Thousands of football fans flying into Minneapolis-St. Paul for Super Bowl LII this weekend will be struck by an unconventional artistic sight at the airport’s terminals: a photographic exhibition of Holocaust survivors living in the metropolitan area known as the Twin Cities.
Brothers Mark and Zygi Wilf – who own the local National Football League franchise and whose parents survived the Shoah – are among those underwriting the airport’s exhibition, which opened in December and will close Monday as most fans fly home after Sunday night’s game.
The display intends to capitalize on the Super Bowl’s presence to increase people’s awareness of “where bigotry, intolerance and prejudice can lead,” Mark Wilf told Haaretz this week.
The 44 portraits, showing 52 survivors from 10 countries, have been exhibited over the past six years in Minnesota and several surrounding states – in such places as synagogues, churches, community centers, armories and concert halls. But the NFL’s championship game offers unique visibility.
Sunday’s game pits the favored New England Patriots against the Philadelphia Eagles. The two teams’ owners, Robert Kraft and Jeffrey Lurie, are both Jewish. Kraft brought 18 NFL Hall of Fame players to Israel last June, on a goodwill tour that included a visit to the sports campus bearing his name near the Knesset in Jerusalem.
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“As part of Super Bowl LII, we thought [the exhibition] would be a win for this community of survivors,” said Wilf, whose Minnesota Vikings came within a game of becoming the first ever team to compete in the Super Bowl in its own stadium.
“Next year, God willing, we’ll be in the game,” he said. “But we’ll enjoy the experience of hosting this game in the Twin Cities.”
The Wilfs’ parents, Joseph and Elizabeth, and the family’s charitable foundation have long supported programs that aid survivors and strengthen Holocaust education. Joseph passed away in 2016.
“The whole world is coming to the Twin Cities this week to watch a football game – one of the premier sports events in the world. These [survivors] overcame great obstacles and tragedy in their lives, and they were resilient. They built productive lives and are great examples to people,” Wilf said.
Judy Baron, 89, and her husband Fred, a survivor from Vienna, are shown in one of the portraits, taken in 2011. Fred Baron passed away in 2014 at age 91.
A native of Marosvásárhely, Hungary (now Târgu Mures, Romania), Judy survived three concentration camps and lost both parents and her two sisters in the Holocaust. “It is a very big honor to have [the photographs] exhibited when the football game is here,” she said.
The exhibition, named “Transfer of Memory,” is expected to have been viewed by nearly 2 million people at the airport, said Anthony Sussman, communications director for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. The Wilfs, the Vikings, the JCRC and Delta Airlines (for which the airport is a hub) are sponsoring the exhibition at the airport.
The photographs are accompanied by text covering the subjects’ paths from the Holocaust to Minnesota.
In advance of the Super Bowl, the JCRC has been sending out the survivors’ photographs and stories. That effort, along with related programs it hosts in synagogues and churches, “lead to a bigger conversation about building inclusive communities and standing up to hate,” said Laura Zelle, the exhibition’s curator and the JCRC’s director of Holocaust education.
Twenty-two of the subjects have died since the photographs were taken, including one couple (Eli and Fanni Kamlot, of Vienna) and sisters Mary Ackos Calof and Esther Ackos Winthrop, natives of Greece. One of the most striking portraits shows Eva Gross, who was 83 at the time, sitting on the arm of a couch beside her mother, Ella Weiss, then 100. Weiss passed away shortly after the photo was taken.
The photographer, David Sherman, called the experience of taking all of the pictures “humbling.”
“I set out to make portraits of these survivors before they die. You just learn that survivors are special people – that as soon as the war was over, they started right away to rebuild their lives,” he said.
“They let me touch their soul, almost, in letting me make portraits to try to capture their personality. It’s awe-inspiring. This is a very special, spiritual moment I had with the survivors.”
As to which encounter left the deepest impression, he said, “It’s like asking which of your children is your favorite.”