February 25, 2020

From a Holocaust survivor, America gets the CEO of Viacom

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting 83-year-old Holocaust survivor Henri Dauman, a French-born Jew who was orphaned by the time he reached Bar Mitzvah age and by all accounts, should have disappeared from history.

But like many survivors, Dauman knew only to keep going, and was eventually granted passage to the U.S., where he reinvented himself as a tenacious photojournalist. Dauman went on to photograph some of the most iconic figures of the 20th century — including movie stars Liz Taylor and Bridgitte Bardot, political royalty like Jackie Kennedy and almost all the French New Wave directors, among them Jean Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, among many, many others. He estimates he has more than 1 million prints to date.

But aside from his obvious gifts, what makes Dauman's story so remarkable is his family's zig-zagging Jewish trajectory. It is a Jewish story that very easily could have ended along with the war in 1945. Dauman had almost no Jewish education or experience to draw upon as a 13-year-old orphan. While he was growing up, “you couldn’t talk about being a Jew or you’d lose your life,” he told me. When he finally emigrated to America in the 1950s, he quickly married a non-Jewish woman with whom he had two children. One of those children is Philippe Dauman, the CEO of Viacom and therefore one of the most powerful and influential figures in business media in the world (he is the favored heir of Viacom majority shareholder Sumner Redstone). That alone is an astonishing link in the chain of Jewish survival, but it actually gets better in the successive generation: Dauman's grandchildren are the ones gravitating back towards Judaism. His granddaughter, Nicole Suerez, a 23-year-old Arizona native traveled to Israel on a Birthright trip and told me she was so impacted by it, she went back as a staff member on a subsequent trip. “I would be rallying around Israel tomorrow, if I needed to,” Suerez told me. Israel is a starting place, even though Suerez said she doesn't connect as deeply with religion. “It’s the Jewish heritage I really identify with and connect with,” she said. “I've created my own relationship with Judaism and I would definitely raise my children Jewishly.” Her younger brother was recently bar mitzvahed and Dauman attended to present his grandson with a tallit. As he lay the ancient Jewish symbol on his grandson's shoulders, he transmitted a profound message…

Here is the story: 

“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.

Read the rest of the story here.