By Lois Alter Mark, Forbes, May 29, 2018. Click for full report.
Award-winning photographer Hannah Kozak has a new exhibit at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust which is powerful, timely and deeply personal.
Survivor: My Father’s Ghosts is a collection of black and white photographs documenting Kozak’s visits to eighteen concentration camps in Germany and Poland, including the eight her father was taken to during the Holocaust.
This is a must-see exhibit, and it will be at the museum until August 20.
Kozak explained why this project was so important to her, and how the process of taking photographs can be healing. (Note: These photos had to be cropped for publication. They are meant to be seen the way they are displayed at the museum.)
Survivor: My Father’s Ghosts is a very personal exhibit to you. Can you give us a little background of how it came about?
I started photographing my father for this project purposefully in December 2009. Three years later, on Christmas, he passed away. Nine days later I booked my first trip to Poland. I had never traveled to his country and had no idea what I was doing but somewhere inside of me, I had a vision of what I wanted to achieve. Seeing where he lived was my goal on that first sojourn as well as a side trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I also went to Lithuania to visit the Hill of Crosses in person. The project began slowly and just kept growing.
How did being a Holocaust survivor affect your father’s daily life and, in turn, yours?
I think it created a man who was quite ambitious because he never wanted someone else to be in charge of his life again. He was a hard-working, uncomplaining man who was grateful to be alive, and he was compassionate and forgiving. He took care of my mother even after she left him for another man, and after she suffered brain damage from abuse by that man.
How did it affect me? I used to believe that showing emotion was a sign of weakness. Only after completing an M.A. in Spiritual Psychology program was I able to learn, believe and understand that asking for help and showing emotion was a sign of strength.
When did your father ask you to tell his story? Was he still alive when you went to Poland and Germany?
My father did not speak much about his past when we are growing up. My understanding is there are basically two types of Holocaust survivors: the ones who don’t speak of their past and the one who can’t stop talking about it. My father was the latter. During his retirement years is when he earnestly began asking me to share his story. I promised him that I would. Little did I know at the time it would require nearly nine years of my life to make it come to fruition.
He was not alive when I visited Poland or Germany. I traveled to Warsaw, Bedzin, Krakow, Bydgoszcz in northern Poland as well as Gdańsk and Wroclaw in addition to the 18 camps.
You visited the remains of 18 concentration camps to take photos. What was that experience like?
Difficult to describe in words as it was experiential. Each camp had its own particular feeling.
Gross Rosen, for example, which is 60 kilometers southwest of Wroclaw, was almost completely devoid of visitors, which made the experience remarkably silent. It is in the vicinity of a rock quarry and it’s surrounded by a forest of trees. There is so much beauty there that it was difficult to comprehend the horrors that had occurred there.
I went back to Terezin twice, as I couldn’t quite grasp the enormity of the location. Plus, it was the basis for a book I read in my twenties called “The Artists of Terezin” by Gerald Green, which impacted me because of all the art that was created there.
Auschwitz is so crowded, it’s almost impossible to fully digest the surroundings. I found myself breaking away from the group in Auschwitz, as much as possible, as listening to people chitter chatter was not possible. I’m not a group person, never have been.
Auschwitz was difficult not just for those reasons but also because nearly all my father’s family were sent on a train there from their hometown of Bedzin, Poland, which is only 25 miles to the south. Being at Auschwitz brought up dark angels for me, as most of my family were murdered there. At Belzec, I found myself humming Hebrew songs from my childhood to help me process.
Was there one moment or one photo that is especially meaningful to you?
There is a self-portrait I created at Stutthof Concentration Camp that seems to sum up the entire experience for me. It’s a double exposure with the concrete fence, train tracks, barbed wire and a pained look on my face.
How many photos are on display and how did you decide which ones to share?
There are so many sub-narratives in my series. The trains – which haunt me because without the mass transportation of the railways, the full scale of the Final Solution could not have been achieved. There were 22 parallel train lines going into Auschwitz, for example. The trees – which seem as if they have absorbed the sadness of what happened in Poland. There are 40 photos that we chose together from the 200 silver gelatin prints that I had hand printed for my portfolio. I believe so much detail and texture is lost by trying to choose from digital files, hence my reasoning for having the prints made. Along with Jordanna Gessler, the Director of Education, and Eric Hall, who was brought in to curate the show, we chose a narrative that we felt would show the scope of emotion of what I saw including mini stories within each section on the wall.
Did you take photos with a specific focus in mind or did the “story” come together after you saw the photos you had taken?
Both. I wanted to somehow show the emotion of the camps, and the project revealed itself every step of the way. Overcast, cloudy days gave me perfect light at nearly every camp.
How much of your own story is in this exhibit?
It’s impossible for my story not to be in the exhibit. Growing up with a Holocaust survivor parent automatically made me different. If you get a chance to see the movie I created, you will understand when I explain that I started to read about the Holocaust when I was ten years old with a book from the Scholastic Book Club called “Escape from Warsaw.”
How has this process impacted your life? Has it provided any “answers” or helped with healing?
Photography helps me to face and heal trauma and in this case, being at the camps was so traumatic that having the camera gave me separation and connection, all at once, if that makes sense.
In an unrecognized landscape like Poland, I could pray for something ancient to pull me back to earth. I found comfort in Judaism’s emphasis on sanctified places and spaces for grief. Yes, this process helped me to heal.
Has it raised more questions for you?
Yes, but I’m frequently questioning everything. I would actually like to travel to each and every remaining camp in Europe before the day comes that perhaps many of them won’t be here anymore.
The subtitle of the exhibit is “A Black and White Exhibit of Introspective of Loss and Life.” Do you find hope anywhere here? Is there a celebration of life as well as despair over the tragic loss of it?
Oh my g-d, yes. My father’s life is a story of tragedy and hope, all at once. Not only did he survive, but he thrived after the war. He had a rich life filled with work, love, two marriages, five children and he always had his prayers and belief in a higher power.
What were people’s reactions at the opening of the exhibit?
My goal was to take the viewer on a journey and I heard a lot of crying during the movie screening and not one person was looking at their phone, so I believe I accomplished that.
What do you think when you hear people deny the Holocaust ever happened?
Holocaust denying is another form of anti-Semitism. I grew up with no family on my father’s side, so they can deny if they choose, it doesn’t matter.
How do you think your photos will affect them?
That’s a good question. We’d have to ask a denier.
What do you hope people will get out of this exhibit?
Storytelling helps to process the confusion of our world and to make sense of it. I hope people get a sense of what it was like to live during 1933-1945 and essentially be a prisoner of war. Perhaps it will help us to look at our own lives and the freedoms we share.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
The enormity and scale of the horrors of the Holocaust is so tremendous that trying to represent it accurately is nearly impossible and almost anything I do feels inadequate. But this project is my way of understanding my father’s past, my family’s past, and the history of the Jewish people in Europe: by looking it head on in the present with my camera.
There is a vast difference between taking a photo and making a photograph. Traveling with film can be challenging, and I held up lines in the airport in Warsaw multiple times because security thought my Rolleiflex looked like a bomb. Arguing to not have my film x-rayed multiple times caused stress and delays while my luggage was torn apart. There was nothing easy about this project including traveling alone and all the emotions that surfaced for me. But I’m a big believer that we cannot run from our pain and the only way to heal it is to face it head on and dig in.