Eyes from the Ashes
BOOKS ARE USUALLY WRITTEN BY THE LIVING. This book is different. Its principal voice comes from the dead. But they are not dead … yet.
No ordinary photographs, these are the personal photos brought by Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkernau. Clutched as their owners were forced out of cities, towns, villages, these photos do not depict the familiar nightmare images of violence and death commonly associated with Hitler’s Europe . Instead they resonate with life. In these intimate photos, we witness life as it was supposed to be, life before the horror began. And we find ourselves immersed in the details, the moments both exceptional and ordinary-sometimes spontaneous, sometimes staged. The images depict quotidian events in everyday lives, but these lives cease to be commonplace when viewed in historical context.
While many of the people on these pages never knew each other, they have become linked, not because of the way they lived, but because of the way they died. Images ordinary and extraordinary coexist, side by side. The mundane becomes exceptional, because of what these photos are: the last vestige of a murdered people. But the ordinary is also ordinary, reassuringly so, because of what these photos have been, and still remain: innocent moments captured in innocent times.
In most histories, we know the names, the places, the dates, in short, the facts of an event. In this history, through a lexicon of personal photographs, often we know none of these common elements because there is no one left in the world to tell us. Instead we read history in a pair of eyes.
We see people at play, at work, at school, on vacation, in settings both familiar and remote, at a time before they were targeted for extinction. Most importantly, we see them, not in the dehumanized state that the Nazis would have us remember them but alive and vibrant, exactly the way they wanted to remember themselves.
By looking at these sacred last photos carried into the bowels of Auschwitz-Birkenau, we see the most intimate view of who these people were, who they loved, and what mattered most to them. These are the very photos they chose for their own remembering.
The Photographs: Background and History
These photographs are part of a rare collection of approximately 2,400 photos found in 1945 after the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. We know of no other such collection that exists. Personal photographs were deliberately destroyed during the war when their owners were brought to Nazi labor and death camps. And yet, somehow, this one collection survives.
By war’s end, two-thirds of Europe’s Jews were dead. In countries like Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, the proportions were even higher, with nine out of every ten Jews murdered. The photographs that accompanied the victims on their journey to death became their last tangible vestige of home, especially when they were separated from everyone they knew. As one survivor, speaking for many, commented on the photos: “The Nazis treated us like animals, not even animals, like sub-human beings. The pictures reminded us we were still human and that somebody loved us, once upon a time.”
From the moment I first saw these photos, I have been haunted by them, inspired by them, shattered by them, and humbled by them.
To each face, each pair of eyes, I asked a silent question, as I probed each image for an answer, “Did you survive?” Then I searched, and I hoped. Too often, the question was answered with a silence more deafening than any human cry.
Survivors have shared both the best that they have experienced and the worst that they have endured-their memories, their secrets, their dreams, and their nightmares. At times, what they could not bear to tell their own children, they have told me, as I became surrogate child or lost friend. As their listener, I consider it both a grave responsibility and a sacred honor to be worthy of their trust and of their memories. I am a shaliach, an emissary, a messenger for the photos-no more, no less.
As I continued to search each photo, eventually I began to ask a new question. Survivors have always told me how their loved ones died. To each photo, I now ask my question, “But how did you live?” Even when no survivors remain to tell the story, the photos themselves yield their own powerful answers.
The final word belongs to the victims, expressed through their photographs in this, their last album. And rather than allowing death to have the last word, I have chosen to put the final punctuation on life… as, I believe, they would have wanted.
*Suitcases confiscated from Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many photos were found in such suitcases.