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Ilsa Maier is guilty of inappropriate smiling. She’s been told this her whole life, and admits it’s probably some sort of defense mechanism — she giggles so she doesn’t cry.
That’s how she explained the smile on her face in a photograph of herself some 65 years ago, just after she was selected for labor at Auschwitz. And that is probably why she snickered on a recent afternoon, as she pointed herself out in that same photograph, now hanging on the wall of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, a beneficiary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Maier’s 22-year-old visage stares out from a photo included in “Auschwitz Album,” a Yad Vashem exhibit, continuing through April 3, of an album documenting the SS processing of a Hungarian transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau. When Maier, who lives in Encino, saw that the exhibit was visiting the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust on Wilshire Boulevard, she sent a letter to museum director Mark Rothman informing him that she and her cousin were in one of the photos. She couldn’t make the Jan. 27 opening, but Rothman invited her to visit a few weeks later.
The photo Maier is in is labeled, in precise handwriting, “Einweisung ins Arbeitslager,” “able-bodied for work.” Those not deemed able-bodied were sent directly to the gas chambers.
The photo was taken just after Maier arrived in Auschwitz in May or June of 1944. She is still wearing her own clothes, rather than a prisoner’s uniform, but she and the hundreds of women with her have already had their heads shaven in the delousing process. Against the gray landscape of chimneys and barbed wire, the women march in loose order, carrying blankets. Most look dazed; some, like Ilsa, are smiling.
“We were blank at the time,” she recalls. “We were just happy to survive.”
The 193 photos in the album were taken by SS guards and document the entire selection process, short of the killings themselves.
Days after the war ended, survivor Lilly Jacob-Zelmanovic Meier (no relation to Ilsa) came upon the album as she searched for a sweater in the chilly former SS barracks where she was being housed. She recognized the rabbi of her town in the photos. Lilly distributed some of the photos to survivors she recognized. She allowed the Jewish Museum of Prague to copy the photos in 1949, which accounts for their publication in several books, and in the 1960s she presented the photos at the Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt. In 1981, Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld convinced her to turn the album over to Yad Vashem.
Ilsa Maier first saw her photo in a New York bookstore in “Commandant of Auschwitz: the Autobiography of Rudolf Hoess” — a moment she said she handled with the same nonchalance she still uses as a defense mechanism.
“You can save a lot of calories, taking the path of least resistance,” she said.
Maier comes from Brno, Czechoslovakia. Her father was killed in 1939 in a Nazi raid on a restaurant. She and her mother were taken to Terezin, the so-called “model” camp. Her mother was transferred to Auschwitz before her and was spared because she had befriended the mother of a beautiful young woman whom a Nazi officer fancied. After three years in Terezin, Ilsa landed on a transport — a deliberately deceptive Pullman car rather than a cattle box — to Auschwitz.
“We looked out and said, ‘Oh, those poor people,’ and we had no idea that we were part of it,” she recalled.
Maier spent about six weeks in Auschwitz and then was sent to a labor camp 40 miles from the Czech border, where she helped manufacture propellers. After she was liberated, Maier discovered from Red Cross lists that her mother, who had ended up in Bergen-Belsen, had survived the war, as did Maier’s cousin, who is pictured with her.
Maier and her husband, also a Terezin survivor, married after the war, and in 1947 they arrived in New York. They and their two children moved to Los Angeles in 1968.
Maier wasn’t the only survivor to view her picture at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, which is constructing a new facility in Pan Pacific Park set to open in summer 2010. At the exhibition’s opening reception on Jan. 27, Rothman invited brothers Mike and Josef Kreitenberg. Soon after the album had been discovered, they spotted themselves, another brother and their father in one photo, and their mother and sister in another. The two brothers were the only survivors from the family.
“For me that night, there was only one thing that expressed survival more than being able to stand with someone whose younger self stared out from a picture of the damned,” Rothman said of the opening night. “That was having the Kreitenbergs pose together with all the other Holocaust survivors in attendance that night in a life-affirming photo.”
Video by Jay Firestone. Interviews by Julie Gruenbaum Fax.
For more information on the Auschwitz Album exhibition, visit www.lamoth.org.