Moving Images and Stories From the Last Holocaust Survivors

Behold
The Photo Blog
June 27 2013 2:00 PM

The Last Holocaust Survivors

Baron Paul Halter, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor. wall. The Soviet troops told me to walk towards Cracow. Along the way, I was satisfied the most when I saw Germans hanging from the trees. They were swinging almost from every branch. Do you want to know why I survived? I was sustained by the thought that I would see the collapse of the Nazi Germany; that I would see it brought to ruin.
Baron Paul Halter, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor. "The Soviet troops told me to walk towards Krakow. Along the way, I was satisfied the most when I saw Germans hanging from the trees. They were swinging almost from every branch. Do you want to know why I survived? I was sustained by the thought that I would see the collapse of the Nazi Germany; that I would see it brought to ruin."

Maciek Nabrdalik/VII

In 2009, concerned that he was living with the last generation of Holocaust survivors, photographer Maciek Nabrdalik began meeting, interviewing and taking portraits of survivors for a series titled “The Irreversible”.

Nabrdalik felt a need to act quickly, noting that some survivors passed away after he made contact with them including the last known gay survivor Gad Beck. He said other survivors felt that while they had moved on with their lives and their recollections were not as vivid as they once were, they could never completely escape the nightmares of the past. That sentiment became the title of the project because “…it is difficult to escape something that lies so deep and returns uninvited in dreams, fears and associations. This, they say, is irreversible.”

Nabrdalik, along with his wife Agnieszka who conducted the interviews, will publish a book, also titled The Irreversible in early July.

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“We wanted to show how profound the experience of the camp is for those who survived it and how it affects their relationships, perceptions, psyche, viewpoint, and day-to-day functioning,” Nabrdalik wrote via email. “We want every person who holds this book to find in it the question that they themselves would perhaps want to ask of a death camp survivor.”

Zofia Posmysz, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau and KL Ravensbruck survivor. The trains would pull in, people would walk out distrustful and terrified. I saw them waiting in line to enter the bath house. They would wait and wait, then go in, and...disappear.
Zofia Posmysz, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau and KL Ravensbruck survivor. "The trains would pull in, people would walk out distrustful and terrified. I saw them waiting in line to enter the bath house. They would wait and wait, then go in, and...disappear."

Maciek Nabrdalik/VII

Jerzy Ulatowski, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor. “Very well, then,” I said. “One day I noticed a plant you could eat growing close to the barrack. I picked it up and I ate it, and later I found out that this plant grew so tall and pretty because in this very spot the ashes of burnt Jews had been scattered.”
Jerzy Ulatowski, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau survivor. “One day I noticed a plant you could eat growing close to the barrack. I picked it up and I ate it, and later I found out that this plant grew so tall and pretty because in this very spot the ashes of burnt Jews had been scattered.”

Maciek Nabrdalik/VII

Irena Ekert, KL Ravensbruck survivor. Ukrainian troops picked the prettiest girls out of the crowd and raped them. My mother had told me to make the ugliest face, frown, and pretend I was handicapped. It worked for me, but my friend didn’t receive such smart advice.
Irena Ekert, KL Ravensbruck survivor. "Ukrainian troops picked the prettiest girls out of the crowd and raped them. My mother had told me to make the ugliest face, frown, and pretend I was handicapped. It worked for me, but my friend didn’t receive such smart advice."

Maciek Nabrdalik/VII

Maciek and Agnieszka traveled around the world in order to meet survivors, visiting them in their homes, offices and even at camp sites. Tracking down survivors proved to be complicated as many organizations Nabrdalik contacted felt similar projects had already been done and weren’t willing to cooperate.

“We knew that most of the survivors had already been interviewed by institutions which diligently recorded their accounts, but they (survivors) were at a different stage of their lives now,” he wrote.

The portraits are in black-and-white highlighting only the faces of the survivors, something Nabrdalik felt was important.

“I am rarely interested in photographs that show how people or places look. My ambition is to visualize how they feel or how it feels to be somewhere, depending on the story.”

“We realized that what mattered to us more than detailed accounts from the camps were the survivors’ reflections, feelings and understanding of what happened to them.”

Tadeusz Sobolewicz, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, KL Buchenwald, KL Flossenburg and KL Regensburg survivor. Boys were boiling a piece of meat. I didn’t like it, but I did swallow a piece. They told me later where they had found it. It was a piece of a dead body. They cut out a piece from the buttocks.
Tadeusz Sobolewicz, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, KL Buchenwald, KL Flossenburg and KL Regensburg survivor. "Boys were boiling a piece of meat. I didn’t like it, but I did swallow a piece. They told me later where they had found it. It was a piece of a dead body. They cut out a piece from the buttocks."

Maciek Nabrdalik/VII

Sabina Nawara, KL Auschwitz, KL Ravensbruck and KL Buchenwald survivor. We worked by the fish ponds. When my friend refused to get into the water, our supervisor pushed her to the ground, put the spade on her neck, stepped on it, and strangled her.
Sabina Nawara, KL Auschwitz, KL Ravensbruck and KL Buchenwald survivor. "We worked by the fish ponds. When my friend refused to get into the water, our supervisor pushed her to the ground, put the spade on her neck, stepped on it, and strangled her."

Maciek Nabrdalik/VII

Although he was initially anxious to learn of the survivors’ reactions to the portraits, Nabrdalik wrote that many survivors expressed that the photographs were a glimpse into their past.

“When I showed them to one women she said, ‘These are not our present portraits. You managed to take use back to the camp times. It’s exactly how it was.’”

In total Nabrdalik documented 45 survivors from a number of different nationalities. The book isn’t organized in any particular order and doesn’t even contain page numbers.

“We realized they had already suffered from such divisions and categorizations,” Nabrdalik explained. “You also won’t find detailed life stories, archival photos in striped camp uniforms, or before and after the camp features.”

Nabrdalik expressed that although he has completed the book, the project for him may never feel finished.

“I can’t announce that the project is finished. For me it will never end. We still feel the need to meet those who survived. … Fortunately, we have met people who believe that this topic can never be considered exhausted and that no amount of conversations and meetings with former prisoners it too many.”

Jakob Rotenbach, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau and KL Mauthausen-Gusen survivor. Nowadays, I will speak when someone asks questions, but I myself won’t start the conversation because I can see that the world has not learned a thing; nothing has changed. People are cruel. And if a new Hitler showed up, the same thing wouldhappen all over again.
Jakob Rotenbach, KL Auschwitz-Birkenau and KL Mauthausen-Gusen survivor. "Nowadays, I will speak when someone asks questions, but I myself won’t start the conversation because I can see that the world has not learned a thing; nothing has changed. People are cruel. And if a new Hitler showed up, the same thing would happen all over again."

Maciek Nabrdalik/VII

Danuta Bogdaniuk, KL Auschwitz - Birkenau and KL Ravensbruck survivor. After he smeared something all over my head, only bare skin was left and all my hair fell out. I started crying because I thought that it wouldn’t grow again. But it grew and my hair has been exceptionally pretty ever since. And it’s not dyed. I have never dyed my hair and I’m 75 years
Danuta Bogdaniuk, KL Auschwitz - Birkenau and KL Ravensbruck survivor. "After he smeared something all over my head, only bare skin was left and all my hair fell out. I started crying because I thought that it wouldn’t grow again. But it grew and my hair has been exceptionally pretty ever since. And it’s not dyed. I have never dyed my hair and I’m 75 years."

Maciek Nabrdalik/VII

David Rosenberg is the editor of Slate’s Behold blog. He has worked as a photo editor for 15 years and is a tennis junkie. Follow him on Twitter.

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