A man with white hair is seen wearing running shoes and jogging under an enormous desert sky. A woman is reflected through her bedroom vanity mirror, holding the solar panel she invented. Another man is photographed with the hands of his children and grandchildren cradling his arm, which is tattooed with his identification number from Auschwitz.
The images are all part of “The Lonka Project,” an ambitious new enterprise that photographs Holocaust survivors around the world. The portraits are as varied as the people they depict, as top photographers try to capture something of their essence and survival in a single frame.
The project is the brainchild of Jerusalem-based photographers Rina Castelnuovo and Jim Hollander. The married couple decided to pursue the project last year, shortly after the death of Castelnuovo’s mother, Dr. Eleonora (Lonka) Nass – for whom the project is named. Lonka was transported to no fewer than five concentration camps in her early teens, but while she survived, her father and brother did not. After moving to Israel in 1956, she went on to become a dental surgeon.
Acutely aware that the last generation of Holocaust survivors – most of whom were children or teenagers during the war – is dying out, the couple tapped their massive network of professional photographer friends and colleagues worldwide.
Some 250 photographers across 24 countries participated in the project throughout 2019 – capturing their subjects everywhere from Texas to Bosnia, Chile and beyond. Photographers from all the major international news agencies and Magnum Photos are among those who have taken part in the project, which is ongoing. (It is estimated that there will be about 53,000 Holocaust survivors still alive in Israel by 2030; worldwide figures are not available.)
This Monday, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, 90 of the portraits, each 2 meters (6.5 feet) high, will be inaugurated in an exhibition at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Another exhibition featuring photos from the project will take place the same day at the Yad Mordechai Museum in southern Israel. Other international exhibitions are planned – including one in Berlin. There are also plans to publish a book of the photographs.
‘Time is running out’
Castelnuovo’s father, Dr. Jerzy Nass, also survived the Holocaust. Growing up with survivors who preferred not to talk about what they endured, her parents’ past still cast a heavy shadow and Castelnuovo says that for years she tried to avoid taking any Holocaust-related work.
“I did not deal with the Holocaust more than I had to, because I lived with it my whole life,” she tells Haaretz. “But when my mother passed away I told Jim, ‘All of this horrible past is transferred to us, the second generation.”
When they heard that a 2018 CNN survey found that a third of Europeans said they knew just a little or nothing at all about the Holocaust, allied with the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the world, Castelnuovo says she thought, “We cannot just stand by – and we don’t know anything else besides photography.”
Castelnuovo, who spent many years working for the New York Times and is also a filmmaker, and Hollander – a former chief photographer at Reuters and others news agencies – decided to ask their broad network of photojournalist and studio photographer friends to help carry out the project.
The response from the photographers they approached was instantaneous and near-unanimous: They were honored to be asked and excited to get started.
“The lifeblood of a photojournalist is commitment to a story, and there is no story more important to us, to humankind, than protecting the memory of the atrocity of the Holocaust so it never drifts from our memories,” Jeffrey D. Smith, director of Contact Press Images, tells Haaretz in an email. “We are humbled in the presence of those survivors who have lost nearly everything in their lives yet soldier on to keep memories and images of their loved ones alive. Seventy-five years on, how could we not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them and honor them with a lasting image of their will to survive and persevere?” he adds.
Castelnuovo, meanwhile, says that “in many ways we are memory keepers. And there are Holocaust survivors today who live among us, so we have a duty to put the spotlight on them because time is running out.”
The idea, she says, is also to capture the survivors’ success in life – “that despite everything, they went on to build families and careers, and that so many reached this remarkable age.”
Coffee and conversation
The entire project is run as a volunteer effort, but it was important to Castelnuovo and Hollander that the photographs be printed and exhibited, and not only exist as an online project. But for that to happen, financial support was needed. They turned to their friend Yuval Rakavy – co-founder of the Israeli high-tech company Check Point – who funded the project. A seasoned photographer himself, Rakavy has also been an active volunteer, building the project’s website, creating its logo and even photographing a survivor himself.
One of the aspects of the project that intrigued him most was the rare opportunity of having 250 photographers answer the same question: How do you capture a person who survived the Nazi genocide that stole the lives of 6 million Jews?
“Each [photographer] tries to tell a story in a picture, and everyone is trying to do it in a different way,” Rakavy says. “And it’s also closing a circle: In a few years, this project would be impossible to do.” Indeed, eight of the subjects photographed in the past year have since passed away, Castelnuovo says.
Many of the photographers, some of whom had little or no previous contact with Holocaust survivors, describe being extremely moved by the portrait sessions. For example, Debbie Hill – a West Virginia-born, Jerusalem-based photographer – has lived and worked in Israel for many years. However, 90-year-old Renata Reisfeld, a Poland-born, retired Hebrew University chemistry professor, was the first Holocaust survivor she had ever spent any real time with.
Preparing for the portrait, Hill made several visits to Reisfeld’s Jerusalem apartment for coffee and conversation, getting to know her subject’s dramatic life story – including her flight to Siberia from Poland during the war; her groundbreaking research into solar panels; and her experience translating for her captors as a hostage during the 1976 Entebbe hijacking.
Hill has continued to visit Reisfeld since last year’s photo shoot. “She is just so full of life,” she relays. “She has this sparkle in her eyes... she’s writing a book right now. It’s been an inspiration and just a privilege to sit down and get to know her,” Hill says.