Talking With God at AuschwitzA new exhibition marking the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the former death camp examines how faith helped sustain people during the Holocaust
Henri Lustiger Thaler has long been fascinated by the role of religious faith in the Holocaust. As chief curator of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, New York, a museum dedicated to the Orthodox perspective on the Holocaust, Lustiger Thaler has interviewed hundreds of survivors who embraced belief during and after the Holocaust. He has long wanted to tell those stories on a large scale, and now he has.
“Through the Lens of Faith” opened this past July at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim, Poland, in anticipation of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the camp in January 2020. Featuring the testaments and photographic portraits of 18 Jews, 2 Polish Catholics and 1 Sinti Free Christian, the outdoor exhibition is composed of a series of stanchion-like display panels that tell the stories of these 21 survivors and examine the role that belief played in their survival. Lustiger Thaler chose Auschwitz, whose name is synonymous with the brutality of the Nazis, as the focus and location of the exhibition with intention. At Auschwitz “everything pointed toward death,” he says. “Nothing pointed toward life…The intent of the exhibition was to understand the meanings associated with faith and the phenomenon of resiliency in states of extreme assault. The intersection of faith and hope was the very core of the exhibit.”
Lustiger Thaler enlisted the help of photographer Caryl Englander, chair of the board of the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, to take the survivors’ portraits. “I was convinced,” says Englander, who is from a religious background herself, “that there was an as-yet-untold Holocaust narrative here—the tale of those who against all odds maintained the wonder and joy of their religious beliefs.” She and Lustiger Thaler journeyed to five countries to record and photograph the 21 survivors of Auschwitz chosen for the exhibition. They then asked renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, designer of the Jewish Museum in Berlin and the master plan for the rebuilding of the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan, to come up with a way to bring the stories and images to life in a coherent exhibition.
Libeskind, who was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1946 and emigrated with his family to the United States as a teenager, is known today for the evocation of cultural memory in his projects. In this exhibition, he aimed to give a human scale to the display and to exhibit the photographs and stories in a dignified fashion. “The challenge,” he says, “was how to present something that has forward momentum, that isn’t just about the irretrievable losses, which are really unfathomable, and how to depict a story of continuity out of this disaster—through faith, through luck, through survival.” He wanted the installation to turn the viewer toward a different direction or horizon, to involve them in a different space, “a different luminosity, a different intensity of life.”
The reflectivity of the materials, the qualities of the metal and glass, compose a certain ineffable ambience.
Located just outside the main entrance of the museum, on a swath of grass beneath overarching trees and not far from the Arbeit macht frei arch, the exhibition is made up of 21 three-meter-tall vertical steel panels that line both sides of a constructed walkway. The installation forms a tunnel-like embrace that draws visitors forward. Etched into a hinged, dark-glass panel, or “window,” on the front surface of each case are 200 words, excerpted from the video interviews with each survivor, that capture a piece of their story and reference the role their religious faith played during and after their imprisonment. The entire exhibition is modular, so it can be disassembled and then reassembled at possible future venues. “It’s sort of like a large Lego set,” says Lustiger Thaler. “The structure is lifted above the ground, nothing penetrates the earth.”
The repetitive pattern of the panels—which stand like witnesses to or representatives of those who perished—recalls the stripes of a prisoner’s uniform, suggesting internment, while the exterior mirrored surfaces of the panels reflect the surrounding landscape and evoke a sense of physical and spiritual freedom. “The reflectivity of the materials,” says Libeskind, “the different qualities of the metal and glass, compose a certain ineffable ambience.”
Englander’s photographs of the survivors are printed on metal at the rear of each panel and stand alone, seemingly suspended in air. “To access them,” explains Libeskind, “one has first to look through the hinged glass panel on which the survivor’s story is etched, as if through a glass darkly.” To look at the photographs more closely, one must open the glass panel. “You’re involved somehow in an activity,” he says, “with your hand, your body moving, your presence there in those actions. It’s really the key to the project.”
These portraits and their stories are witness both to the genocide, but also to the power of the human spirit.
Libeskind, Englander and Lustiger Thaler were on hand for the exhibition’s opening ceremonies last July. The three, who all lost family members in the Holocaust, spent time walking through the installation and observing how others were responding. “It was the participatory aspect that really moved me,” says Libeskind after watching people interact with the exhibition. “How people were able to embrace it and understand something that they would have never known without this particular, very site-specific piece. These portraits and their stories are witness both to the genocide, but also to the power of the human spirit.”
During a tour of the camp before the opening ceremonies, Avraham Zelcer, one of the two survivors able to attend the ceremony, was carried in his wheelchair by family members so that he could revisit the site of his incarceration. “It took me a year after liberation,” he said in his interview, “to return to my faith.”
Lustiger Thaler believes that the exhibition exceeded his goal. “The interchange between the portraiture and the text and also the interchange with the site—and, in essence, the interaction of the holy with the unholy—it worked,” he says. “It speaks about freedom—freedom, resilience and hope emerging from a life-negating place.”
Esther Peterseil, age 94, born in Poland: “I was 15 years old. I prayed to God in the selection line to keep my parents alive. I believed I could not survive without them…I ran quickly to be with my mother. She pushed me back firmly. Her last words were: ‘Take care of your sister so she will survive. Marry a religious man. God will save you and you will tell the world what happened to us.’”
Ernest Gelb, age 92, born in Czechoslovakia: “I was 17 years old. I remember our daily marches to work every day in Auschwitz. Invariably there was someone who knew the morning davening (praying) by heart…On Rosh Hashanah, as on all days, we were forbidden to pray. But we did it on the marches. Commiserating with other Jews through prayer was important for me.”
Avraham Zelcer, age 91, born in Czechoslovakia: “I was 16 years old. The train stopped in Auschwitz on the morning of Shavuos. We thanked God we arrived. The horrors of our transport from Czechoslovakia were beyond words. So many people suffered and died. We didn’t know what was waiting for us…The only way out of Auschwitz was through the chimney…It took me a year after liberation to return to my faith.”
Sara Kestenbaum, age 89, born in Romania: “I was 13 years old, a protected child from a religious home. When the train doors opened in Auschwitz, we saw German soldiers with bayonets…We were marched to Barrack 14. I was so scared. I saw a young girl die from fright that day. I would have private conversations with God. I would cry. I would tell God that I was suffering. I never questioned. For me, faith was hope.”
Yitzchok Baruch Schacter, age 96, born in Poland: “I was 17 years old. We were taken to Buna, Monowitz, a working sub-camp of Auschwitz. My brother became ill and was sent to the notorious camp hospital…At night in the barracks, we were 8 people in one bed. When one moved, everyone had to move in the same direction to keep covered. Like this we davened (prayed). No Siddur. Nothing. In the cold.”