It's been 25 years since I first stepped onto the blood-soaked terrain of Auschwitz-Birkenau for the first time, 25 years since I first saw photos that were to change my life -- photos that Hitler never wanted anyone to see.
And for good reason. These were personal photos confiscated from Jews deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, precious photos they couldn't leave behind. And because Hitler said Jews were sub-human, these photos -- so very, very human -- had to be destroyed.
And millions were, together with their owners.
But in one place, at one time, photos of an entire transport were hidden and saved by Auschwitz-Birkenau's Jewish Underground.
These personal photos were carried to Auschwitz-Birkenau in August 1943 by Jews who believed they would be worked, not murdered. And these are the photos they chose for their own remembering.
Sweethearts falling in love. Wedding photos. Baby photos. Kids on school outings. Vacations at tony resorts. In short, we see the texture of lives that once existed, lives often reduced to a single number -- 6 million -- a number that can never even begin to suggest the richness, diversity, vibrancy of the individuals involved.
In October 1986, I was on a Federation-organized trip that brought 40 Philadelphians -- among them longtime leaders in the community -- to Eastern Europe, which was then still under Communist control. It was the first time I saw the photos in a locked room in Auschwitz, Poland, where there were 2400 unknown photos in all.
I've been back to Poland many times, first to negotiate with the Communist government for permission to see, then copy, the pictures; I've gone to remote locations around the world to share them with audiences. And I've interviewed survivors, who have trusted me with their precious memories.
These photos form the basis of my book, The Last Album: Eyes from the Ashes of Auschwitz-Birkenau, as well as a film and a traveling photographic exhibition.
As we commemorate Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, Nov. 9-10, 1938, the pogram against the Jews in Germany that is seen as the beginning of the Nazis' genocidal assault on the Jews of Europe, here's a glimpse of one of the stories behind the photos:
I was once speaking at a Holocaust conference about Holocaust art, when a man asked, "What do you do when you find someone?" I explained I listen to stories, I give copies of photos. The man asked again, and again. Finally I asked very gently, "What are you trying to say?"
"I think you have the last picture of my baby brother and sister!" This was survivor Ben Hirsch, now in his 80s and living in Atlanta, who related his story to me.
His father had been a leader of the Jewish community in Frankfurt. "As the situation got worse, my mother tried to convince him to leave Germany, but he refused, saying, "I cannot abandon the community," he recalled.
But on Kristallnacht, when the Germans shattered storefronts and burned synagogues, Dr. Hirsch, with thousands of others, disappeared. He never returned.
"My mother went into action and managed to get us older kids on the last Kindertransport to France. Nice people in France and England took Jewish children to their homes for the duration of the war. I was only six. My older siblings knew what was happening, but my mother was afraid I would cry, and said we were going on vacation. When Papa came home, she said, my parents and the babies (Roselena, 6 months, and Werner, 18 months) would join us. I was excited to get on a train, and I said goodbye without even knowing it was goodbye. I never saw Mama or the babies again."
In these 25 years, I've shared these photos and stories with people of many ages, ethnicities, religions.
When the Dalai Lama and I both spoke, a few hours apart, at a conference at Emory University in Atlanta last fall, many at Emory compared my message of tolerance to his. And to celebrate this 25th anniversary of the photos, I participated in a conference last week at the University of Rochester that also featured Bill Clinton and Antonin Scalia.
But the way these photos are received by ordinary people, even schoolchildren, has had the most profound impact.
On Cinqo de Mayo, May 5, this year, I spoke at an urban high school in Eugene, Ore., screening my film and telling stories about the photos.
When I finished, I walked through the courtyard of this Hispanic neighborhood, filled with pinatas, mariachi band, Mexican fare and students celebrating.
A young girl ran to catch me. Ayde Hernandez, 15, needed to say something after my presentation. With eyes full of meaning, groping for words, she asked me, "What do you feel with these pictures?" But I asked her, "What do you feel?"
Softly, she answered, "I feel I now understand."
What more could I wish?
To listen to survivors' stories and memories, and share their memories with others, has been both a grave responsibility and honored privilege.
The future of these photos, negatives, taped interviews, research notes and more is still being determined. I want to find a permanent placement to ensure that when I can no longer travel to teach their message about the importance of tolerance, the power of these photos and the wisdom of their owners continue to open minds and hearts.
Ann Weiss, Ph.D., who lives in Bryn Mawr, is founder-director of Eyes from the Ashes Educational Foundation and a researcher, writer, filmmaker, educator and photographer. Contact her at [email protected] .