New portrait assortment showcases 90 Holocaust survivors who lived lengthy, full lives

JTA — Werner Reich had his opening line prepared when he sat down for B.A. Van Sise to take his portrait.

“Earlier than I might say something, he mentioned, ‘All people involves me and so they need me to speak concerning the Holocaust. What am I presupposed to say? I went to Auschwitz. It was awful,’” Van Sise mentioned, recalling that Reich’s remark felt like a joke, not a lament.

However as an alternative of dwelling on the horrors of the Nazi focus camp, the 2 males spoke about magic, a refuge for Reich as a Jewish teenager making an attempt to outlive. The ensuing portrait reveals a person in his 90s sporting retro glasses, a cloud of smoke floating just a few inches above his open palm, in an image vibrating with life and with enchantment.

Van Sise’s portrait of Reich is the primary in “Invited to Life: Discovering Hope After the Holocaust,” his new portrait assortment of 90 Holocaust survivors. The accompanying textual content acknowledges Reich’s expertise at Auschwitz, nevertheless it focuses extra on Reich’s life after the battle and his lengthy profession in magic — hanging a steadiness that Van Sise says is core to his undertaking.

“This isn’t one thing that individuals are inclined to speak about as a result of it’s not at all times bombastic. It’s not the half that you simply promote film tickets to,” Van Sise mentioned. “You can also make, and folks have, 100 motion pictures about Jewish individuals being imprisoned, tortured, and enslaved. Why doesn’t anyone speak about them thriving afterwards?”

Get The Instances of Israel’s Every day Version by e mail and by no means miss our high tales E-newsletter e mail handle Get it By signing up, you conform to the phrases

Van Sise is much from the primary photographer to seize the faces of survivors within the a long time following the top of World Struggle II. Famed portrait photographers Martin Schoeller and Mark Seliger, each recognized for his or her iconic celeb portraiture — Schoeller for his uniform, stylized close-ups and Seliger as {a magazine} photographer who additionally lately photographed Jerry Seinfeld in a trend shoot — have additionally set their cameras in entrance of Holocaust survivors. Numerous different photographers have performed the identical. However what Van Sise says is usually lacking from survivor pictures is a give attention to the postwar lives, lots of them joyous, that the themes have skilled during the last 70-plus years.

“I believe that one particular person may see these people and see victims,” Van Sise mentioned. “And I see them as survivors.”

“Invited to Life” was impressed by a 2015 photograph project Van Sise took on for the Village Voice. Motivated by the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric of then-candidate for US president Donald Trump, he realized {that a} significantly cohesive cohort of refugees to come back to america had arrived greater than 75 years in the past, on the finish of WWII, and a photographic retrospective on their lives in America may very well be a worthwhile undertaking. He reached out to the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York to be put in contact with a dozen survivors for the story. He ended up taking greater than 30 portraits. When the choice newsweekly ceased publication in 2017 (it was revived in 2021) earlier than he might publish the pictures, the museum invited Van Sise to show the portraits right into a solo exhibition, in what turned the museum’s first-ever public artwork set up.


Then the pandemic arrived, and like many photographers whose on a regular basis work required journey, Van Sise was out of a job.

“It had by no means been a marquee undertaking for me,” mentioned Van Sise, who’s Jewish however has no familial connection to the Holocaust. “I saved coming again and occupied with them, and about the truth that these individuals had been by the worst there ever was, the worst that ever has been, the worst there ever may even be.”

Van Sise spent the higher a part of 2020 driving round america, getting COVID swabs each three days so he might safely {photograph} 140 aged survivors, 90 of whom ended up within the e-book. (He was insistent together with his writer that the ultimate variety of portraits within the e-book be a a number of of 18, the Jewish numerical image for “life.”)

The pictures are all in black and white, however past that, they’re as numerous as Van Sise’s topics. Some incorporate backgrounds, some are solo portraits; some are severe, some are foolish; some embrace youngsters, grandchildren, husbands, wives, props; some are in profile, and a few are shot straight on. The themes are Nobel Prize-winning chemists and homemakers; pilots and psychologists; haberdashers and academics; famed rabbis and partisans-turned-conmen.

All of them, Van Sise says, have been photographed with a way of generosity.

“An individual who desires to be essential of me — which is honest — may say that I’m overly charitable,” Van Sise says of his personal work, acknowledging that no photographer can keep away from bias fully whereas behind the digicam. (It didn’t assist that most of the survivors he photographed have been desirous to feed him cookies, as he often recollects.)


Within the almost three years since Van Sise started photographing the themes of his e-book, the truth of working with greater than 100 aged individuals set in. A number of of the survivors, together with Holocaust educator René Slotkin, Budapest-born authorized secretary Kathy Griesz and Reich died earlier than they acquired the prospect to carry a replica of the e-book of their fingers, a lot to Van Sise’s dismay.

“As a author, you carry them with you,” he mentioned. “So for me, there have been just a few the place I acquired fairly rattled.”

The pictures replicate acknowledgment by all concerned that the survivors within the photos are all nearing the ends of their lives. Lots of his topics selected to incorporate their youngsters, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of their portraits, and the photographer was intentional in closing the e-book with a portrait of Irving Roth, a longtime Holocaust educator, together with his 3-year-old great-granddaughter Addie sitting on his lap. Within the textual content, Roth remarks on the origins of his Hebrew identify, Shmuel Meir, which got here from his great-grandfather and imagines what life might be like for Addie when she turns 103, and what she’s going to bear in mind of him.

Roth died in February 2021 at age 91.

“These tales don’t finish in 1945,” Van Sise mentioned. “These individuals have lived for, now, 77 years since and have performed a lot with that point. And that’s price exploring, as a result of that’s the half they’ve management over.”

Reflecting on completely different kinds of Holocaust survivor portraiture at a dialogue on the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the unique residence of Van Sise’s portraits, German photographer Martin Schoeller remarked on his personal choice for photographs of older faces.

“They’ve extra life in them. You see the wrinkles and you are feeling that there’s extra to find within the face, in an previous face. So that they nearly really feel like they’re telling the story of the struggling of the Holocaust extra visually, as a result of they’re older faces,” Schoeller mentioned.

“However then, it’s been 75 years for the reason that finish of the battle,” he added. “So these individuals have lived 75 years; so to say, ‘Now I see the horror on this previous man’s face’ feels just a little bit — I don’t know if that’s actually true. I depart it as much as the individuals trying on the photos.”