Yanai Rubaja has built a successful career out of wedding and event photography. It’s what pays the bills. But his real professional gratification comes from a project that brings no financial compensation whatsoever. He calls this volunteer work “something for the soul.”
Rubaja is a man with a mission: He has set out to photograph as many Holocaust survivors as he can, surrounded by their offspring.
“These photographs show their victory,” he tells Haaretz. “It’s my small gift to them.”
Rubaja has already photographed close to 300 survivors with their children, grandchildren and, in many cases, even great-grandchildren, as part of “A Gift for Generations to Come,” which is now in its seventh year.
“It all began with my desire to do something for Holocaust survivors,” says the 42-year-old father of two. “I’m not a rich man, so donating a big sum of money wasn’t an option. It dawned on me that one of the things I enjoy most when photographing weddings is getting the entire family together for a group photo. And that’s how I came up with this idea.”
Rubaja, who lives in the small agricultural community of Rinatya in central Israel, has no direct personal connection to the Holocaust — his family immigrated to Israel from Argentina. But growing up in a country with the greatest concentration of Holocaust survivors in the world, he says, has made him deeply sensitive to their stories and plight.
He mostly finds his subjects through word-of-mouth and social media, with them generally approaching him when they hear about the project (Rubaja has a special Facebook page for the project, where all of the photographs are featured). And he says he will travel anywhere in Israel to photograph them. (He will sometimes request reimbursement for gasoline if he needs to travel far, but nothing beyond that.)
Since he launched the project in 2012, Rubaja has photographed survivors of death camps (one even walked out of a gas chamber alive after it malfunctioned) and ghettos; partisan fighters and “hidden children.” His oldest subject was a 100-year-old woman, Sabina, whom he photographed reclining in bed surrounded by her family, a few of them in bed with her.
Another subject was a survivor of the famed “Schindler’s list.” Yet another was a twin experimented on by the notorious SS physician Dr. Josef Mengele at Auschwitz.
Rubaja takes dozens of photos at each shooting session: Photos of the survivors alone; photos of the survivors with their spouses; photos of the survivors with their children, their grandchildren, their great-grandchildren, and then the entire clan altogether. Not all the photos are posed. In fact, Rubaja says, he prefers the candid shots when his subjects are not thinking about the camera.
Browsing through the collection, he points out several of his personal favorites. One shows a huge clan of more than 100 family members in color-coordinated T-shirts — the Liberman children in blue, grandchildren in purple and great-grandchildren in green. At the center is the survivor and family patriarch, Meir, distinguishable from all the rest in his white shirt.
His other favorites are those that feature survivors enjoying intimate and joyous moments with their tiniest offspring.
One of the biggest challenges is coordinating the shoots. “When you have so many people involved, as I do with many of these families, it’s hard to find a time that works for everybody,” notes Rubaja.
His dream now is to take his project abroad — to the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries where there are still clusters of survivors.
“I fear that in another five to 10 years it may be too late,” he says.