Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How I became involved in an Alabama holocaust survivors' exhibit

In my recent post, "You didn't know Jack," I noted I would share how I became involved in "Darkness into Life: Alabama's Holocaust Survivors Through Photography and Art."

In early 2005, my husband, Alan, and I were looking for a community project that would share our common interests. Alan is Jewish, I am Christian, and before we were married, we committed to being supportive of each other’s religion. But since we don’t worship together, we felt a desire to do something as a couple that would allow us to share a mutually-rewarding experience outside traditional spiritual settings.

I had recently re-discovered photography, so right away we had our method, but we talked for months about the message. We discussed current issues: breast cancer, AIDS, homelessness, and organ donation since Alan’s son had recently undergone a successful liver transplant.

But when we attended a local Holocaust Memorial Service and heard the first-hand accounts of the Holocaust, our message became clear. I had never met a Holocaust survivor, and had certainly never heard a first-hand account of that horrible time in history. I realized our grandchildren would be unlikely to hear these personal stories since many survivors are now in their 80’s and 90’s. As we walked to the car in stunned silence, I looked at Alan and said, “I think we found our project.”

Additional weeks of discussion followed. Alan felt that we had to do something different from other Holocaust exhibits. We talked about the photographs we would shoot, how many (perhaps ten), and where we would exhibit, but we knew there was something missing in our plan.

During this time, we attended an art exhibit by Mitzi J. Levin, and discovered the missing piece. We invited Mitzi to join us and paint the memories of the survivors: their childhood, imprisonment or hiding, and liberation. My photographs would capture them in the present and the result would be the stories of the lives of Birmingham’s Holocaust survivors – how they prevented Hitler from winning by living happy, successful lives, how they traveled from "Darkness into Life."

Our initial exhibit at Birmingham’s Levite Jewish Community Center on April 1, 2007, drew 1,700 people on opening day. Staff members from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute visited the exhibit and invited us to show at the Institute. They also asked us to expand the exhibit to include all of Alabama.

Birmingham's Holocaust Survivors: (l-r) Ruth Siegler, Max Steinmetz,
Ilse Nathan, Jack Bass (deceased), Henry Aizenman (deceased), Aisic Hirsch,
Martin Aaron, Riva Hirsch, and Max Steinmetz
The idea of ten photographs grew into a 78-piece exhibit that has been donated to the Birmingham Holocaust Education Committee to help teach junior and senior high school students about the Holocaust, genocide, and bigotry. And most importantly, to join together and say “Never Again!"

Survivor Martin Aaron (back, middle) and Mortimer Jordan high school students
I am proud to be part of this project and to have been entrusted with the inspiring stories of 20 people who became my friends and mentors. I am so thankful for knowing them and deeply miss the three survivors who are no longer with us.

"Darkness into Life" currently travels to high schools, colleges, and community centers in Alabama and is booked almost two years in advance. For more information, contact Barbara Solomon.

Over the next few months, I'll continue to share Alabama's holocaust survivors stories of survival and determination.

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