In a light-filled space, anchored by a granite monument on a brick wall, a group of students gaze into the faces of elders – men and women photographed thirty years ago. The ensuing conversation addresses issues ranging from isolation and solidarity to oppression and survival. Some students share fragments of a narrative they have learned about in history class. Some have read Elie Wiesel’s Night or The Diary of Anne Frank. Many are honest in sharing that the information is new to them. Together, we connect stories of more than sixty years ago to the concerns of today. Lived experiences that seem ancient become tangible, more relevant, when they are asked whether they have anyone in their lives who is seventy-five years old. When everyone raises their hands, channeling their grandparents, teachers, mentors, neighbors, or friends into the space, we all realize this is not simply history, it is now.
The students are from a local high school, learning about the art of photography, the power of storytelling, the importance of love in action, and of being an upstander, through a project of writer Malka Druker and photographer Gay Block. The space is the Frisch Family Holocaust Memorial Gallery at Jewish Family & Community Services (JFCS) where Block’s portraits line the walls in the show The Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust.
This newest cultural space in Jacksonville sits in the heart of a building that houses one of the region’s oldest social service non-profits. For a hundred and one years, JFCS has been committed to strengthening the community by supporting the needs of families and individuals of all backgrounds and faiths. Today, their reach is wide and their impact deep as JFCS serves foster children and provides counseling and adoption services, access to food and clothing, school-based programming, and classes in parenting, anger management, and financial assistance.
JFCS also supports ninety-nine Holocaust survivors living in the Northeast Florida region. As part of this work, a commitment was made to create a memorial to the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, right in the heart of their newly renovated building that opened in 2017. Inspired by the vision of Morris Bendit, a survivor himself, the space houses a permanent granite memorial. Through maps, images, statistics and poetry, the monument documents the lives lost and the places throughout Europe where the Nazis exterminated six million Jews and other people deemed less than human by the murderous regime. The memorial also lifts up the legacy of survival and the importance of universal human rights.
Surrounding the monument is an intimate gallery space, dedicated to rotating exhibitions that not only illustrate the history of the Holocaust, but also universal themes of acceptance, tolerance and justice. Combined with the adjacent Chartrand Family Tolerance Center, this special, safe place uses art as a tool for shared learning and human connection.
The inaugural exhibition, in 2018, focused on survivors. Through the photographs of Ingrid Damiani and the stories of a dozen survivors and their families, visitors were introduced to harrowing narratives of brutality and courage and the importance of remembering and honoring their history – our history. It seemed appropriate to continue the story of the Holocaust with an exhibition focused not on the perpetrators, but on those individuals who stood up during a time filled with unparalleled risk.
The Rescuers: Portrait of Moral Courage in the Holocaust began as a project with Druker and Block to create a children’s book about a family who rescued Jewish people during the Holocaust, but became a multi-year, global journey to document one-hundred and five individual rescuers through photographs and interviews. Their landmark book, published in 1992, was followed by Block premiering her photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The exhibition travelled nationally for more than a decade to fifty museums and university galleries. Now, thirty years later, the work is being seen again, starting in Jacksonville, with the hope that the lessons of courage, hope and truth will ring loudly today, despite this being a period when the history of the Holocaust is obscured by time, lack of education, and even outright denial.
It is critical to learn from the people who lived the Holocaust. While we still have survivors among us, those who were rescuers have all passed from this earthly plain. Their stories, their images, and their commitment to speaking truth remain. Block and Druker present each one in a brilliantly honest way. Block’s portraits show them in their final years, in their most intimate spaces, unflinchingly authentic, open for dialogue with the viewer. And their stories, combined with historic photographs, provide a glimpse into the complexity of war time and the years since, which were not always kind and often required continued tenacity, empathy and action.
The rescuers seemingly have little in common: They were scattered throughout Europe in small towns and large city centers in The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and the Ukraine. They were Catholics, Protestants and atheists. A few were wealthy aristocrats, but most lived modestly, working as teachers, furniture makers, musicians, farmers. Some were revolutionaries, but many were simply trying to survive a time of war, hunger and fear.
By Hope McMath ~ Images by Gay Block