Auschwitz album: Snapshots of lives lived well

A moving collection shows treasured photos that survived those sent to the death camp.

Ideas: History

April 08, 2001|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

In the photo, the young bride radiates joy. She wears a classic white dress, a chic white bridal cap and white half-veil. Her new husband hovers behind her, smiling broadly. She raises a glass of wine in the traditional Hebrew wedding toast, l'chaim.

L'chaim! To life!

The irony echoes down through the years.

The bride in the photo was married in Tel Aviv, Israel, in 1937. The parents in Poland to whom she sent the photo vanished in the Holocaust, victims of the Auschwitz death camp.

"It's very powerful. She looks so happy," says Ann Weiss, who discovered the picture at Auschwitz in a cache of more than 2,400 photos. She has now assembled about 400 in a new book she calls "The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau."

Among many other things, "The Last Album" is in large part her personal refusal to allow a final victory to the inventors of the final solution.

"This is an album that captures life," she says. "Even though what we think of when we think of Jews in the Holocaust is, understandably, death. ... To me it was very, very important that the final punctuation be on how they lived, not how they died."

The photos that grace the book, Weiss says, are "the photos people grabbed as they were being deported from their homes, photos that reminded them of times they wanted to remember and people they loved and moments that were very treasured."

The photos depict a richly lived daily life forever lost except in memory, ground out like a last cigarette under a jackboot heel. Her book restores humanity to the people the Nazis tried to dehumanize. Weiss has found real, living people in the vast statistics of the Holocaust, in the anonymous boneyards of the death camps.

There are snapshots of couples courting, children playing and families picnicking. Formal wedding portraits, class photos from school and student trips. Babies in the perambulators of the 1930s and enclosed in the arms of their mothers or enfolded protectively by their fathers. Young men and women skiing and swimming, bearded religious leaders strolling at a spa, Jewish soldiers in the Polish army, Zionist youths singing, dancing, exercising and marching ...

Pictures swarming with life.

But Weiss recalls the question asked by Robert Swartz, the Philadelphia photographer who printed her negatives.

"He did it with pain, photo by photo," she says. "He would say the exact same thing every time I came to pick them up: 'Are they really dead?' He would ask me: 'Are they really dead?' "

Behind a locked door

Weiss is a free-lance journalist who had earned her place with her independent and humane investigative reporting about Operation Moses, the 1984 airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israeli. She first came upon the Auschwitz pictures in 1986 while on a trip to Eastern Europe with Jewish community leaders. "Everybody was pretty prominent," she says, "except for me."

At Auschwitz-Birkenau, she says in her book, "a need for solitude compelled me to leave the group. There I felt the presence of those I never knew and experienced a profound need for silence."

After a long while in the silence of the death camp, she ran back as her group gathered for their bus. A guide said, "Maybe you'd like to see what's in this room?" and unlocked a door.

The photographs were in the room, 2,400 of them, pasted into large ledger books like some rogue's gallery of the lost. When Soviet soldiers liberated the camp in January 1945, someone among the sick and dying told them of the photos. For about a year and half, they had been hidden by members of the Jewish Resistance in the camp. They were apparently turned over to a Russian soldier, who returned them in the late 1950s after the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum was organized.

"When I saw them, I couldn't get them out of my mind," Weiss says.

"A beautiful child with adult eyes" immediately captured her heart. He was impeccably dressed for his first day in school. He carried a schultute, a paper cone filled with candy "to link the sweetness of learning with the sweetness of candy."

He's in the book, his name unknown.

Weiss is herself the daughter of two survivors from Poland, Leo and Lunia Weiss. The dedication of her book is a genealogy of personal loss.

"My mother's entire nuclear family was killed," she says. "Much of my mother's family was taken to the pits and shot." Lunia Weiss narrowly escaped when she plunged into a pit just as she was about to be shot. Bodies fell on her in a terrible avalanche of death.

"My family has no tombstone," she said in enjoining her daughters to observe yahrzeit, the memorial dates of her family. "I am their tombstone."

'There's nothing left here'

A slim woman with dark hair and compassionate eyes, Ann Weiss was born in Modena, Italy. After the war, her father had persuaded her mother to leave the town of her parents and grandparents, Stryj, Poland, now in Ukraine. "There's nothing left here," he had told her. Twelve thousand Jews lived in Stryj before World War II. One was found living there last September.

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