Dozens of community members packed into the Student Life Center on Feb. 10 for a rare event hosted by the Center for Holocaust, Human Rights and Genocide Education (Chhange) at Brookdale. In commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz, Chhange hosted an interactive presentation by author and researcher Ann Weiss.
Weiss, the daughter of two holocaust survivors, presented some of the 2,400 personal photos she unexpectedly discovered during a trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in 1986.
The photos, featured in her book “The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau,” were confiscated from holocaust victims transported to the camp in 1943. Historians believe it may be the only collection of such photos to survive the war.
Addressing the crowd, Chhange Executive Director Dale Daniels said the photos are an extremely rare and extremely important window into the lives of holocaust victims.
“On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I did not want to focus once again on the perpetrators,” Daniels said. “Tonight I thought it would be wonderful opportunity to look at what was left behind by those Jewish deportees who came to Auschwitz: what they brought with them, and what they valued most. And Ann does it in a way that no one else does.”
Weiss described how she came upon the cache of photos during a guided tour of the camp in 1986. Confronted with piles of confiscated jewelry, personal artifacts and a room filled floor to ceiling with 30,000 pairs of holocaust victims’ shoes, Weiss said she felt an almost spiritual connection to the souls of those who never made it out of the camp.
After standing in silent contemplation for a period of time, she noticed that she had become separated from the group.
Weiss was frantically searching for her companions – for “any living soul” – at the camp when she encountered a tour guide, who invited her into a locked building. Inside, the guide unlocked a cabinet to show Weiss a collection of thousands of personal photos which had somehow survived the war.
“There was a secret Nazi edict that all personal photos had to be destroyed,” Weiss said, adding that there was a separate crematorium at Auschwitz solely dedicated to burning photos.
“So millions of photos carried by millions of people were destroyed. That’s why what I’m showing you tonight is a bit of a miracle. Because, one time, the photos from one transport were hidden and saved.”
Over time, Weiss was able to negotiate with the Polish government for the right to collect and publish the photos. She then spent years networking with friends and holocaust survivors to identify as many of the images as possible, and tell those victims’ stories in book-form
All told, Weiss has managed to identify more than 700 of the holocaust victims pictured in the photos. She presented a selection of those images to the assembled crowd on Feb. 10, including prewar photos of people like Rozka Monka, a popular, brave young woman from Bendin, Poland, and Artur Huppert, a devoted father from Olmutz, Czechoslovakia.
Weiss also described some of the survivors she encountered as she was researching the book, including an Auschwitz survivor from Queens who searched the collection and found a picture of herself, her best friend and a blurry image of a young boy. Seeing the photo, she screamed, Weiss said.
“‘My little brother was so annoying,'” the woman told Weiss. “‘He kept running in and ruining every picture. We were so angry at him. However, this little blur is the only proof that I ever had a little brother.'”
Those stories, those memories, highlight the need to remember the atrocities of the holocaust for many years to come, Weiss said. Recalling the words of the Auschwitz prisoner who fought to hide and preserve the photos in the first place, Weiss said these stories are all we have left to offer the victims.
“If we can’t save the people, let us at least try to save their memories,” she said.
More information about Chhange, including a list of upcoming events, is available here.
Find out more about Ann Weiss and “The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau” here.
More photos from the Feb. 10 event are available here.