Survivor: My Father’s Ghosts-Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust
Survivor: My Father’s Ghosts is on view until August 20, 2018 at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Please come visit the museum at the Grove and see what the museum is going to further Holocaust education.
While I was in Warsaw earlier this spring, I set out to photograph the world’s largest Jewish cemetery. With my Rolleiflex 2.8F, Holga 120N, and Fujifilm X-T2, I knew what I carried in my arsenal exactly what I would need to create the images I wanted to make.
I generally photograph my documentary work in black and white because the images appear less distracting and more timeless, but from past experiences in Buenos Aires, Argentina; La Paz, Bolivia; and Berlin, Germany; I knew I loved the look of cemeteries photographed in color. Color photography adds dimension and context to a scene. Green leaves, for example, can show a picture was taken in spring.
I prefer to shoot in film because it offers depth and layers to my photos.That being said, I still use my Fujifilm X-T2 for low light situations where I cannot achieve what I need with film. Most of all, I love shooting with film for the same reason I did as a ten-year-old girl: magic.
The moment I pushed open the renovated gate on Okopowa Street, I knew I was in for that kind of magic. Founded in 1806, the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw has 250,000 marked tombs set in 82 acres (33 hectares) of green grass with winding, uneven paths shaded by tall, slender trees. The cemetery is divided into separate areas for women and men, and Orthodox Jews are buried apart from reformed Jews. I was especially moved by the burial plots and graves of thousands of Jews who died in the Warsaw Ghetto during WWII and the partisans killed in the Warsaw Uprising.
I wandered for hours alone through the cemetery, noting how the trees seemed to have picked up on the sadness in the air. I was reminded of how I love the peace and meditative atmosphere of cemeteries, and was moved by the Jewish graves.
As a young girl, I hadn’t completely formulated what I was doing with photography, but I now understand that being in Jewish cemeteries helps me connect with my father’s side of the family—the family I never was able to meet. The Jews buried in the Warsaw cemetery, unlike my father’s family, were given the decency of actual tombs and gravestones. His family; mother, father, both grandparents, and his seven siblings were all killed in the Holocaust.
Being in Poland and retracing my father’s steps through his hometown and the forced labor camps he survived surfaced emotions that are hard to put into words. I experienced waves of sadness and sorrow, but found balance and meaning through the blessings I have in my life, including being able to travel to Poland time and time again. I find meaning and peace in those sojourns to Poland. Every time I go, it feels as if I am piecing my life together one step at a time.
These photos are constant reminders that we are spiritual beings having a human experience and will continue to change with each breath. There’s something about walking through a cemetery alone, experiencing and internalizing the silence, that makes me reflect on how life is fragile and temporary. As I travel alone, it’s true, there are moments of profound loneliness, but they help put me in touch with my feelings, which help me create these photos. I went into the Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw seeking spiritual, artistic, and emotional grounding, and I attempted to capture the emotions and images I took away from that experience through my photographs.
“I don’t take photos, I make them.” – Hannah Kozak, 2017
Photography is a meditation for me. After spending time working on set surrounded by a crew of nearly one hundred people twelve hours a day, for months, I find that photography allows me quiet to recharge my soul. I cannot tidy up my father’s past: I am in Poland to continue my project on the eight forced labor camps he was in. But, before I begin my work, I allow myself to wander about Warsaw; one of my favorite cities in Europe.
The oldest part of Warsaw is Old Town; bounded by the bank of the Vistula river along with Grodzka,Mostowa, and Podwale Streets. I made these photos while wandering through the heart of the area which is Old Town Market Place. From the surrounding streets I saw medieval architecture while the area is full of restaurants, cafes and shops. And, wherever I travel, I plan on visiting UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites; and Warsaw is one of them. More than 85% of Old Town was deliberately destroyed by Nazi troops during the war. Warsaw is a near-total reconstruction of a span of history from the 13th to the 20th century. I love watching people while walking around.
The Holocaust committed by the Nazis turned this country, where most of the European Jews used to live and where their culture used to flourish, into a massive grave. This is why initiatives to revive Jewish culture in Poland is so important.
Traveling to Poland for Christmas was a decision I made for a few distinct reasons. One, it was a postmortem readjustment to my father’s death. I had been to Poland before, both times in the spring, in May but I wanted to have the winter light in my photos on this trip. I wanted to feel the deathly cold winter of Poland, like my father did.
I went to Poland to continue my documentary on my father, a survivor of eight Nazi forced labor camps. Because my father passed away on Christmas, I wanted to awaken in his country, on the third anniversary of his death, to help me deal with a grief too deep for tears while simultaneously feeling a near-umbilical attachment to this country I love, a country with a past filled with too much sadness to ever understand.
I arrived on Christmas Eve. After a Polish man kindly helped me figure out how to buy a bus ticket from the ticket booth (I’m not a fan of cabs) I sat on my bus seat, staring out of the windows for a familiar site. When I exited at Warsaw University, I had the surprise of seeing purple and white holiday decorations– instead of the customary red and green in Los Angeles– leading into Old Town, where I like to stay. The location opening on Castle Square overlooked the Vistula River and granted a stunning view of Old Town. I heard the bell chimes of the Royal Castle, which was rebuilt only thirty years ago after being destroyed by the Nazis during WWII. In my small, quiet hotel room, I have a desk to write at as well as two bay windows to look out of where I photographed the view of the Vistula River and the changing light, throughout the day and night.
I was in so much anguish on this third trip to Poland. My cat Jackson died suddenly three days after I arrived in Warsaw and I was alone in my hotel room. “No! No! No!” I screamed, in part because I was in shock and in part because I thought I could undue it all. I didn’t want to leave my hotel room yet I also needed the freezing cold air of Warsaw to help me breathe as I avoided making eye contact with strangers. I felt so useless to Jackson that all I could do was chant. I had left him at the vet and that was the last time I saw him. I was processing regret at leaving my companion with a specialist that I didn’t know but who said he would heal my little friend. My pain was profoundly humbling. The only thing I could come up with to self soothe was mantra so I played it nightly.
The state of grief continued as I traveled through Poland, seeing and experiencing Poland, in that emotional state. Something about the death of Jackson helped me get in touch with my father’s tremendous losses. Grief is grief and it colors everything.
Jackson brought me infinite joy. I loved the sound of his paws hitting the hard wood floors in the morning as he and his brother ran to the kitchen, eager for breakfast. He used to plead with me to let him go outside and only liked being hugged on the futon in the television room. He’s gone but the memories of him will stay with me like a faded photograph.
I experienced grief and joy simultaneously at retracing my father’s footsteps through war torn Poland as I mourned the loss of my friend and didn’t sleep well for eight nights.
Prior to World War II, Warsaw was the leading center of secular Jewish culture in Eastern Europe. At one time, only New York had a larger Jewish population. I could imagine the diverse vitality of Jewish life here. From Warsaw’s turbulent history to the beauty of the rebuilt city, I was inspired. From the hot bowls of soup served with fresh baguettes to the sound of the language I don’t understand but resonate with, to the architecture of Gothic buildings made of brick and to cathedrals made of stone and Romanesque architecture and the kindness from strangers I am repeatedly impressed with, Poland has a piece of my tired and hurting heart.
On a side note, I was able to put the Fuji XT1 to use. This is a photographer’s camera and one of many cool features, it is weather resistant, which helped a lot in the cold of Poland. It’s responsive and I’m impressed with this mirrorless camera. There was no giant learning curve, it’s as intuitive as my Nikon FM from back in the 1980’s. No more lugging around DSLR’s.
It has been said that Poland is dead, exhausted, enslaved, but here is the proof of her life and triumph.
I made my first sojourn to Auschwitz in 2013 and I have been haunted by the images I saw ever since. Yet I have also found Auschwitz to be a place of contemplation – an invitation to meditation. Photography has always kept me from forgetting, so camera in hand, I return to this place of killing of innocent souls hoping to honor the nameless and faceless. I can’t help but wonder if evil can’t be overcome by looking it square in the face.
Visiting Auschwitz required me to not forget the significance of its’ past, while simultaneously being forced to remember it. I read many books about the Holocaust throughout my entire life -beginning with Escape from Warsaw when I was in grade school and throughout my teens. I continued to devour similar culturally and historically relevant books when I started a project on my father’s journey from his hometown of Bedzin, Poland to many forced labor camps in Markstädt, Klettendorf, Hundsfeld , Hirschberg, Bad Warmbrunn and Ermannsdorf. He was sent to Hirschberg twice before he was liberated from Dernau on May 8, 1945. Even with such emotional proximity to this history, I still wasn’t prepared for seeing tools designed to kill people in person. Fences, barbed wire, barracks, crematorium. The controversial historian Ernst Nolte refers to the Holocaust as “a past that will not pass away.” Indeed, I have always felt the more I study the Holocaust, the less I understand about humanity.
I felt an existential delirium being in Auschwitz. Standing in line with people for the tour felt too confining, so as I have always done, I got out of line and went off on my own. Getting out of line is what saved my father’s life at the very end of his stay in those forced labor camps. He was told to get in line with all the other remaining inmates at Dernau. My father’s angels, (as he called them) or his intuition ( how I refer to his knowing), was always marvelous whether it came to people or situations. So when it told him to get out of line, he did and went immediately into the barracks. Had he not listened to that subconscious nudge, he would have ended upon a death walk with everyone else in that line. They were forced to dig their own graves before they were machine gunned down. Because my father broke the rules and got out of line, he was liberated by the Soviet armed forces one day later.
In some places, the pulse beats more than others. Poland is one of those places for me. I’ve heard people say that they could never visit Auschwitz but perhaps if they had a father that survived eight forced labor camps they would feel differently. I can’t imagine not wanting to see the labor, concentration and killing centers ** in person. Duality; making others wrong, is always judgment. I needed to see this place to help me keep remembering.
The Talmud describes the difference between remembering and not forgetting. Forgetting first occurs in the heart. It’s not cognitive. It’s the natural course of events that dispossess us from the event and then tragically, we are left devoid of the reason it was ever important to us to begin with. Remembering, on the other hand, is to engage in activities that promote remembrance.
My father found a way to make something out of nothing, so that he could survive. He created life out of a world of darkness. As a second generation Holocaust survivor, I feel it is my duty to not forget and to present the upside of my heavy heritage so it can be a catalyst, and not a yoke.
I kept mostly to myself in school almost as if I was still hiding. One side of me was a happy girl that loved to laugh; the other side was a girl with sadness so overwhelming, I could never understand where it stemmed from. As a second generation Holocaust survivor, I understand that my father’s unprocessed grief and sadness was handed down, and it’s up to me, to transform that sadness into understanding the carefully orchestrated plan of genocide because the Jews believe, “He who saves one life, saves the entire world. ” I think it’s dangerous that the suffering and struggle of my ancestors will be forgotten with the passage of time. I must tell and retell the stories of our past, so that we will remain free, in the future.
** death camp is too vague, since taken literally it evokes the image of a place in which a large number of people died, such as the footage of dead bodies taken in Dachau and Buchenwald, which misleadingly, are often shown as backdrop in documentaries on the Holocaust. “Death camp” could in theory apply to most concentration camps, many labor camps, and, in the winter of 1941/1942, virtually all camps for Soviet POWs. We prefer killing center because it denotes exactly and explicitly what the facility was established to achieve–to kill human beings as quickly and as efficiently as possible.
Krakow has been called the second Rome for its vast amount of churches – places of worship, prayer and spiritual elevation. People in Poland would go to Krakow during hard times for spiritual renewal, consolation and strength. That is why I am here as well. First I saw where my father lived in Bedzin as a child and viewed the station where he would have boarded the train that took him to the first of eight Nazi forced labor camps where he “lived” and spent the next day viewing the grounds at Auschwitz. I am exhausted on many levels; emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically yet I feel the hidden, almost intangible but present spirituality in the air here.
Transformative trips tend to be psychologically and physically challenging and push me way out of my comfort zone. I’m immersed in an authentic experience in a dramatically different environment with people of a different culture. This is life; allowing encounters. I find solitude healing and purifying. Every exposure I make is a discovery of my subjects and myself.
The town of Kazimierz near Krakow was founded in 1335 by Kazimierz the Great. It became a leading centre of Jewish culture. I love the narrow streets, the low buildings. I feel as if I’m bearing witness to centuries of peaceful co-existence of two nations, Jewish and Poles. I sense a sacredness simply viewing the coherent architecture all around. I also love the sound of the Polish language and accent.
I choose to stay in Kazimierez because it was an active centre of Judaic culture and learning. Tens of thousands of Jewish people from the late middle ages until the Holocaust, called it home. There was a specific interest in welcoming Jews with an environment where they weren’t a minority but instead settlers. I think of it almost like Ellis Island. Visiting the synagogues, the Jewish cemetery and bookstore feels comfortable and familiar and Krakow is filled with cafes, bars, restaurants and dogs.
The Nazis annihilated this Jewish, unique world but many of the monuments are being restored. The Jewish renewal in Poland is everywhere with cutting edge projects being done at The Galicia Jewish Museum.
I can close my eyes and feel the magic of when poets and writers in Krakow were treated like movie stars. There was a great artistic freedom that prevailed in Krakow. I feel the landscape of Jewish history being revealed here.
The main square in Krakow is Rynek Glowny but what I resonated with was the stalls at Plac Nowy in Kazimierz where there is a daily market from 5:30 am to early afternoon. I found it to be the spiritual center of Krakow sub-culture. There is not a great splendor like the Old Town and in fact, you’ll see chipped green market stalls and pigeons flapping about. What I love is the history. Plac Nowy began as far back as 1808 and for 200 years served as a market place with its central landmark, the Okraglak (rotunda) which was added in 1900. The locals line up outside the dozens of hole-in-the-wall fast food hatches that operate from the rotunda. This is where you can find the best zapiekanka – a halved baguette topped with mushrooms and cheese, vegetables and meat, in all of Poland.
I visited the Old Synagogue built in the 15th century, the oldest in all of Poland where I saw a bimah, an elevated platform with an iron balustrade used for readings from the Torah. The Nazis destroyed the interior of the synagogue, turning into a storage room and executed thirty Polish hostages in 1943. Restoration began in the 1950’s and it is now a museum of Jewish history, culture and tradition. I’ve read that the synagogues in Kazimierez were all used as storehouses, and not burnt down like the rest in Poland.
The Remu’h Synagogue is dedicated to the rabbi and philosopher Remu’h, who was reputed to be a miracle worker and is buried just outside the walls of the synagogue. Pious Jews make the pilgrim to visit his grave. Again, under Nazi occupation, both the synagogue and cemetery were destroyed but restored in the 1950’s and 60’s.
I ate at Ariel, the restaurant Steven Spielberg favored while he filmed Schindler’s List here. The exterior looked like a house from a fairy tale.
To go from the Jewish quarter to Podgorze, which became the Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust, is the Father Bernatek Footbridge. The bridge has become a “love lock” bridge where couples place a padlock on the bridge to show their everlasting love. Maybe the ones that aren’t so sure use the combination locks.
“We can be redeemed only to the extent to which we see ourselves.” – Martin Buber
Untethered, I wander through Poland, starting with Warsaw. I return home with the best souvenir, perspective.
Reality was too painful for me. Nine days after my father left his physical body, I booked a trip to see where he lived as a child, as a young man, after he survived the Holocaust in Poland. As a young girl, I escaped into books. As an adult, I escape to other worlds.Traveling has proven to be an antidote for sadness.
My friend Hanna picked me up at the Warsaw airport. Every act of unconditional love truly echoes in eternity of the heart and I will never forget the kindness she showed me.
I choose the Dom Literatury Hotel for two simple reasons:I was told the location was superb and they have a library. Relaxing with books, there is nothing better in my world. From my room, I could see the Warsaw Castle Square, Old Town and the Vistula River.
Here is the view from my hotel window. I loved to watch the light changing as day moved into night so I kept photographing it at different times of the day.
Walking through Old Town on my first evening was a magic night filled with a deep, dark, rich, blue sky. I love the variety of restaurants in the square where everyone walks. Some decorated with twinkling white lights, others with a mixture of colors.
In the morning, I walked a short distance and found this cafe with about twenty types of fresh bread to choose from. I fully understand now why my father always loved fresh bread for as long as I can recall. Everywhere I go in Poland, the bread is delicious. He was denied all but a morsel of bread when he was in the eight forced labor camps during the war. I remember how he would stop by Bea’s Bakery in Tarzana on Friday nights and he’d pick up a rye bread, sliced regular, with seeds. No thin slicing!
Then, eerily, just as in Israel multiple times, I heard the sound of sirens while everyone bowed their heads in silence. Volunteers were giving out paper daffodils – a symbol of remembrance for those who fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The campaign is organized jointly by the Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the Warsaw Rising Museum to commemorate the 70th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In 2013, we mark the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which began on April 19, 1943. This was the first urban uprising in Nazi-occupied Europe; which was a symbolic act, given the impossibility of its military success. I was moved to tears by the girls handing out the daffodils, by being in Warsaw during this remembrance day and thinking of my father.
It was an unequal fight with armed combatants from the Jewish Combat Organization and the Jewish Military League against the SS, Wehrmacht, the German Security Police and auxiliary units. This was when the Germans razed the Ghetto to the ground, burning down house after house. Rather than surrender to the Germans, a group of several dozen fighters committed suicide in the bunker at Mila 18 St. Another handful escaped as the Ghetto was burning, through the sewers.
I flashback to reading Mila 18 when I was a little girl in the two bedroom, one bath home I shared with my three brothers, sister, father and grandmother. In my roll-away bed, I’d hang a flashlight late at night in the book case of the living room where I slept, so I could read at all hours.
Daffodils are linked to the figure of Mark Edelman, the last commander of the Jewish Combat Organization. Every year, he would lay a bouquet of yellow flowers, often daffodils, at the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes.
As I left early in the morning to leave for The Hill of Crosses in Lithuania, I spotted fresh bread delivered to the hotel. Fresh bread always reminds me of my father.