expected to be reunited a few weeks later, but war broke out. As a young child, Yvonne then undertook a long journey in the care of her aunt and uncle, frequently changing homes and names whilst living in France, including two months hiding in a convent with her cousin. Eventually the Nazis came to arrest the family.
Although Yvonne, her cousin and her aunt were released, her uncle was sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered. In 1944, Yvonne’s father, who was then in the British Army, set out to find his daughter and she eventually arrived in Britain at eight years old in June 1945. She was reunited with her parents.
The image includes an ID card and a brooch. Yvonne’s ID card is from Germany, and dated 3 March 1939. It has a letter ‘J’ stamped on it, to identify her as a Jew – one of the many ways Jewish people were separated from the rest of the population.