Cook: Portraits in the Book of Life
One woman was packed into a boxcar bound for Auschwitz. So crowded, no one could sit down. People began to starve. The woman, who was a girl then, was extraordinarily tall, with very long arms. There was a hole in the boxcar floor. When the train would stop, she was able to reach her long arms down through the hole and pull up handfuls of grass.
That’s how she survived.
By eating grass.
Another woman was sent to Treblinka as a child. She survived three years there, which was unheard of at Treblinka. Ask how, and she’ll shake her head: I don’t know. We did what we could. Whatever it took.
Another woman knew Anne Frank.
“There are so many stories,” said John Pregulman.
He would know. For the last two years, Pregulman has traveled the U.S. to meet with Holocaust survivors. So far, he’s sat down with 235 survivors. Living rooms. A bakery. A synagogue in Denver. A tiny apartment in Florida. A Holocaust museum in Chicago.
Each time, he listens to their stories. They hold his hand, sometimes not letting go.
Then Pregulman, humbly, almost reverently, does what he came to do.
He takes out his camera.
He takes their portrait.
“It gives them a real sense of dignity and self-worth,” he said. “It’s a way to honor them and what they went through.”
World War II ended 70 years ago; children who survived the Holocaust are now in their 80s, adults in their 90s. Nearly 140,000 survivors live in the U.S.
In 15 years, most survivors will be dead.
That’s why Pregulman — who graduated from McCallie School, splits his time between Memphis and Denver, is the son of Merv and Helen Pregulman and grandson of Garrison and Goldie Siskin, founders of Siskin Children’s Institute — began his portrait project, taking survivor photographs as an act of memory and honor.
“To be sure they are not forgotten,” he said.
They meet casually. Most are women. Many live alone. Pregulman brings no lights. Some add make-up or fix their hair; most don’t. They’ll roll up their sleeves to make sure the camera captures the tattoo on their forearm. They become animated, emotional, telling stories of Dachau, Treblinka, Auschwitz.
“It was often hard to take their picture because they wanted to keep talking,” Pregulman said.
Each portrait is given to survivors and their families, yet also seems like a larger gift to society, the way scientists save rare seeds or bookbinders rare words; by taking such pictures, Pregulman has recorded images that contain both horror and resilience, of life and death, all in one single face.
What do we say when we look into the eyes of the man forced to collect and burn all the discarded clothes from naked men waiting in line for the gas chambers?
What of the wrinkles in the hands that once pulled up boxcar grass to survive?
What of the ears that once heard Anne Frank’s holy voice?
Many survivors birthed as many children as possible, Pregulman said. They talk to as many school groups as possible. Many refuse to retire, believing they owe it to America.
Most refuse to hate.
“I found very few of them had resentment or hatred toward German people,” said Pregulman. “They said if they lived their life that way, it could start another problem.”
Yet Pregulman found something else.
“I visited one woman who offered me something to drink. She went to her kitchen, opened the fridge, and there was nothing there except a couple of Cokes, some water and cheese,” said Pregulman. “So I asked her the last time her fridge was full.”
It’s never full, she said. I have to choose every week between food, medicine and paying my bills.
The U.S. government estimates that one-fourth of all survivors in this nation live in poverty. So earlier this fall, Pregulman created Kavod, a nonprofit organization that provides immediate financial help to survivors. Gift cards. Money for medicine. Groceries. No questions asked.
“Kavod means dignity,” he said. “We can’t stand the idea of people who survived the horrors of the Holocaust now having to wonder where their next meal is coming from.”
Their lives and stories remind us of the double nature of humanity: our burning cruelty and our unconquerable spirit.
They remind us that all lives are hallowed but perhaps some more hallowed than others.
When their lives end, they will fall into the forever-long arms of God.
In the Book of Life, they’ll find their names.
And their portraits.
Contact David Cook at email@example.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.
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*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.