It took a survey demonstrating how ignorant Americans are about the Holocaust to get Erez Kaganovitz started on his next big project.
The survey, published last April by the Claims Conference (an organization that deals with restitution to Holocaust survivors), found that two-thirds of American millennials had never heard of Auschwitz and that one-third of Americans thought only 2 million (rather than 6 million) Jews had been murdered in the Holocaust.
“I’m the type of person that, if something disturbs me, I immediately ask myself what I can do to change things,” says Kaganovitz, himself a grandchild of Holocaust survivors. “In this case, I realized the way I might be able to change things was to use my artistic experience to create greater awareness of the Holocaust.”
“Humans of the Holocaust,” a photoblog of portraits and interviews that went online this week, reflects his attempt to educate young Americans about what happens when hate is allowed to go unchecked — in a format he believes will engage them.
“Usually, exhibits about the Holocaust are very dark and gloomy,” says the 38-year-old Tel Avivian, best known as the founder of the popular photoblog Humans of Tel Aviv. “This one, by contrast, is very colorful, and I’ve made a point of focusing on upbeat stories.”
Right now, his collection of photos only exists online, but Kaganovitz’s plan is to turn it into a proper traveling exhibit. In fact, he already has his first booking: He’s been invited to present the project at a Holocaust education center in Pittsburgh next April, as part of a Holocaust Remembrance Day event.
The exhibit, which is still a work in progress, currently comprises 20 portraits — most of them of Holocaust survivors, but not only.
It includes, for example, a photo of Rafi Eitan, a famous Israeli Mossad agent involved in the abduction of Adolf Eichmann in 1960. The accompanying interview (conducted not long before Eitan died in March) provides not only a firsthand account of the kidnapping operation in Buenos Aires, but also his recollections of Eichmann’s subsequent cremation and its significance. “While his body was consumed by the fire I felt that it was poetic justice,” he is quoted saying. “He was brought to justice by his body being burnt by a sovereign Jewish state.”
The exhibit also includes a photo of Tami Raveh, the daughter of Gideon Hausner — who was the chief prosecutor in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. In the photo, she is holding a photo of her father reciting his famous opening statement in court, in which he said: “As I stand before you today, judges of Israel, to argue against Adolf Eichmann, I am not alone; 6 million prosecutors stand here by my side.”
Renowned Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol, who talks about his motivation for writing “Ghetto” (his famous work about the theater that operated in the Vilnius, née Vilna, Ghetto), is also featured in the exhibit.
Among the Holocaust survivors showcased in Kaganovitz’s new project are Leila Jabarin, whose story, as she acknowledges, is so “insane” she fears people might not believe it. Born in a concentration camp in Hungary, she was hidden with her Jewish family for two years by a German doctor. After immigrating to Israel, she fell in love, at age 15, with a Muslim Arab. She subsequently converted to Islam, married him and moved to the northern Israeli-Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, where she lives to this day. Photographed wearing a black hijab, Jabarin sums up the lesson of her extraordinary life as follows: “Moses, Mohammed and Jesus can all coexist.”
There is also Dugo Litner, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau. He is photographed posing with a yellow-colored balloon in the shape of a Jewish star, the word “Jude” written on it. In the interview (published in Hebrew on the site), he reveals how his sense of humor helped him survive the atrocities he experienced and witnessed in the death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. He goes on to explain why he chose to pose as he did: “I am taking ownership of the symbol that turned me into a subhuman and turning it into an optimistic and smiling creation.”
Yehuda Saporta was one of 510 Thessalonikian Jews saved by Sebastián Romero Radigales, the Spanish consul in Greece during the war years. As he ponders what could have motivated this noble act, Saporta describes his savior as “a lighthouse shining brightly through one of the darkest periods in the history of mankind.”
Quitting the day job
The idea for Humans of the Holocaust didn’t come out of nowhere. Inspired by the wild success of “Humans of New York” — a photoblog and book of street portraits and interviews — Kaganovitz launched its Israeli equivalent, Humans of Tel Aviv, six years ago. At last count, the Humans of Tel Aviv Facebook page had nearly 46,000 fans and its Instagram page about 3,500.
Not long after, he also started a broader-focused, though not quite as popular, photoblog called Humans of Israel.
When he started these photography projects, Kaganovitz was working as a television journalist — exploiting any free time he had to photograph interesting-looking people on the streets. A few years after his photoblogs were launched, he began working as a parliamentary adviser: first to then-MK Michael Oren (Kulanu) and later to then-MK Eitan Cabel (Zionist Union). His work in politics turned out to be far more demanding, meaning he had less time to devote to his side project.
“At one point I said to myself that if I want to push these projects forward, I’ve got to invest more time in them,” he recounts. “And so I quit my full-time job and began devoting myself exclusively to my photography work.”
His original photoblogs, he says, were motivated by a desire show people around the world a different — indeed, more human — side of Israel than they were getting on the nightly news. In early 2017, he began reaching out to Jewish federations, community centers and synagogues, trying to interest them in exhibiting his work. The response was quite enthusiastic. “You can say that I’ve seen most of America by now,” notes Kaganovitz, “even parts I never knew existed.” Although Europe is not his prime focus, he’s also been invited to present his exhibits in Budapest and Prague.
During his travels in the United States over recent years, Kaganovitz says he befriended many American Jews and was surprised to learn how threatened they felt by anti-Semitism. “It is definitely an issue for them,” he says, noting that this makes his latest project even more timely.
The man who likes to introduce himself as the “human” behind Humans of Tel Aviv, Humans of Israel and Humans of the Holocaust, has a good feeling about the latter’s prospects. “What I’ve learned is that if you have a good story that goes along with a good photo, people will connect,” he says.