One Denver couple’s quest to photograph every Holocaust survivor in the United States
John and Amy Pregulman have now documented 735 survivors across 36 cities
John Pregulman had no idea when he offered to help an old friend take pictures of Holocaust survivors in Chicago that the act would turn into his life’s calling.
The friend asked if Pregulman, a Denver resident who, in his 20s, spent time as a freelance photographer, could photograph some survivors for a new museum exhibit. The gig was unpaid. Pregulman figured he’d help his friend out, but it wouldn’t be a big deal.
He ended up photographing 65 survivors over three days. By the end of it, Pregulman yearned to do more.
“I became completely overwhelmed by these amazing, courageous people,” he said.
Five years later, Pregulman has turned that one trip into an unprecedented project: a quest to photograph every living Holocaust survivor in the United States. John and his wife, Amy Israel Pregulman, have now documented 735 survivors across 36 cities. They’ve also started a nonprofit, called KAVOD, which provides emergency aid to the surprisingly high number of survivors living in poverty.
There are an estimated 100,000 Holocaust survivors living in the U.S., and the couple understands that it might be unrealistic to reach them all.
“But we’re going to get to as many as we can,” John said.
“We have this feeling of: Why wait?” Amy said. “There’s no time.”
These photos only go to the survivors. They don’t appear in a public gallery, and they’re not displayed in a museum or on a website. The only place where someone can see every photo taken is in Pregulman’s small office in Denver. All four walls are lined from floor to ceiling with the smiling, stoic, resilient faces of the men and women who survived the unimaginable.
The photos serve as a rare chance for survivors to tell their stories.
“Many of these people don’t get the opportunity to be seen or heard,” Amy said.
“Their biggest fears,” John said, “are that they’ll be forgotten.”
Survivors living in poverty
John was photographing a Holocaust survivor in Orlando, Florida, when he first learned the extent of this population’s struggles. As often happens when he goes into these homes, the woman offered him something to eat.
She took John into the kitchen and opened her refrigerator. It was virtually empty.
“She told me, ‘This month I had to spend my grocery money to take care of a broken air conditioner,’ ” John said. He soon found this woman’s situation was more common than he ever realized.
“We found that the survivors, when they don’t have enough money, they do without food,” he said. “Because that’s what they’ve experienced.”
The couple learned that 30 percent to 35 percent of Holocaust survivors in America — about 35,000 people — live in poverty.
“We found that unconscionable,” Amy said.
In November 2015, KAVOD was born.
“We came up with the name because ‘kavod’ means dignity, honor and respect” in Hebrew, Amy said. “We felt that any human being deserves to be treated that way.”
KAVOD provides emergency aid to Holocaust survivors in need. The organization says 100 percent of the funds raised go directly to survivors in the form of gift cards that can be used for necessary goods like groceries and medicine.
The board of directors is made up of community leaders from around the country, most of whom are children of survivors themselves.
“It’s been a godsend for us,” said John Keyser, spokesman for Jewish Family Service in Denver. “They are providing a service no one else is.”
With a career in nonprofit management, Amy had the perfect background to head up the project. Her master’s thesis, in fact, was on KAVOD. She’s the nonprofit’s only full-time employee. John leads the photography legacy project and the fundraising efforts.
“This is a subject that people aren’t aware of,” Amy said. “When they find out, it’s really an awakening.”
“We don’t want anyone to deny what happened”
On a recent January afternoon, the couple came to Temple Emmanuel in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood to photograph their 735th survivor.
Estare Weiser, the mother of Colorado’s new attorney general, Phil Wesier, walked into the empty synagogue arm in arm with her husband, David. She was still brimming with pride over her son, and slightly exhausted from all the inauguration activities.
Weiser is the youngest Holocaust survivor the couple has ever photographed — and one of the youngest in the world.
She was born in the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany on April 13, 1945. Being pregnant in a concentration camp was nearly a certain death wish for most women, since it made them unable to work. Weiser’s mother, in fact, didn’t even realize she was pregnant until her fifth month.
“She managed to get a message to my father (who was at the men’s camp),” Weiser said. “She said, ‘You have reason to live.’ ”
The day after Weiser was born, American forces liberated the camp. Her mother was severely malnourished, and might not have made it had the Americans not come when they did. Her father survived, too.
“I don’t know how she did it,” Weiser said. “I don’t know how she survived being pregnant. My mother always said, ‘The most important thing you need is luck.’ And there were a lot of lucky breaks that she had that she was able to survive.”
Weiser spoke tentatively at first, seemingly unsure how much she wanted to open up. Eventually, the stories flowed.
“I think I’m getting more out of this than I expected,” she said.
After dozens of solo pictures, Weiser and her husband of nearly 52 years posed together, holding hands. She smiled broadly. She wore her mother’s necklace.
“We haven’t had a true photo of us maybe since our kids were married,” Weiser said. “There’s something really nice about having photographs and memories.”
These photos, she said, are important to document as her generation becomes smaller and smaller.
“We don’t want anyone to deny what happened,” she said.
“Just in awe”
Over the course of hundreds of these sessions, John has tailored his approach to be conscious of his photo subjects. After survivors told him bigger cameras were intimidating, he switched to a small handheld. He learned not to use the word “shoot” when talking about taking pictures. And he switched to color photos after participants told him black-and-whites looked haunting.
While nearly all survivors have been Jewish, the couple did photograph a Jehovah’s Witness who had been sent to a concentration camp, and said they’re open to including other groups of survivors in their project.
Along with the pictures, John gives each survivor a handwritten note.
“I say what an honor it’s been to take their photos,” he said. “I tell them what remarkable and strong people they are.”
He tries to stay in touch with as many as he can. Several, he said, have died since he took their picture.
As John spoke about all the survivors he’s gotten to meet, he scrolled through his phone, pulling up pictures from his travels across the country. He showed one woman who, after surviving the Holocaust and immigrating to America, became a Playboy bunny. Another survivor speaks in maximum-security prisons, helping inmates see how they can change their lives. Then there’s the 103-year-old from Charlotte, North Carolina, who sang opera for the king and queen of Holland.
“I’m just in awe,” Amy said about hearing the different stories. “I’m blown away by these people.”
John sometimes can’t believe what this project has turned into.
“It was meant to be,” he said.
This article originally posted on January 30, 2019.
View the original article here.