Feiga Rivka Huss was born in Ruscova, Romania, on 17th September 1922. Just a few months before her 90th birthday, she died in Israel – surrounded by a family she created from scratch. The British photographer Harry Borden travelled to meet her shortly before her death. There, he also met some of her two children, nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren – “so far”, she said. She hoped for more. The photograph Borden took that day is part of the new photography collection Survivor: A portrait of the survivors of the Holocaust, published to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day 2017.
In Borden's picture, Feiga Rivka stands against a whitewashed wall in her home, her hair pulled tightly back and wearing a mauve dress. Her hands are clenched into fists, and she looks intently at the person taking her picture. “Came from hell, arose from the ashes – built a new life, raised a family”, she told him. The daughter of Chaim and Sassi Slomovits, Feiga Rivka grew up with seven brothers and sisters. She went to school until the age of 12, before going to work as a seamstress to help support her family. In 1944, the day after Pesach (Passover), the German authorities took her family to the Viseu de Sus ghetto in Romania, a tiny village to which an estimated 35,000 Jews were sent en route to Auschwitz. To eat, she became a street cleaner. After Shavuot (the Jewish Feast of Weeks holiday) of the same year, her family were deported to Auschwitz. During the selection process at the doors of the camp, Feiga Rivka was separated from her father. She never saw him again. Feiga Rivka's mother and six of her siblings came under the study of Josef Mengele, the notorious physician at Auschwitz. He eventually sent them to the gas chambers. But Feiga Rivka and her sister Shoshana somehow survived. They were liberated from Auschwitz in May 1945, journeyed together across Europe and managed to find their way back to Ruscova, the Romanian town where they had been born, hoping to be reunited with other surviving family members. They realised they were entirely alone. Feiga Rivka’s experiences are far from unusual. Many survivors of the Holocaust faced the prospect of a life shorn of every member of their family – their body the one surviving remnant of generation upon generation of ancestry. Feiga Rivka passed away in 2011. And yet, in this photograph, she is fiercely alive, living out her life surrounded by a large and vibrant family, all of whom owe her their life. Feiga Rivka was one of 102 Holocaust survivors to have their portrait taken by Borden. The project took him more than eight years to complete, and encompassed journeys to survivors now settled in the UK, America, Australia, Israel and north Africa. It’s more than 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz. But with these simple portraits, Borden shows how the people at the heart of the Holocaust have overcome, or at least lived through, an experience of total and unimaginable trauma. With initial help from the London Jewish Cultural Centre, Borden details the childhood and wartime experiences of each survivor, as well as how their lives have unfolded since the end of Nazism. The portraits are all the more poignant for the fact that many of the survivors are now coming to terms with the end of their life – from old age. They are, as one survivor puts it, “now in the sunset of life.” Each portrait, taken in the subject's home, is published alongside a handwritten note. Borden invited each survivor to write anything they felt appropriate, then published the note unedited, replete with every quirk of their own, unique handwriting.
Some are simple statements of fact. “I am happy to still be here”, says a woman called Jadzia Opat. “A physically and emotionally crippling experience” is how Tosha Jedwab recalls the Holocaust. “I think of myself as a person, a wife and a mother first, and a survivor last”, says Mirjam Finkelstein. “I am a child survivor,” writes Eve Kugler. “Those of us who survived were not more worthy than those who perished. Nor were we braver, richer, smarter or more resourceful. We were not. We were just luckier.”
Other notes are from family members. “My grandma used to say that she could not believe what she went through,” writes Marcus, grandson of Barbara Stimler. “(She is) a reminder of the past and an inspiration for the future. A survivor in every sense of the word. She lived to raise two children and deeply cherished her grandchildren and great grandchildren. Grandma passed away 31 days ago.”
Other survivors share poetry. Ruth Lavie Jourgrau, photographed smiling as she stands by a nectarine tree in her garden, writes: “A smile of a granddaughter, a hug of an already grown up grandson, a concerning 'how are you' from a daughter, a son. A look from my beloved. In all these exists my happiness. Indeed, I don’t need the breaking of glass to remind me of my devastation. I am a child survivor who doesn’t forget, who longs. If I only could just once put my head in Mother’s warm lap, wrapped in her soft look. If I could only once walk, my hand in Father’s warm hand, my cheek rubbing his rough coat. I am a child survivor. A child of the warm. I survive anew, every day.” Reading these thoughts alongside the faces of these ageing people, a thought occurs: to experience and survive a pan-national, industrialised form of genocide, then to raise children, the most natural thing a person can do, is in itself an act of defiance, the sweetest, most conscientious form of revenge. “My parents, brother, grandmother, grandfather, uncles, aunties all died in the Holocaust. The war was over and I got to Israel. I was in a kibbutz, I studied, I got married and I built a big family,” says Leah Ben-Dov. “I have four girls, eighteen grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. I think the best investment of a Holocaust survivor is building a big family instead of that that was annihilated.”
“Many of the people in these portraits died before the book’s publication,” Borden says of the long experience of compiling this remarkable collection of photographs. “One day soon, all survivors will be gone. “I would suggest that, a couple of decades from now, foolish and sinister people will increasingly feel able to deny the Holocaust ever happened. “These portraits will hopefully become a small part of the documentation of a uniquely horrific event in modern history. “My hope is that this work honours not only all those who were gracious enough to take part, but also every other survivor, along with the men, women and children who were killed during the Holocaust.” In a foreword, the Jewish novelist (and Man Booker Prize winner) Howard Jacobson writes: “Holocaust denial, Holocaust scepticism, Holocaust justification, Holocaust ridicule, Holocaust diminishment – in our time not listening is only one of the ways the stories go unheeded, and when those stories are unheeded or even mocked, it as though the dead are murdered a second time. "There are fewer and fewer survivors left to speak about what only they can know. “It is all the more important, then, that they bear witness to a truth so many do not want to hear. Not sentimentally, or morbidly, not with self-pity or in expectation of praise or admiration, but with the strength of certainty. “After a while there is nothing left you have to prove. There you stand, and your resolution is your truth, let the malicious and the jealous of heart deny you as they will.” Survivor: A portrait of the survivors of the Holocaust, by Harry Borden, is published by Cassell from 27th January 2017 harryborden.co.uk