Portraits of Holocaust survivors remind us ‘never again’
- Credit: Archant
101 images and testimonies from around the UK are published in a book that began as an idea by swimmers at Crouch End’s Park Road pool
The idea for a series of portraits and testimonies of Holocaust survivors began during a swim in Crouch End.
Roman Halter, whose recovery from the horrors of the Nazi camps was helped by swims in the Lake District as a teenager, had married fellow survivor and Hungarian swimming champion Susie.
Both were regulars at Park Road pool, along with National Portrait Gallery curator Jan Marsh and her friend Jacki Reason. Their conversations sparked a plan - to create a portrait of Roman taken by Reason’s upstairs neighbour, press photographer Matt Writtle.
“Roman lived 50 yards from me at the time and invited me to lunch; cheese and croissants from Dunnes,” says Writtle, who works for the Evening Standard.
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“I found him warm, welcoming, incredibly intelligent and humble. A remarkable human being who knew his own mind. He said ‘I don’t want it to be just about me’.
“He disliked my idea of showing how the survivors had contributed to British society saying ‘that would dilute the message of what we experienced’. He wanted something as simple and stark as possible.”
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The project started 13 years ago with Reason’s living room re-purposed as a temporary photography studio. She and Marsh would ferry the survivors to Crouch End and conduct post-shoot interviews over tea in the kitchen.
After exhibitions at London City Hall and Alexandra Palace, there is now a book, Portraits for Posterity which brings together 101 survivors as a permanent record of the Holocaust and its legacy.
They include Roman and Susie Halter, Eva Clarke, who was born in Mauthausen concentration camp a week before liberation, St John’s Wood resident and childhood friend of Anne Frank, Eva Schloss, cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived after being recruited to the Auschwitz orchestra, and Olympic weightlifter Sir Ben Helfgott, who like Roman was among the child survivors brought to the Lake District in 1945 to recuperate.
Shot against a black background, with a single light over their shoulder as a symbol of survival, Writtle says: “I didn’t want a beauty pageant, I wanted warts and all, to show every line and blemish and tell the story of what they experienced - which not everyone liked.
“I had to quite quickly get them into a place where I could photograph that, but I think Roman came in already there - and he didn’t want to stay long. He was very different, he sat down and after five frames said ‘that’s it you have enough now’. Thankfully I did.”
Some sitters including Roman and Susie have since died, and Writtle sees their portraits as a memorial to the millions who perished without portraits: “That’s why we started it, because we knew it was important to keep some record of their experience for future generations. It’s a cliche but we can’t forget what they lived through and what humans did to humans. To be mindful that this could happen again and it’s our responsibility to make sure it doesn’t.
“What I found most powerful is they didn’t look any different from anyone else in the UK. They could be my grandma, my mother, they are like us.”
Portraits for Posterity is available from www.mattwrittle.com/shop
* Budapest-born Susan Halter who escaped from a women’s transport en route to the Austrian border in 1944 and lived in hiding under an assumed name, swam for Hungary in the 1948 London Olympics before marrying Roman in 1951. She died in 2015 and said: “Having gone through a very traumatic time in my youth, I hope that my grandchildren and future generations will live in harmony.”
* Kensal Rise survivor Anita Lasker-Wallfisch 95, was sent to Auschwitz in 1943 with younger sister Renate after their parents were murdered. She survived as cellist in the camp orchestra and was liberated from Bergen-Belsen in 1945.
“I was nineteen years old, and felt like ninety.”
Invited to record messages for the BBC, Anita’s was heard by her elder sister, Marianne, who was living in London where Anita and Renate arrived in March 1946. The professional musician says: “Words can never convey the abomination that took place. My story has a happy ending, unlike that of millions of others whose existence was obliterated. Their stories will never be told. Remember – and ask yourself: why?”
* Eva Schloss was born in 1929 in Vienna but the family moved to Amsterdam after the Nazi takeover of Austria, becoming neighbours to the Frank family. Both families went into hiding in 1942 both were discovered in 1944 and held in Westerborg camp. Eva and mother Fritzi were liberated from Auschwitz-Birkenau in January 1945. Eva came to Britain in 1951 and became Anna Frank’s stepsister posthumously, when her mother married Otto Frank. After Otto’s death in 1980 she felt compelled to continue Anne’s legacy and co-founded the Anne Frank Trust UK, speaking regularly on her Holocaust experiences. “After the war and all its devastation, I despaired of life. It took thirty years, three lovely daughters and much else, for me to become more positive, and realise that life can be beautiful. We must and can fight evil.”
Born in 1927 in Poland, Roman Halter spent from 1940 to 1945 in Lodz ghetto then Auschwitz-Birkenau and Stuffhof concentration camps before being used as a slave labour in a Dresden factory where he survived the firebombing and a death march to be liberated from Bergen Belsen.
“My whole family was murdered. From my town where 800 Jews lived, four of us survived,” said Roman who died in 2012 and became an artist and architect.
“The truth of our past must be taught, especially to younger generations, for the sake of concord amongst people and for the building of a better, safer future and world.”