In 2016, B.A. Van Sise was working as a photographer at The Village Voice. The topic of refugees dominated the national conversation, and B.A. wanted to do a short series on Holocaust survivors who had built lives in America — “to show what happens in the lives of refugees when given that opportunity,” he told me. A week later, “I had a hard time seeing these survivors as anything other than children who never got to have childhoods. I really absorbed it and it turned me upside down.”
The Village Voice shuttered its doors while he was working on the series; a year-and-a-half later the pandemic hit. “My mind kept revolving back to the survivors I’d met, the strength I’d seen in them, and I couldn’t help but think about what happens when a group goes through a certain sort of class trauma, and what that looks like on the other side: what it looks like rebuilding, when the worst is behind you.”
So the short series turned into a four-year project, working with museums all over the country to locate survivors. “As a general rule, I’d sit down with any survivors who’d be willing to, which was near all of them. Changing the way I thought about the project changed the way I felt in doing it: thinking of them not as sufferers, but as survivors. Realizing that these are people whose foundational element had not been growth but survival, and that they’d thrived after being invited to life.”
Van Sise photographed the portraits of 140 survivors. “My stories start in 1946. With Holocaust survivors, most people want to talk about their worst days; I wanted to talk about what they did, instead, with their best.”
Van Sise photographed the portraits of 140 survivors. “Most of the sessions were similar. I’d photograph them at home or nearby, sit and interview them (usually about an hour, but sometimes more) in a way that I think most weren’t used to: my first question was always: ‘how did you come to live in America?’ My stories start in 1946. With Holocaust survivors, most people want to talk about their worst days; I wanted to talk about what they did, instead, with their best.”
The photographs always came last. “They were usually built off of visual cues gleaned from our conversation. Whenever I could get away with it, I’d also try and photograph them with a grandchild, a great-grandchild.” This was a challenge during the pandemic. “But when it worked it really worked,” says Van Sise.
About a third of the survivors are based in Los Angeles. One is Lea Radziner. “I thought I had the cleverest idea for her picture, but when her granddaughter showed up for the shoot it turned out she and her grandmother, due to the pandemic, hadn’t touched in two years. They both started bawling the second their hands touched, that shock from the release of their skin hunger. That’s the picture. Whatever else I planned, the real story was something better.”
The project turned into a major exhibition, “Invited to Life: Holocaust Survivors in America,” which opened at New York’s Center for Jewish History last week. Walking around the space, I was struck not just by the exquisite beauty of each portrait, but by the kindness in the eyes of each survivor.
“It’s the thing that surprised all of my assistants,” says Van Sise. “Holocaust survivors are about the most joyous people you’ll ever meet. Every day is the best day for them. It’s hard to overstate the ebullience, the joie de vivre. Part of it is, of course, the evolution of coping mechanisms — everybody’s friendly, everybody’s funny. But there’s also a very real thing there: the knowledge that every day is a gift. That never wears off.”
“When every single one of these survivors enters our world, the man who wanted them dead is dead and they’re alive,” says Van Sise.
Van Sise says that the exhibition is already garnering interest from institutions that are not Jewish — or Holocaust-oriented. And a book, “Invited to Life: After the Holocaust” (Schiffer) with essays by Neil Gaiman, Dr. Mayim Bialik, and Sabrina Orah Mark, will follow on August 28.
“The book is more poetic than a museum exhibition allows for and covers a much wider breadth of experience as well. The lives these people created are as diverse as the people they were: there are politicians and paupers, opera singers and scrap dealers, gay folks and straight folks, families of all kinds and all colors; there’s rabbis, there’s a criminal.
“There’s a little sadness, a lot of hope, and actually a great deal of myself. I left my own voice in, where appropriate, since so much of this experience was about the experience — I wanted the reader to sit in with us, hear their accents, hear how we spoke.”
I asked Van Sise what surprised him the most during the four-year project. “I cared a tremendous amount about COVID protocols; I was petrified that I might unknowingly pass it on. Most of the Holocaust survivors didn’t give a shit. I can’t tell you how many times somebody said, ‘I survived Hitler, this is nothing.’” ■
Karen Lehrman Bloch is editor in chief of White Rose Magazine.