Research & Creative Activity

Indiana University

Office of Research and the University Graduate School
Volume XVII, Number 1, April 1994

"I Am from People"

In a frame on the mantle or an album on the shelf, we keep photographs as an index to the story of our lives. That story, kept in the multimedia hodgepodge of memory, is what interests Professor of Fine Arts Jeffrey Wolin.

Wolin has always been interested in the stories behind the photographs. In his latest project--portraits of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust--his lens captures subjects amidst their memories. After creating a portrait of one of the survivors, Wolin sifts through hours of videotaped interviews, quoting or paraphrasing into a narrative that he transcribes by hand directly onto the black-and-white print. The technique, developed over the last eight years, disregards the traditional sanctity of photographic space and image. Wolin probes with continuing success the boundaries that separate visual and verbal forms. His "phototext" portraits of Holocaust survivors offer powerful images of the present, the past, and the intimate process of remembering that links the two.

The dramatic contrast between the movement of story and the stillness of image suggests an interesting synergy that he has explored in many projects. In the afterword to his 1985 book Stone Country--coauthored with IU English department colleague Scott R. Sanders--Wolin reflects that his photographic record of Indiana's stone quarries resembles one of the hardiest of narrative forms: the travelogue. Motion is present even when the image is rock-still. He writes, "For nearly every hole in our backyard here in the stone belt . . . there is a building or monument somewhere. . . . I have followed chunks of limestone ripped from the ground at Independent Limestone Co. to the towers of the National Cathedral (with a brief layover at Bybee Stone Mill)."

Despite the narrative thread joining the photographs in Stone Country, the pictures reflect even more strongly a formal aesthetic that enshrines the image itself. That aesthetic, dominant in photography until recently, discouraged any breach of the compositional or technical integrity of the photograph or of the photographic process. So in 1985 when Wolin pulled out some old pictures of his parents and started to write his memories on the prints, he was breaking a powerful tradition. But he was dealing now with his own memories and with an equally powerful need to get past the limits of photography. He began composing prints and writing on them in a long series of autobiographical phototexts.

Wolin extended these experiments in 1987 with an award-winning series that documents the lives of residents in Bloomington's Crestmont public housing community. The five-year project showcased his developing technique and led to a Guggenheim Fellowship in 19911992. With the help of that fellowship, he closed the Crestmont series and began concentrated work on the portraits of Holocaust survivors.

Wolin had not planned a full series when he photographed Auschwitz survivor Miso Vogel in 1988. But now, as he notes, "This project is timely because with each passing day there are fewer and fewer eyewitnesses left to one of the darkest eras in the history of humankind." The only way to record those stories is to record the memories of those who survived. Assisted by a grant from the Office of Research and the University Graduate School at IU and with the help of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation in Skokie, Illinois, Wolin has successfully photographed and interviewed dozens of survivors.

Wolin has learned, however, that obtaining these stories is not a straightforward task, for the potential effect of trauma on the memory is troubling. "Primo Levi [Italian writer and Auschwitz survivor] wrote that you have to be careful with people's memories. He described a moral gray zone that most people lived in [during the Holocaust]. There were those who could turn around and do heroic things, while victims could be forced into doing terrible things." The result is, of course, that some survivors may be unwilling or unable to testify accurately to their own weaknesses in the morally inchoate world of Hitler's labor and death camps.

As an artist and interviewer, Wolin is intrigued by how the memory latches on to highly specific details, and he has talked with survivors about how they remember: "You remember the first things, the really shocking new things, in great detail. So you remember your first day in Auschwitz, you remember what people wore, what someone's breath smells like, the odor of people who haven't taken a shower. There are certain things you'll remember in great, great detail, that you'll never forget."

In one portrait, Mieczyslaw Weinberg--body builder, retired mechanic, Holocaust survivor, Nazi killer- -peers down at the camera. Mieczyslaw's tattooed forearm slings across the black-and-white print while his story, transcribed in a small, attentive hand, fills negative space near the top of the frame. In straight-forward language inflected with the rhythms of his native Polish, Mieczyslaw tells of returning home from the Aryan side of Warsaw in time to see a Nazi soldier murder Mieczyslaw's friend on a dark, ghetto street. Fearing for his own life, Mieczyslaw then kills the soldier. Details both commonplace and profound share equal space in Mieczyslaw's memory as he describes the aftermath: "They got there in the ghetto hundreds of dead people each day from hunger. We put him [the soldier] on the wagon with the Jewish dead people and put maybe 25 or 30 dead Jews on him and took him to the Jewish cemetery, the Gesia Cemetery. His uniform was burned up; I don't know who stole the revolver. . . . That revolver was worth a lot of thousands of zlotys because it was a really German Luger. This was the story. You got every day such stories in the ghetto."

Such words lend a documentary and aesthetic power to the portraits. Wolin explains how: "I'm a great believer in the documentary style tradition. Walker Evans [American photographer] is the one who drew the distinction between documentary and documentary style. By that he meant that you work within a specific kind of tradition, and yet your concerns are still [those of] visual artists. It's not just information you're after; it's also trying to create powerful-looking [images] with the belief that the strongest of them visually will be the most successful."

For some of the survivors that Wolin has photographed, those powerful details do not remain bounded neatly in the past. The survivors' experiences suggest that the act of remembering is not simply personal or memorial, and it is not only about the past. Remembering is a present activity that weaves itself tightly into the fabric of the ongoing and daily process of living. Alice Friedman, a young girl when her father was taken to jail shortly before the outbreak of World War II, experienced blackouts when she tried to think about that terrible night. She entered counseling years later to get rid of the "pus rising to the surface after festering for years" that was gradually destroying her life. In therapy, remembering saved Alice's future by giving her access to the past: "What was inside all these years were the thoughts I had had that night. . . . One was . . . that I better not love him [her father] because it's not safe. The second one was: if they took him, how do I know they're not coming back for my mother?" Uncovering those suppressed thoughts helped Alice to neutralize some of her terrors, but the exposed memories presented her a new challenge: "The third thought was the hardest of all. . . . And I figure that it's just something I have to learn to live with and cope with rather than erase. And that was the thought that when I grow up they're going to come and get me."

For Jadzia Strykowska, Alice Friedman's fear became very real. In 1978, the National Socialist Party of America tried to hold a white supremacy rally in Skokie, home to one of America's largest survivor communities. As a girl, Jadzia had been snatched on her way to join the Jewish underground and sent to Bergen-Belsen, and her memories became a prop and weapon when the Nazis came to get her again: "When the Nazis wanted to come here under our windows, so to say, that was a little too much and it kind of woke us up and we decided not to let it happen. . . . They legally later on won that they can walk but they got afraid to walk here because they knew that we would never let them get out alive from here. . . . When it was over, we started speaking; we started telling our stories."

Jadzia recognizes the urgency of the times. As the group of survivors shrinks each year, their voices fight to be heard over a stubborn chorus of hate groups and a controversial handful of scholars claiming that the Holocaust never happened. Jadzia's militancy is not uncommon, and according to Wolin, the survivors are resolute. As Miso Vogel said, "I tell you one thing: [it's not] going to happen to the Jews again! The war kind of caught [their parents] unawares . . . [but] this generation says, 'If they mess with us, they're going to be sorry.'"

The urgent need to make survivor memories part of present consciousness fuels Wolin's continuing artistic efforts in the survivor series. He recently won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and was named a United States/France Fellow in recognition of his work thus far. The awards will make possible a 1994 sojourn in Europe, where he will continue to photograph and interview survivors. While there, Wolin will also arrange for European exhibits of the whole series, slated for completion and book publication in 1995, the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II. "This work needs to be seen in Europe," he notes, "returned, so to speak, to the scene of the crime."

Although survivors' memories are part of a vast historic experience, they are also fundamentally intimate. At that level, remembering is both a source of pain and a means of grace. One of Wolin's subjects, Clara Weiss, spoke of a door that must remain shut, of painful memories that survivors keep locked up in order to function day to day. Wolin also tells of photographing Miso Vogel, who let the door open just a bit one day: "I asked him, 'Do you have any artifacts from your family?' And he took a precious box of pictures, and he took that picture of his father [who died at Auschwitz] and held it, and he actually connected . . . that photograph was a door to those memories, and he was moved."

As Miso, many of Wolin's subjects had their portraits taken while holding snapshots of their own--dogeared, yellowed, sometimes in pieces--photographs of friends, family, or themselves before the war. The pictures and the memories they stimulate can be painful, but they can also provide powerful sustenance. During her imprisonment at Bergen-Belsen, Jadzia Strykowska tenaciously guarded a few torn photographs of her family and herself. When Wolin photographed her for his series, she posed with those fragments and recalled how important they had been to her: "And so every day the circumstances got harder and harder. My solace were my pictures. When I came in in the evening I used to unroll them and look at them and say, 'My goodness, I am not from stone. I am from people. I am from a family.'" Jadzia's pictures kept her human in an inhuman world. Or, as Wolin accurately summarizes, "Photographs saved her life."

Perhaps Jeffrey Wolin's portraits and narratives must become the carefully guarded solace of new generations, forcing and allowing them to remember survivors they will never hear in person. Then, perhaps, as photographs saved Jadzia's life, these other photographs will help preserve the future from an evil that nearly consumed the past.

--Jonathan Barclay

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