Review of Invited to Life: Finding Hope After the Holocaust, by B.A. Van Sise

Any attempt to present the experiences of Holocaust survivors faces daunting challenges. There’s a delicacy that’s required, entrusted, as one is, with incomparably precious materials. The weight of responsibility, the transcendent standards are ever-present. The worldly, moral question—“What would you have done?”—haunts every representation. 

But there’s no escape in the pragmatic present either, even for a limited project like a book, because life continues to ask, “What will you do?” What will you do with these realities, with these finite lives, each a whole universe? In sharing these stories, how will you give form to what is given into your hands to pass along? To write about such a book, as I was asked to do for photojournalist B.A. Van Sise’s Invited to Life, involves some related challenges, because it must evaluate the author’s success in that fraught and enormous undertaking. 

Van Sise’s first idea, to portray a handful of survivors for New York’s Village Voice, eventually grew into an exhibition, then this hefty, beautifully produced volume. He is most interested in “not what happened to these survivors during six tempest-tossed years long ago, but rather what happened by these survivors,” in other words, the offspring, careers, artworks, and everything else that exists because of them – “proof,” he writes, “of moving on, and moving up, and moving forward.” To write about such a book, then, is to ask, what is happening now to their stories? How have these memories themselves been moved on, up, and forward by the author’s efforts? 

The fragility, singularity, and wonder associated with each survivor’s life must be honored, but not idealized. Idealization is ultimately dehumanization. As much as I, for example, consider the anti-Nazi resistance fighters among the most courageous in history—so when Van Sise quotes survivor Lyubov Abramovich saying, “It is a woman’s job to carry dynamite,” I’m in awe of her inconceivable fortitude—their actions remain those of human beings, as were those of the persecutors. It’s a truism, of course, but its implications, seriously considered, are devastating. (Hence that relentless refrain: “What would you have done?”) 

The fragility, singularity, and wonder associated with each survivor’s life must be honored, but not idealized. Idealization is ultimately dehumanization.

Van Sise successfully faces this challenge. His subjects, however genuinely radiant they may appear in his black-and-white photographs, are granted their imperfections and follies in his short descriptive texts and in their own words. We meet Albert Rosa, whose rage led him to the boxing ring (“The ones who beat me up, I beat them up back”), but also led his wife to leave him; and Aron Bell, most famous for the dramatization of his and his brothers’ story in the 2008 film Defiance, but somewhat infamous, too, for his and his wife’s guilty plea on rather sordid fraud charges in 2007. Nor is there any effort to hide the range of responses inevitably occasioned by the Shoah. Margot Hopfer says, “You know, when you’re eleven you don’t forgive. And I couldn’t. And I don’t, to this day. That’s the hardest.” So, some are angry, some remain afraid, some speak eloquently, some can barely be coaxed to say a few words. 

More generally, Van Sise does achieve his goal. We get glimpses into an extraordinary range of lives fully lived, like those of Eva Kollisch, peace activist, and her wife, Naomi Replansky; of Pearl Friend, who “married a very good man … had a very nice life for seventy-three years, and I raised beautiful children, my daughter, my son, beautiful grandchildren, and beautiful seven great-grandchildren” (“So, what can I have anything to complain?”); of Helena Weinstock, “who survived the camp that killed Anne Frank, … [and] now spends her evenings as a competitive ballroom dancer”; of Yankele Gross and his brother, Beresh, who became Alex and Bill, and created Albee Homes (“When liberated from Buchenwald, he was homeless. In his first eight years in business alone, he put 20,000 families into new houses every single year”); of the two Hungarian photographers, Laszlo Selly and Laszlo Stern, and their competing Laszlo Studios. “He wanted to sue me,” says Stern. “But we met, and we found we had some things in common. And it’s been friendship ever since.” 

Van Sise often pictures his subjects with a child or grandchild, or holding a treasured or symbolically significant object (sometimes with a surreal twist), always against a deep black background—emerging, as he puts it, “from darkness, with the sun to their faces so that their shadows might fall behind them.” Though each and every one should be celebrated for its nobility, some of my favorites are Werner Reich, who seems to hold a puff of smoke in his palm; Ernest Weiss and his flying hat; Morris Engelson and his flying granddaughter; Gabriella Karin and her statues of female figures; Rabbi Nissan Mangel and his grandson, a light between them shining on both; Albert Rosa in his boxing gloves; Vernon Mosheim with his partner, Bob; Lea Radziner, holding her granddaughter for the first time in over a year because of COVID.

Ernest Weiss

Of course, each survivor’s face says more than we’ll ever be able to assimilate. And interestingly, one of the subjects, Laszlo Selly, criticizes Van Sise’s aesthetic by describing his own busier, fluorescent-lit photos of survivors, which he shoots in their everyday surroundings: “They’re raw. … I don’t hide anything.” But I think one could conceive these contrary approaches as sides of the same bigger picture. Both speak to the book’s theme in their own ways: one illuminates the subject’s very soul, the other places them into the wider world. So when Van Sise writes that Selly doesn’t like his, Van Sise’s, photos (adding, “as well he shouldn’t”), he honors that sense of limitation, failure, even impossibility which must accompany every Holocaust representation, if it’s to do any measure of justice. 

Thus impossibility itself emerges as a theme. There’s the impossibility of settling once and for all that most essential question, religion – and so we meet Mireille Taub, whose portrait opens with her statement, “I don’t believe in God … Sorry, God. I believe in justice and humanity,” while in the very next portrait, Rabbi Mangel says, “Absolutely, I do believe in God. … I do not do so in spite of what I went through, but because of what I went through.” There’s the seeming impossibility of what they all went on to accomplish, after what they endured: “All of them lost their homes; many lost their entire families. Many were tortured, many were slaves. The act of getting up in the morning seems impossible, and yet all of them did: built professions, built loves, built families, built lives.” 

There’s the impossibility of expressing what they went through at all, so we get comments like that of Werner Reich: “Everyone asks how it was. I don’t know what they want me to say. Yeah, I was in Auschwitz. It was lousy.” And we hear about impossible decisions: “What does a mother want to do?” asks Anita Nagel Weisbord. “To hold you close. But I truly believe my mother gave birth to me twice: when I was born, and then when she had the strength, and the foresight, to send me away.” 

Finally, there’s the impossibility of the miraculous, set against its omnipresence: “Officially, science does not recognize a miracle, and even open miracles are eventually assimilated into ‘nature.’ But how many coincidences can the mind accept before one starts to wonder?” This is the voice of physics professor Morris Engelson, who “escaped the ghetto dressed as a peasant woman, [and] spent much of the war hiding in barns and attics.” He continues, “Taken to the extreme, we could say that any event, no matter what the odds or how it comes about or who is involved, is a miracle.” 

The first of three guest pieces in the book, by actress Mayim Bialik (the others are by authors Neil Gaiman and Sabrina Orah Mark), is appropriately titled “Modern Miracles.” Of her grandparents Bialik writes, “The fact that I was alive was a miracle to them. Being alive is, indeed, a miracle.” And she reminds us again of the impossibility of any unified, reconciled response: “I had one grandparent who wept all the time. And the other grandparent who never wanted to cry again, so he sang all the time.”

Gabriella Karin

As he writes of his subjects, “none of these stories begin with happily, but they’d all had at least seventy-five years of ever after.”

As I said above, writing about Van Sise’s book repeats to a much lesser degree certain risks that the author himself faced. One mustn’t be too cautious, lest the mess and dirt of real life disappear into aestheticism, or be too sure of things, lest life’s inescapable, perhaps necessary conflicts get rationalized away. So I feel compelled to address one issue I have with the book. The author’s left-leaning slant emerges in various places, usually not dwelt upon or elaborated, our agreement simply presumed. He is obviously entitled to his political views, and politicization of the Holocaust is entirely appropriate, in its place—how else to help ensure “Never again”? But there are profound differences of opinion, especially among American and, it must be said, Israeli Jews on political matters. In this context, Van Sise might have been better either to stay away from these contemporary divisions altogether, or to have acknowledged the inevitable political differences among survivors. 

If, in the end, however, the author manages to convey that these luminous everyday people are more important than anything he might add, he has done his job beautifully. He has been true to his intention: to show existence ongoing, life being lived. For, as he writes of his subjects, “none of these stories begin with happily, but they’d all had at least seventy-five years of ever after.” Now we, with all our personal foibles and preferences and prejudices, are part of their “ever after,” too. How we assume that responsibility—how accurately we perceive reality in its mottled light, how willing we are to forego comfortable simplifications, how faithfully we allow the past to speak to the present and to inform our actions—constitutes our answer to that infinite question: what would you have done, what will you do?