Portraits of Holocaust survivors might well be considered the work of decades because truly surviving such a traumatic upheaval goes far beyond living through the experience. Surviving, in its fullest sense, entails thriving—going on to rebuild a life and, eventually, look back upon the days before, during and after the Holocaust to see the complex threads woven together as a whole. Now, more than 70 years since the fall of the Nazi regime, David Jon Kassan has stepped forward to tell the stories and paint the portraits of Holocaust survivors.
His portraits form part of the Edut Project (theedutproject.org)—“edut” being Hebrew for “living witnesses.” By telling the stories, based on personal interviews, and painting the portraits of Holocaust survivors, Kassan lends personal faces and testimonies to what might otherwise become standard text and nameless photographed faces in history books.
Portraits of Holocaust Survivors: Louise and Lazar Farkas
Among Kassan’s portraits of Holocaust survivors is that of Louise and Lazar Farkas. Louise grew up in Northern Romania. Her parents led a comfortable middle-class life, producing dairy products and running a store; Lazar spent his youth across the border in Czechoslovakia and, as a young man, attended business school and then worked in the wholesale grocery business. For a while, the borders between Romania and Czechoslovakia were open, and Lazar would cross over to socialize, talking over coffee and walking the sidewalks with a group of young women, one of whom was Louise.
Descent Into the Holocaust
As anti-Semitism in German-occupied countries grew, Lazar was pressed into forced labor. Working from early morning to late night, he helped build bunkers. Heavy hauling jobs that would normally be performed with horses were consigned entirely to humans. The one silver lining was that, unlike the prisoners in extermination camps, these workers weren’t systematically killed. “They weren’t nice to us,” says Lazar, “but there was no gas chambers.”
Louise was about 20 when she was deported to Auschwitz: “A woman that was in power at the time liked my shoes,” says Louise, “and she took them and I had no shoes. I was barefoot. It was cold, northern climate there: it’s cold in the fall. We struggled.”
Gas chambers were a terrifyingly real presence in Auschwitz. “We knew we are to be destroyed,” says Louise. She kept a protective eye over her sister who was five years younger—and not always inclined to listen to her older sibling. “We had lost our parents, and I felt responsible for her,’ says Louise. “We had no one. … There were several selections, but I held onto her. I didn’t let go. Even for—if it cost my life. Never let go of her. We lost the rest of the family. Five children—I was the oldest. Two of us survived. … There were times that she would just sit down and she wouldn’t cooperate. She was young and didn’t understand what goes on. I dragged her. It was tough.”
But the tides were turning against Germany, and security was unraveling. “We walked out of the camp. Just simply,” says Louise of her and her sister’s escape. “We had no place to go and no money and no food. We went from country to country from there.“
Lazar also managed to run away from his forced labor. “I wound up somewhere in Poland, I don’t know where,“ he says. For a time he hid in a farmer’s hay loft, but when the farmer heard that others had been punished for harboring Jews, he asked Lazar to leave. Lazar lived in the forest and met up with the Czechoslovakian army. He joined the army as a volunteer and ended up stationed in his hometown. He learned that people were escaping from the camps and wanted to look for Louise, so he found a bean that inflamed his eyes, making them appear as if he had trachoma, and presented himself to an officer who sent him to a doctor. The doctor recognized the irritation from the berry but understood. “He knew what I wanted to do,” says Lazar, “that I want to get, so he gave me a paper that I’m free from the army.”
Lazar left messages for Louise that he was looking for her. They crossed the border in opposite directions on the same night, just missing each other. Eventually, Lazar found Louise and the two were soon married. His uncle in America was able to arrange for their immigration, and they settled in Brooklyn. (Louise’s sister wasn’t able to leave until a year later). Both spoke some English, but Lazar found getting a job challenging. One day, when Lazar was sitting on a bench, someone who knew him passed by. The two started talking, and the friend offered Lazar a job in the grocery business.
Lazar and Louise had three daughters. Not wanting their young children to be traumatized, at first the parents didn’t talk about their Holocaust experiences, yet all could not be hidden. “I knew, for example,” said one, “that something terrible had happened because I had no grandparents. Friends of mine had grandparents; they had cousins. I had none.”
Not until the daughters heard about the Holocaust in school did they start asking questions and, little by little, the stories came out. Because the Farkas children attended a Yeshiva school and lived in a neighborhood with many other children of Holocaust survivors, they were able to absorb the information more easily. “It wasn’t that strange to me,” said one daughter. As all three grew older, however, they would grasp the reality of their parent’s experience more fully and work through how it had, in fact, affected them.
Meanwhile, Lazar and Louise built their lives together. Eventually, Lazar with three partners would own three grocery stores and two convenience stores in New York City. Louise kept house and cared for the children, but when one of her daughters entered college, Louise began taking college classes at night. She eventually earned master’s degrees in special education and urban studies. For 25 years she taught in the New York City Public High School in Queens, retiring at age 85. By the time David Jon Kassan interviewed the Farkas family and began the painting of Lazar and Louise for his series of portraits of Holocaust survivors, Lazar was 97 and Louise was 92. They have been married for more than 70 years. In the fullest sense, they have survived.
Read the full story of David Jon Kassan’s portraits of Holocaust survivors in the April 2017 issue of “The Artist’s Magazine.”
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