Exhibit’s familiar face
This photo is among the images in The Face of the Ghetto: Pictures Taken by Jewish Photographers in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, 1940-1944, produced by the Topography of Terror Foundation, Berlin. The bride on the right is Bronia Sonnenschein; beside her is her groom Erich Strauss. The second bride is Mary Schifflinger with husband Ignatz Yelin. Blessing the couples is Chaim Rumkowski, head of Lodz Ghetto’s Jewish council. Only Sonnenschein survived the Holocaust. She passed away in Vancouver in 2011. (photo from Yad Vashem Photo Archive)
The Face of the Ghetto: Pictures Taken by Jewish Photographers in the Litzmannstadt Ghetto, 1940-1944, opened last week at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. Produced by the Topography of Terror Foundation in Berlin, among the traveling exhibit’s photographs was a surprise – a photo with a local connection.
“Unidentified in the photo caption but recognized by our education director [Adara Goldberg] during her research about this exhibit, Bronia Sonnenschein is depicted in the photo to my left,” said VHEC executive director Nina Krieger in her remarks at the opening on May 14, directing attendees’ attention to an image “showing a double wedding ceremony presided over by Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Council of Elders in the Lodz Ghetto. Bronia was the sole survivor of those shown in this photograph. A multilingual secretary in Rumkowski’s office and a survivor of Auschwitz, Bronia passed away in 2011 but is fondly remembered by so many of us.
“Bronia, who stood maybe ‘this’ tall,” continued Krieger, indicating a measure of about shoulder height, “was a giant in terms of her dignity, her resilience, and her dedication to sharing her eyewitness testimony with tens of thousands students as a VHEC outreach speaker.”
About the Topography of Terror Foundation, Krieger explained that it “is mandated to transmit the history of National Socialism and its crimes, and to encourage people to actively confront this history and its aftermath. A distinctive indoor and outdoor museum, the Topography of Terror is located on the very grounds previously occupied by the primary institutions of Nazi persecution and terror: the SS, the Gestapo secret police and the Reich Main Security Office ran their central operations from the site.”
Krieger provided context for the exhibit. “Following the German invasion of Poland in 1939, the Nazis imposed a ghetto in the city of Lodz, which they renamed Litzmannstadt. From 1940 to 1944, more than 180,000 Jews and 5,000 Roma and Sinti lived in the ghetto’s cramped quarters, with many working in factories that supported the war effort.
“Ghetto residents were not allowed to own cameras, yet Lodz is the most documented of all the ghettos in Nazi-occupied Europe. Some of these images were taken by perpetrators, often trivializing the terrible conditions in the ghetto and attempting to justify the exploitation of Jewish forced laborers. Others – and the focus of this exhibit – were taken by a handful of Jewish photographers, commissioned by the local Jewish council. While instructed to document the productivity of the war industry for the Nazis, the photographers also captured – at great personal risk – intimate moments of family, childhood and community.”
The Face of the Ghetto exhibit is here as a result of VHEC’s partnership with the German Consulate General in Vancouver and the sponsorship of the German government. Consul General Herman Sitz was at the opening and said a few words, as did Sonnenschein’s son, Dan. Drawn from a collection of 12,000 images held by the Lodz State Archives, one of the intimate moments captured is the one in which his mother appears.
“Last Friday was the historic 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day,” said Sonnenschein, addressing those assembled. “May 8th was personally very meaningful for my mother, as it was the date in 1945 on which she was liberated from the Nazi horror. For her, the bitterly harsh years had begun on March 13, 1938, when Germany annexed a largely welcoming Austria, immediately setting off intense persecution of the Jewish population.
“My mother, with her sister and parents, were among the longest-held prisoners in the Lodz Ghetto, from its formation in spring 1940 until its so-called liquidation in August 1944. Unlike many deported there from other places, they had fled Vienna after the notorious Kristallnacht, and were living under great stress in Lodz when the family was forced from their new home into the ghetto. They were later joined by a beloved aunt of my mother who was deported from Vienna. Her cherished elderly grandmother was deported elsewhere and murdered soon after.
“My mother, with her German-language and office skills, worked as a secretary in the ghetto’s Jewish administration,” he explained. “The photo in this exhibit shows her being married to Erich Strauss, who had been deported from Prague with his mother. The other bride in this double ceremony was Mary Schifflinger, my mother’s fellow office worker and good friend, whose groom’s name was Ignatz Yelin. Shown in the photo blessing the couples is Chaim Rumkowski, appointed head of the Jewish council by the ghetto’s masters in the German administration.
“These five people were all transported, in the usual dreadful way, to Auschwitz, where Rumkowski was killed. Soon after, the others were sent to a less well known but no less brutal concentration camp called Stutthof. There, Mary and her husband were killed, Erich Strauss and his mother were killed, my mother’s father and aunt were killed. As my mother once said, it was a killing field.
“Other photos of my mother in the ghetto may be seen on the internet, along with such photos of my Aunt Paula, who also married in the ghetto, to Stan Lenga,” continued Sonnenschein. “Unlike my mother’s first husband, my Uncle Stan survived and the couple was reunited after the war, being a part of my close family in Vancouver along with my maternal grandmother, Emily Schwebel. The local Jewish Family Service Agency gives an annual Paula Lenga Award in my aunt’s memory for exemplary volunteer service.
“My mother was also an exemplary volunteer, in her case, in Holocaust education. She began this late-life career, first under the auspices of the Canadian Jewish Congress and then with this centre, for over two decades compellingly conveying the suffering imposed on her and so many others for, as she put it, the crime of being Jewish. She often quoted Elie Wiesel’s saying: ‘Not every German was a Nazi but every Jew was a victim.’
“Although we no longer can experience her vibrant presence,” concluded Sonnenschein, “we are fortunate to have many recordings of my mother, as well as a book, to help her testimony live on.” Included in those recordings, he said, is one of her talking about the photo in The Face of the Ghetto exhibit, and related matters. The photos he mentioned of his mother and aunt can be found at google.com/culturalinstitute, searching for “Bronia Sonnenschein” and “Paula Lenga.”
In conjunction with the exhibit, the VHEC has developed a school program and teaching resource to engage students. “Visiting school groups will explore topics such as resistance to dehumanization; the unique experiences of children; and the complex role of Jewish leadership under Nazi occupation,” said Krieger, noting that several of the volunteer docents were at the opening. “Volunteers are central to our work,” she said, “and it’s my honor to acknowledge and to thank our docents for everything that they do.”
Krieger also thanked the VHEC staff – present were Goldberg, designer Illene Yu, archivist Elizabeth Shaffer, collections assistant Katie Powell and administrator Lauren Vukobrat – and the installation crew, Wayne Gilmartin and Adam Stenhouse, as well as the consul general.
The Face of the Ghetto is on display at the VHEC until Oct. 16.
– With thanks to Nina Krieger and Dan Sonnenschein for providing electronic copies of their remarks.