By Dan Pine | April 25, 2003
These are not the vacant stares of Buchenwald’s walking dead. Nor are they the frightened faces of children dispatched on the Kindertransport. You won’t recognize in them the black-and-white images of death camp inmates mutely grasping at the gates of freedom.
Yet there they are. Portraits of men and women blessed with the portly comforts of time: material success, love, family, wisdom and, perhaps, more than a little defiance.
Since 1992, “The Legacy Project: Portraits and Personal Narratives of Holocaust Survivors” has fused image and narrative in an ongoing campaign to photograph Holocaust survivors and preserve their stories.
Portrait photographer Evvy Eisen, the originator of The Legacy Project, has devoted enormous personal and professional resources toward keeping it going. To date she has completed more than 150 portraits and narratives.
For those who have never had a chance to experience it up close, selections from The Legacy Project are on display in the Isaacs Gallery at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael.
The exhibit is sponsored by the Helen and Sanford Diller Supporting Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.
“What I’m trying to do,” says Eisen, “is present these individuals and tell their stories.” Over the years, she has gotten very close with many survivors, collected their histories in writing and captured both their strength and pain through her lens.
Each 11-by-14-inch black-and-white, silver gelatin print in the exhibit was photographed and developed by Eisen. The portraits, shot on location at each survivor’s home, were then combined with edited versions of personal narratives, and then framed.
In one noteworthy portrait, survivor John Steiner gazes confidently into the camera. His head topped with full shock of white hair, his face wide, smooth and kind. Steiner, a Sonoma State University professor, looks every bit the country squire, until one notices the numerals tattooed into his forearm.
In another, Frank and the late Hella Roubicek stand on the front porch of their Berkeley home, as if to greet a visitor. He places his hands gingerly on the shoulders of his wife. She clasps her own hands together, cocks her head and braves a smile; her eyes seemingly clouded by memories too horrible to imagine.
The entire collection is included in the permanent archives of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporaine in Paris.
And to think it all started with an eighth-grade homework assignment.
“My son was working on a report about the Holocaust,” recalls the Brooklyn-born Eisen, who lives in West Marin. “I volunteered to make four portraits of survivors. I had no idea this would turn into a big project.”
Eisen was given names of individuals by various city organizations and personal referral. Most survivors lived in the Bay Area, though some were French. Eisen has made several working trips to France over the course of the project.
“What made this significant was that I visit at length with each person several times,” Eisen said. “These contacts formed the basis of the relationship that makes the
portrait. Then I always give them the portrait in exchange for writing a bio.”
After she tallied about 25 portraits, Eisen approached various museums to see about donating her work to the archives.
In addition to the Helen and Sanford Diller Supporting Foundation of the Jewish Community Endowment, the Legacy Project also received funding from Northern Trust, Lotte Stein, Steven D. Copple, Ilford Imaging and individual donors.
With this funding, Eisen has been able to showcase The Legacy Project throughout the Bay Area over the years, with exhibits at colleges, as well as smaller scale outreach projects in high schools and middle schools.
Exposing young people to the facts of the Holocaust is a prime goal for Eisen. “When I see the people reading the bios, looking at photos, I see they’re learning something,” she says. “In many cases, especially with students, these are experiences they know nothing about.”
There’s no journalistic objectivity for Eisen. Over the years, she has grown close to many of the survivors and has taken the project to heart.
“I don’t just take their picture and disappear,” she says. “This has put me in contact with extraordinary individuals, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount about humanity.”
Adds Eisen: “One man, Frank Roubicek, summed it up: Surviving wasn’t a matter of luck, it was a miracle.”