Three years ago, photographer Danny Weiss listened to Irving Roth speak to a group of 12 year olds at a pre-bar mitzvah lecture to tell his story of the atrocities which he witnessed and experienced as a survivor of the Holocaust. Weiss was so moved by Roth’s strength, courage, and passion it inspired Weiss to embark on a project to show the world the faces of 18 survivors and their resiliency 80 years later.
The project culminated in the Survivor Exhibit, the opening of which was held Saturday at the Port Washington Public Library. The exhibit features portraits along with quotes from survivors that surround the photos. The quotes were not specifically attributed to the people in the portraits, a creative move on Weiss’ behalf to create an “overall feeling” throughout the exhibit.
“When I started, I had a preconceived notion of what I thought the imagery should look like,” said Weiss. “It failed miserably in the first shoots. Over the process of three years, I went more in the direction of an organic experience, allowing the person to be seen.”
Weiss asked his subjects questions like what the first song was that they heard on the radio when they made it to America, or what their favorite food was when they came here. The result created a varied and living human experience that moves and inspires its viewers.
The project initially got started after Weiss teamed up with project producer Dinah Kramer, who works with Roth, the project’s initial inspiration, at the Holocaust Research Center in Temple Judea in Manhasset, which is where Weiss first heard Roth speaking. Kramer frequently volunteers and helps out and was quickly sought out for her assistance in the project.
“I’m a daughter of Holocaust survivors,” said Kramer. “My mother’s picture is [here] and so I know a bunch of survivors. We started this project with no real idea of where we were going with it, but in these times with the uptick in anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, we wanted to show the world these people are here and even though they were children and teens during the time of the Holocaust, they are stronger and they rebuilt their lives.”
North Hempstead Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth, whose parents were also Holocaust survivors, reflected on her family during the opening.
“I’d like to think if my mom was still alive that she would have been number 19 of the portraits because she was a woman of great fortitude, always optimistic,” said Bosworth. “I would always say my mom’s a real pip, and she was.”
Bosworth’s mother is also the reason she went into public service.
“My mother would always say to me this is such a great country; if it weren’t for the United States of America, we wouldn’t have survived,” she recalled.
But aside from the great energy and tenacity of the survivors in the portraits, it was just as important for the exhibit to be a source of education. To Roth, that has certainly been a pillar throughout his life and career as he speaks frequently to audiences on his experiences.
“Humans are capable of heinous crimes but we’re also capable of great heights,” said Roth. “The question is, how would you achieve the great heights? By educating with a moral compass. I’ve seen the worst of humanity but I’ve also seen the most beautiful parts. As long as you retain your moral compass, there is a light.”