When Jim Hollander, an American photographer, arrived by ship in Israel in 1983, he found the cafe society of Tel Aviv had one major difference to other cities along the shores of the Mediterranean.
“You would see these people sitting with numbers on their arms,” Hollander recalled, referring to tattooed Nazi identification codes. “I thought: I would love to do a big story on this. Tel Aviv was filled with Holocaust survivors. And that stayed with me for years.”
But covering the news – getting early-morning calls to drive off or fly off to a different place – Hollander never found a free moment. “This is a relentless news story. You don’t have time to do projects you’d like to do, personal things. The news controls things.”
Hollander never left the region. He married Rina Castelnuovo, a renowned Israeli photographer who shoots for the New York Times, and they settled in a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem.
Nearly four decades later, Castelnuovo and Hollander remain almost as busy as they ever were. Yet both knew that if they were to do the project, it would have to be now. “In five or 10 years, these people will be gone,” said Castelnuovo.
The result of their efforts is one of the largest feats of photojournalism ever attempted. More than 250 photographers in around 25 countries have taken portraits of the last Holocaust survivors.
All are professional photographers who volunteered their time. Carol Guzy, the first journalist to win a Pulitzer prize four times, photographed Goldie Szachter Kalib, who survived the Holocaust as a 13-year-old. Steve McCurry, famed for his green-eyed “Afghan girl” cover shot for National Geographic, was also paired with a survivor.
Castelnuovo and Hollander have met scores of news photographers in a career of reporting on conflict in the Middle East, but the project also includes contributions from dozens of prominent commercial, art, fashion and studio photographers. One of the best known, Mark Mann, is celebrated for his up close and brightly lit celebrity fashion shoots.
Pictures have been taken of people who have lived extraordinary lives, including Anne Frank’s stepsister, Eva Schloss, and Ryszard Horowitz, one of the youngest concentration camp survivors to make it on to Oskar Schindler’s list. Horowitz later became a photographer himself.
One man, Shaul Paul Ladany, became a two-time Olympian race walker. In 1972 he was one of five members of the Israeli team in Munich to survive a bloody attack by Palestinian militants.
Only one person photographed was not, in fact, a Holocaust survivor. Benjamin Ferencz is the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials. “He said: you guys better come along and photograph me soon,” Hollander said with a laugh.
On Monday, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, an exhibition showing the photos will open at the UN headquarters in New York. On the same day, a video of the portraits will be screened in Israel, Germany and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
When contacting photographers during the past two years, Castelnuovo and Hollander gave minimal direction as they did not want to influence the final shot. Hollander would say: “Do what you want to do. I don’t want to tell you what to do, or even suggest what to do … shoot it, meet the person, send me the finished product. You edit the picture. It’s your project too.”
The result is an incredibly diverse set of pictures with no singular artistic theme. There are close, intimate portraits in black and white and others in bright colours showing people dancing, getting their hair cut or with their vast families – one captures a woman hanging up cards for her 90th birthday on a length of string.
“The majority [of photos] show something different – people living their lives. They studied, they had a career, they had children, and we wanted to show that,” said Castelnuovo. “It’s true that behind everything, behind the facade of a successful life, there is a terrible past … The idea is to look at these people that, despite everything, managed to go on with their lives, rebuild their lives.”
In their living room, their 49-year-old pet parrot squawking in the background, Hollander and Castelnuovo acknowledge they have started something that may end up consuming their lives for years. They say the project will never be formally finished as more and more photographers express interest. Tens of thousand of survivors are thought to be still alive today. Not all have been identified. “We’re still accepting work … I’m not sure we will be able to manage it,” said Hollander.
A big driver of the exhibition was to combat rising antisemitism and increasing ignorance around the European genocide. Castelnuovo and Hollander had seen surveys on how large percentages of Europeans know little or nothing about the Holocaust. “What can we do as photographers, except what we know?” said Castelnuovo.
She also has a familial motive for the project. Both of her parents, originally Polish, were Holocaust survivors. The exhibition is titled the Lonka Project, after her mother, Elenora “Lonka” Nass, who survived five Nazi concentration camps. When Lonka died in 2018, her daughter felt the burden of telling her story was passed on.
“Suddenly you feel like you inherit this terrible past. And you have to do something with it,” she said. “That’s how I feel – that I have some inheritance, that I have to do something with it.”