Rina Castelnuovo, an Israeli professional photographer, did not talk much with her Polish-born parents about WWII. In 2012, she accompanied her mother, Eleonora, on her trip to Poland. Eleonora Nass survived five German concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. “I was filming our voyage intensively. However, nine years later, I still could not bring myself to edit the movie. Emotionally it was a difficult trip for both of us,” recalls Rina.
In 2018, Eleonora Nass – called “Lonka” by friends - passed away at the age of 92. “Soon after her death, I realized how much I did not know. I think that to protect my sister and me, my mother didn’t talk with us about the Holocaust,” says Rina. Together with her husband, Jim Hollander, also a photographer, they initiated a photographic project involving the last living Holocaust survivors. They named it “The Lonka Project” after Rina’s mother.
In addition to Rina and Jim’s familial motivations (Jim's father - Eugene Hollander -was US Army soldier fighting against Nazi in Europe between 1943 and 1945), the project was created to fight antisemitism. It aims to prevent the further decrease of awareness about the extermination of European Jews. According to the US survey (2020) based on 11,000 interviews among adults under 40, nearly half of American responders could not provide a single name of a German concentration camp established during WWII. As many as 63% did not know that 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust. Ultimately, “The Lonka Project” should pay tribute to Holocaust survivors who are still with us.
Hundreds of photojournalists and art, documentary, and even fashion photographers worldwide responded to Rina and Jim’s call. “Nobody received money for his or her work,” underlines Rina. “Volunteerism is a principle of our project.”
Among the photographers who contributed to the Lonka Project, many are renowned professionals from all over the world. Four-time Pulitzer Prize winner Carol Guzy of the Washington Post photographed two sisters, Szachtel Kalib and Rachel Eisenberg, born in Bodzentyn near Kielce. It is a bold and startling faceless portrait- showing only the womens’ outstretched hands and the numbers tattooed on them in Auschwitz. French photographer Patrick Zachmann, of the renowned Magnum Agency, created a stunning portrait of Gerda Weissmann-Klein: a woman of the gentle face and dreamy eyes grasping a framed picture of a young Kurt Klein, a former US Army officer. Kurt liberated Gerda and became her husband a year later. Gilles Peress, lecturer of Human Rights and Photography at Bard College in New York, shot a profoundly intimate portrait composed of a grid of light and shadow of a pensive Richard Horowitz, one of the youngest Auschwitz survivors. Steve McCurry, created a calm depiction of two German survivors living in New York City. Barbara Davidson, Pulitzer Prize laureate and Emmy Award winner, beautifully operating with light and space, immortalized Ralph Hakman, who passed away a few months later from COVID-19 complications. Tsafrir Abayov chose the Negev desert as the backdrop for his portrait. The artist took advantage of the beautiful, late afternoon light and added clear artificial front side lighting to capture a man walking with a determined step. This is Shaul Paul Ladany, Professor Emeritus of Ben Gurion University, world record-holder in sport walking. The entire scene is capped off with a romantic flood of soft, feathery clouds. Those immersed in Polish photography are familiar with Witold Krassowski - winner of the World Press Photo Awards, who accompanied historian, journalist, and social activist Marian Turski with his camera.
The artistic concept
Rina and Jim - the project creators - are professionals and were perfectly aware of the outcome of several hundred photographers’ works. It would be a collection of very diverse pictures. They decided that the documentary value was of paramount importance. There was no detailed guideline to be followed. The photographers were given a free hand. Rina and Jim’s instructions were short and concise: "Do as you see fit. Do the session how you want and send us the photos. We want The Lonka Project to be your project too." In this respect, "The Lonka Project" practically lacks the pure form that characterizes studio-based shootings or projects placing all subjects against the same background and with the same lighting.
Every Lonka Project photograph is unique as even a brief description of each survivor’s fate is distinctive. The Lonka Project's reports remind us that people who survived the horrors of the Holocaust are still among us.
"The Lonka Project" provides short, often perfunctory descriptions, sometimes even an enumeration: an ordinary life interrupted by Hitler's rise to power and the Nazi invasion of Poland, the ghetto, the first executions. The Jews immediately lost their autonomy, property, civil rights, human dignity, freedom, and often all relatives. All Holocaust survivors have unique stories, unrepeatable fates. "Every time I lost somebody, somebody came along and took care of me. I don't think I could have done it if God hadn't sent someone to take care of me," said Rena Quint, who survived the nightmare of concentration camps as a child. "The Lonka Project" is undoubtedly an emotional testimony of those times.
The Polish Thread
Numerous Holocaust survivors included in this project were born in Poland. Many of them did not return to their hometowns. They emigrated from Poland because they had nothing and nobody to return to, dispersing throughout the world, usually choosing the USA or Palestine (after 1948: Israel) as their new homeland. Some left Poland in the 1950s during the post-Stalinist thaw or even later. They had nothing but the will to start a new life from scratch. Many Polish-born Holocaust survivors made remarkable careers in the West.
Israel Meir Lau, who as a child miraculously survived the ghettos in Piotrków Trybunalski and Częstochowa as well as the Buchenwald concentration camp, became Chief Rabbi of Israel's Ashkenazi Jews. In 1988, he met John Paul II in the Pope's summer residence of Castel Gandolfo near Rome and invited him to Israel. According to the New York Times, "At least part of the visit today was taken up by the two mens’ reminiscing about Poland."
Sir Ben Helfgott, also from Piotrków Trybunalski, is one of the very few Holocaust survivors who took part in the Olympics - he represented the UK in weightlifting in Melbourne (1956) and Rome (1960). Ben was appointed Knight Commander of the British Empire's Order (2018) and the Pride of Britain (2020) award for service to Holocaust remembrance and education. Yitzhak Arad, born Isaac Rudnicki in Święcany in 1926, rose to brigadier general in the Israeli army, later serving for more than 20 years as director of the Yad Vashem Institute. In 1993, the University of Torun in Poland awarded Yitzhak Arad an honorary doctorate to recognize his merits as a historian. The Academies of Fine Arts awarded the same title in Wrocław and Warsaw to Ryszard Horowitz, an outstanding photographer living in the USA since 1959. Horowitz survived the Kraków ghetto thanks to Oskar Schindler. We should also mention another Holocaust survivor from the Kraków ghetto - Roman Polański, who needs no introduction.
Heroes in the background
The Holocaust victims frequently survived due to the courage and sensitivity of their non-Jewish friends or even complete strangers. These people are presented in “The Lonka Project” as well. Adam Han-Górski, born in Lwów in 1940, a world-famous violinist, survived WWII thanks to Katarzyna Chytra. Hearing about the liquidation of the ghetto in Kraków, she immediately boarded a train and traveled 200 miles from Lwów to Kraków to rescue then two-year-old Adam, the son of her Jewish acquaintances. Undoubtedly, it took immense courage to enter the ghetto illegally during its liquidation and then exit it with a Jewish boy. In the following years, risking her and her family’s life, Katarzyna Chytra raised the child as her own. After the war, she returned Adam to his parents, who miraculously survived the extermination. Roman Polański escaped the Kraków ghetto and owes his life to the Buchałas, a Polish peasant family. The family was impoverished - they ate only some potatoes and sometimes had little milk for their own three children, but they shared the food with little Roman. "In reality, their lives were a daily struggle for survival," recalled Polanski later in his autobiography. Gabriel "Gaby" Koren was born in the Przemyśl ghetto in 1941. His mother gave birth in a basement, hidden from the Nazis as the Germans forbade pregnancy: any Jewish woman who became pregnant risked immediate murder or deportation to the extermination camps. Before death came to Gabriel's parents, they managed to hand over the child to an orphanage run by Polish nuns called "Sercanki." Israel Meir Lau called Lulek survived Buchenwald as an 8-year-old boy thanks to the care of a teenaged Russian prisoner named Feodor Mikhailchenko. The Russian hid Lulek in the camp, fed him, and mended his clothes. Just before American troops reached the camp, "the Germans fired at the prisoners like mad from their watchtowers. Feodor pulled me down to the ground and lay on top of me. He exposed himself and intentionally endangered his own life to save mine, during those terrible hours," wrote Rabbi Israel Meir Lau to Yad Vashem in 2008.
The Memory Keepers
"It's a compelling testament to the power of living," wrote British journal "Amateur Photographer" about “The Lonka Project” in May 2020. Indeed, "The Lonka Project" is not another reconstruction of the Holocaust. Photos devoid of violence, there are practically no historical photographs included. It is not glorifying; It does not moralize. It shows us people, not only a mass of evil and innocent victims. But at the same time, it reminds us about the horrible past.
"We are the memory keepers," summed up Shlomo Arad, Holocaust survivor, the only participant, and the photographer of "The Lonka Project."
And one thing more - as an Israeli journalist, put it "In a few years, this Holocaust Project will be impossible to do."
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