*These images do not depict recipients of aid from Kavod. Those receiving aid are confidential. The images are of Holocaust Survivors from across the globe and have been taken by John Pregulman since 2012.
Kavod…Honoring Strength and Preserving Dignity
If pictures are worth 1,000 words, then the large and still-growing collection of portraits by photographer John Pregulman must be worth millions of words. Words like courage, strength, survival, determination, passion, sorrow and tragedy come to mind. So what could be the focus of images that produce words like these? They would be the beautiful photographs of people from what’s known as the strongest generation – those of Holocaust survivors.
Since September of 2013, John, a native of Chattanooga, has traveled his way around the country and beyond to photograph elderly survivors. It started when John’s friend from their BBYO days reached out to him. Rick Hirschhautan, who, at the time, was the executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, asked John if he would come take pictures of several survivors there. (John was a professional photographer in New York back in the day before joining his family business in Chattanooga.)
Despite the museum not having a budget to pay for his services, John eagerly headed to Skokie where he shot portraits of 65 survivors. “I fell in love with these incredible people,” John says. “The amazing thing I found was that very few were negative or harbored hatred for the German people – most of them were very positive and freely talked about their experiences in hopes it can be prevented from happening again. I didn’t really ‘interview’ them, they just started talking and sharing their stories.”
From that Illinois experience alone, this portrait project blossomed as John began contacting other Holocaust museums, Federations and Jewish Family Services to see if he could provide his photography services to survivors in other cities. Now, 240 portraits and counting, John has been to Memphis, Orlando, Chicago, Denver, Cleveland, Chattanooga, Los Angeles, and even Tokyo, taking photos of survivors.
And he does all of this on his own dime. His travel expenses, photography equipment and printing costs come out of his pocket. He provides, totally free of charge, the photos to the survivors, their families and the organizations that help him connect with survivors. “There is absolutely no commercial gain involved,” John explains. “I’m doing this because these photos help ensure that this generation is never forgotten – it’s simply to preserve the legacy and dignity of survivors.”
The U.S. Holocaust Museum estimates that the roughly 140,000 survivors alive in the United States have 10 to 15 years of life left. So he’s on a mission to photograph as many as he can and thankfully “it hasn’t let up,” he says. “I could shoot photos every day, going anywhere in the U.S. at this point.
“Many of the survivors I’ve photographed were in the Warsaw Ghetto or Auschwitz,” John says. “It’s interesting that most of them insisted on me photographing their numbered tattoos, they never wanted to hide that.”
When looking at these beautiful portraits, the survivors’ strength and struggle, resiliency and conflict are clearly evident. If their emotions could leap from the pages of these photos, you couldn’t help but feel the power from their experiences. I, personally, see and feel them in the portraits John took of my own Czechoslovakian survivor grandmother, Bubby Gertrude ‘Giti’ Schlanger, who survived Auschwitz among other camps. The incredible stories of survival John hears from survivors during their photo shoots are just as varied as their numbered tattoos, yet each is powerful and shocking in its own way.
“I got to be very good friends with Tzipora in Chicago,” John says of a survivor. “As a child, she and her parents hid in a well in the ground for two years – they never came out. In fact, her father actually passed away in that well and there was no way to get him out to bury him.
“In L.A., a survivor named Olga told me that she and her family were packed onto a train car heading to the camps with no food or water. She happened to be very tall with very long arms and when the train would stop, she says she was able to reach down through a hole in the floor and gab handfuls of grass from between the train tracks that she, her sister and mother ate to survive.
“A 90-year-old survivor in Denver, Bertha, insisted on making cookies for me when I met with her,” John says. “Then, she went over and grabbed two 10-pound exercise dumbbell weights, lifted them over her head and said: ‘This is why Hitler didn’t get me; I’m a strong person!’”
From John’s portrait project, another endeavor was born – John’s nonprofit, “Kavod,” which means ‘dignity’ in Hebrew. “During the portrait project, I would hear from the organizations and people I met with that 10%-15% of survivors in the U.S. are living in poverty,” John says. “I thought that was unconscionable, especially after what they’ve been through. I just couldn’t live with that. So I started Kavod with the mission to raise money and provide emergency assistance for those who need it, so they can live their remaining years with dignity.”
Kavod has begun raising funds for survivors in need in Memphis. Their hope is to expand by offering aid to those in need in other communities in the South that don’t have a safety net for these people. “These survivors should not have to choose between eating or buying their medications,” John says. “There was a survivor in Memphis whose AC went out, and through Kavod, we were able to coordinate with Federation and Jewish Family Service – on a confidential basis – to help provide her some relief for that issue.”
John was in New Orleans in January for photo shoots of survivors there and plans to “keep taking pictures, raising money, and hopefully providing these amazing survivors some dignity as they live out their years.”
A website for Kavod is currently in the works, and all donations are tax deductible. To make a donation or request a photo session for a survivor, contact John at: 423.265.2288 or P.O. Box 427, Chattanooga, TN 37401.[ap_divider color=”#CCCCCC” style=”solid” thickness=”1px” width=”100%” mar_top=”20px” mar_bot=”20px”]
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