A French survivor becomes a legendary photojournalist

“The one thing that is very clear in my mind is that day in 1942, when the French police knocked on our door to come and take us,” Henri Dauman, 83, said, moments after taking his seat at a Beverly Hills café. The French-born Holocaust survivor paused to order a decaf cappuccino and make an approving comment on Badoit, the French sparkling water offered by the restaurant. “That’s a very good French water — the best,” he said. He wouldn’t compliment France again.

Seated across from Dauman was his granddaughter, Nicole Suerez, and her boyfriend, Peter Jones, who were trailing him to log every crumb of his story for the documentary they hope to make about his life. Suerez, 23, had never heard her grandfather’s Holocaust story until she discovered his testimony by accident during a Birthright visit to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Growing up, she had known him only as a prolific photojournalist, a hard-working immigrant whose lens captured some of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, including Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Jackie Kennedy. By now, Suerez knew Dauman’s story well, sometimes finishing her grandfather’s sentences as he recounted that vivid day in 1942. 

Mostly, he remembers the pounding. Dauman was 9 when the French police tried to break into the Paris apartment where he and his mother lived, the door of which she had dead-bolted twice over in the days following her husband’s arrest. This act may have saved them, but the images of visiting his father at the Pithiviers internment camp in north central France flashed before Dauman’s eyes as the banging became louder. “My mother implored my father to escape,” Dauman recalled of their visit. “The French police were not that disciplined. But my father said, ‘No, they’re going to release us.’ ” Dauman lowered his eyes. “At that time in Europe, people had their heads in the sand.” 

Dauman would never again see his father, who perished in a concentration camp, though Dauman wouldn’t discover that he’d died at Auschwitz until the 1980s. That day in the apartment, trapped and terror-stricken, they listened as a neighbor offered the police an ax with which to bash in their door. 

Dauman still finds humor in the fact that the police quit their pursuit because they were, after all, French, and it was lunchtime. “Lunch is sacred,” he said wryly. It was also the perfect moment for Dauman and his mother to escape.

They fled to the French countryside, where they would remain, albeit separately, for the next couple of years. Dauman lived with a family and attended school. Careful not to arouse suspicion, he saw his mother only once before the Allied invasion. When they finally reunited and returned to their Paris apartment after the war, Dauman’s mother fell ill. She purchased a remedy from the local pharmacy, but the medicine had been contaminated on the black market, probably with rat poison, and promptly killed her. Dauman returned from school one day to find an ambulance outside their apartment. “I just knew it was my mother,” he said. At the hospital, “I kissed her and she was cold.” 

At 13, Dauman had survived the Holocaust but was left an orphan. An aunt placed him in what he described as a “Zionist orphanage” near Versailles, run by a Conservative Jewish organization whose goal it was to encourage aliyah to Israel. Dauman was very unhappy there; he knew almost nothing about Judaism, having grown up at a time when “you couldn’t talk about being a Jew or you’d lose your life.” 

He soon became a ward of the state and was transferred to another children’s home in a suburb of Paris. His fate changed dramatically when, as a young teen, he helped organize a fundraising gala for the home at a local cinema. He became addicted to movies and soon picked up a camera, finding work processing film at a local photo shop. “I loved film,” Dauman recalled. “When I was young and alone, film took me to another world. It took me out of my misery. I looked at these American pictures and dreamed about [America]. I thought, ‘My God, what a place this must be!’ Film created a world I could not imagine; it was an escape.”

Eventually, he earned enough money to rent his own room in the Saint Paul neighborhood and began assisting two professional photographers — one in fashion, one in journalism — before purchasing his own camera. “I saw that my eyes could be used to gain my independence,” Dauman said. “I used my eyes to defend myself from all the things that had come to stop me.”

An uncle who had immigrated to the United States before the war reached out to him to ask if he wanted to come to America. Dauman was 17 when he arrived in New York on Dec. 14, 1950. “I couldn’t wait to get to Manhattan,” he said.

With one solid skill to rely on, he began photographing his way into a new life. “I would read the newspaper [in the morning] and go to shoot what [news] I saw was forthcoming,” he said. “I would make three or four sets of prints in my darkroom at night and send [them] to major publications in France, Italy, Germany and England. I became a one-man agency; I worked 24 hours a day.”

He eventually landed a lucrative contract with Life magazine and made a name for himself photographing the world’s biggest stars — Brigitte Bardot, Marlene Dietrich, Jane Fonda, Federico Fellini, Jean Renoir, Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, to name a few. At President John F. Kennedy’s funeral, he snapped a photo of the mourning Jacqueline Kennedy, which Andy Warhol later appropriated for a famous silkscreen and other works, though without attribution. (Dauman and Time Inc. sued the Warhol estate, and the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.) 

Italian film director Federico Fellini

Film star Marilyn Monroe and her husband, playwright Arthur Miller

Dauman estimates he has amassed more than 1 million prints over his 60-year-career. “It turns out that I photographed … 

“The cultural landscape of America,” Suerez interjected. 

But until 2014, when he exhibited his work at a Paris gallery for the first time, Dauman had never thought of himself as an artist. “I was just realizing my dream,” he said. Still, he described the experience of showing his work to the public and observing their reception as “a window opening.” 

“I saw so many people reacting to the work emotionally,” he said. “People know my pictures, but they don’t know the man behind the camera.”

That may change, if Suerez gets her way. 

“She’s making me ‘Cary Grant the Second,’ ” Dauman joked of his potential film debut.

Jones will direct the documentary. “Don’t encourage him,” he said.

Distribution likely won’t be a problem, since Dauman’s son, Philippe, is president, CEO and chairman at Viacom, heir apparent to the media empire long helmed by Sumner Redstone. Henri Dauman also has a daughter, Suerez’s mother, and another son from a second marriage.

Of his six grandchildren, some are rediscovering their Jewish roots. A week before we met, Dauman had visited Arizona for his grandson Eric’s bar mitzvah. “When I handed him the tallit, I told him, what a privilege it is to give you this tallit, which I didn’t have the privilege to know anything about when I was your age. I could not afford to know what my background was. This is some of the damage that war causes.”

“The real miracle of this story,” Dauman added, “is I find myself in Paris in November 2014, and I’ve got more than 35 people sitting at a restaurant after the opening of the show, and these are all family members that were created since World War II.”  

I ask Dauman what he thinks his parents would have said if they could see how his life turned out. 

“I wish they would have seen …” he began, but then his voice broke. 

“My children,” Dauman continued. “Because, you know — from nothing came a pretty good family and big success.”

Gerda Straus Mathan

Gerda Straus Mathan, a well-respected, Berkeley-based photographer of Jewish and other subjects who studied with Ansel Adams and lived for a time in Southern California, died Aug. 10 following a long illness. She was 83.

A photojournalist with degrees in biology, zoology and art, she brought an individual and humanistic perspective to her work, which was almost exclusively in black and white, with occasional hand-colored details.

Mathan traveled extensively in the United States, Mexico, the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America, as well to the homes and gatherings of her family, friends and community, always with camera in hand. She gave the same attention to detail, whether shooting ancient Torah scrolls in Cairo, a rabbi in Safed or the willow tree in her carefully tended backyard.

Mathan’s work has been exhibited in numerous galleries throughout the Bay Area, Southern California, New York and Washington, D.C. In the Southland, she had shows at the University of Judaism, Santa Monica College and in Pasadena, where she lived with her family for several years in the 1960s.

Mathan’s "Valentina’s Uncle: Portrait of an Old Man," a book that documents in pictures and text the final years of a Russian immigrant, Vadim Shepkin, was published by Macmillan Publishing Co.’s Collier Books division in 1981 and later excerpted by Reader’s Digest. Many of the photos show Shepkin flanked by young grandnieces and grandnephews, a striking portrait of youth and old age. 

Fascinated with natural light, Mathan experimented with infrared film when photographing ancient cities and synagogues in Spain, Turkey and Czechoslovakia, and created a remarkable series of photos using old Brownie cameras that rendered her subjects in a dreamy, diffuse light.

"My medium is black-and-white photography because in this way light seems to appear in its essence, and reality is abstracted to its more basic elements," Mathan said in a 1997 interview preceding her wide-ranging Santa Monica College exhibit. "For me, photography’s wonder lies in its ability to capture the fleeting light, the passing mood, the unplanned gesture and the unexpected encounter."

In addition to Adams, Mathan studied with Imogen Cunningham and Ruth Bernhard. She also taught photography, befriending and inspiring her students at Bay Area Jewish community centers, community colleges and senior centers.

A member of Yeldei HaShoah, a group of child survivors and refugees from the Holocaust, and of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Mathan was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, on Jan. 31, 1921. She was the fourth of five children of a strongly Jewish family that traced its German roots back to the 16th century.

Friedrich, known as Fritz, was a partner in the well-known Karlsruhe bank, Straus & Company, which was sold when the family fled to the United States in 1938 to escape Hitler.

They settled in Berkeley, where Mathan raised three children. They survive her, along with three grandchildren, a sister, a brother and many nieces and nephews.

Ruth Stroud, a Manhattan Beach-based freelance writer, is Gerda Mathan’s niece.

Diaspora Diversity Focus of ‘Portraits’

An Argentine gaucho lounges near his horse. A Bombay bride displays her upturned palms, filigreed entirely with henna. An Ethiopian boy lights candles with a classmate. A woman poses stiffly in her kitchen in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. What unites these disparate images is that the people depicted in them are Jews, all of them captured in black and white by Israeli-born photojournalist Zion Ozeri.

Ozeri has made a career out of documenting Jewish communal life both in Israel and in far-flung outposts of the Diaspora, like Peru, India, Tunisia and Uzbekistan. The images are compelling. Ozeri has a strong sense of composition, an outsider’s eye for the telling or humorous detail and an ability to play on our emotions with shadow, light and reflection.

At first glance, his photos seem like intimate glances into the lives of people who are vastly different from us. They are rich in atmospheric details — the steam of the marketplace, the rough texture of cobblestones, the ropy muscles of laborers, the weave of embroidery on traditional costumes. But if what draws us at first is the exotic, what makes these images linger in our minds is their universality. Ozeri captures not just the foreignness of these other lives, but their intense humanity. In the process, he illuminates the colorful, global variety of Jewish life. It makes the title of his latest exhibition at the Skirball, "Portraits of an Eternal People: A Jewish Family Album," particularly apt.

Ozeri wasn’t always this passionate about cross-cultural experiences. Raised during the 1950s as an Israeli-born son of Yemenite immigrants, Ozeri’s formative years were spent trying to distance himself from his own family’s cultural distinctiveness. Born in an Israeli transit camp, and later raised in the town of Ra’anana, Ozeri chafed at the ethnic divisions and social prejudices that marginalized Yemenite Israelis. It was a time when Ashkenazim reigned supreme in Israel.

"When I was growing up, I just wanted to fit in," he recalled in an interview with The Journal. "In those days, fitting in really meant distancing myself from my parents’ generation. People my age wanted to be modern, to get rid of the stigma associated with being Yemenite or Sephardic."

Ironically it was his own heritage that propelled him toward cultural photojournalism. An early attempt to study premed in the United States was aborted when the ’73 war broke out and Ozeri returned to Israel to fight. Shortly after his six-month military stint, Ozeri decided to pursue his interest in photography instead of medicine.

After studying in New York, he began freelancing for magazines and newspapers. During a vacation in Israel in the early 1980s, it occurred to him that his own community was a ripe subject for the camera.

"I saw, at this point, that my parents’ generation was disappearing and that, in fact, all the generations of Israel’s immigrants were disappearing and no one was paying attention," Ozeri said. "So I decided to spend a few days of my vacation photographing Yemenites in the community of Rosh Ayin. I took pictures at the local market, and elsewhere around town. I began to appreciate my specific heritage as a Yemenite Jew. I outgrew my embarrassment as a kid and learned to see the beauty in it."

Ozeri’s photographs of Yemenite Jews in Israel became an eight-page photo essay in Moment magazine and ultimately led to a book, "Yemenite Jews: A Photographic Essay" (Schocken, 1985).

His Skirball show, which opened July 1, includes images from more than a dozen countries. However, it’s always Jewish spirit and ritual that are the common threads — from a photo of a challah maker in Chile to a Jewish day school in Zimbabwe.

"What I love is to compare and contrast, to see the beauty in other places, other communities," Ozeri said. "Sometimes, it’s amazing, there are only a few Jews in a given community, and yet, they are still keeping up all the traditions. In that way we are really a global community. I can go to a synagogue anywhere and I open the siddur and it’s a comfortable thing."

Some of the communities Ozeri documents are on the verge of extinction. He cites the 1,000-year-old Uzbekistan Jewish community as a case in point.

"There’s definitely more drama in photographing a community that is disappearing," he said. "You can feel the tension in the air. There is tension between family members. Some are headed for Israel, others to America. Some stay behind. It’s a unique experience."

For future projects, Ozeri is contemplating travel to Western Europe and Cuba. He has begun to see his work in ways that move beyond journalism and art photography into the realm of education.

"The more I am invited to lecture and speak about what I do, the more I begin to see the educational element in my work," he said. "People look at the exhibits and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know there were Jews here or there, or that they did this or that.’ My feeling now is that if you want to teach about diversity, the Jewish people are a dramatic example."

"Portrait of an Eternal People" is on display at the Skirball Cultural Center’s Ruby Gallery through Aug. 31. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. Free. Noon-5 p.m. (Tuesdays-Saturdays); 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sundays). For more information, call (310) 440-4500.