These photographs by Bill Aron are part of a project titled "Holocaust Survivors: The Indestructible Spirit."
The project, sponsored by Chapman University, unites interviews and images of local Holocaust survivors, with each illuminating the other, telling their stories from the war and also showing them today as they have not only survived, but prospered.
The biographies here were condensed and excerpted by The Journal from interviews by students of professor Marilyn J. Harran, director of Chapman's Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education. The interviews were conducted as part of Harran's Holocaust history courses at Chapman, and are © 2007-2008, Chapman University.
"I was welcomed not only into their homes, but also into their hearts. They gave me a gift of openness and trust, which made possible one hundred truly memorable encounters. It was the essence of these encounters, a deep sense of connection, an exquisite intimacy, if you will, that I felt, and that I tried to put into the images. The extent that my photographs are successful is due to their openness and trust. . . .
The prophet Zechariah proclaims that the people of Israel will prevail "not by might, nor by power, but by spirit alone ... will you survive." Clearly, it was not by might, nor by power that they prevailed, but by the strength of their enduring spirit.
-- Bill Aron, photographer
Jack Pariser was born in 1929 in Poland, south of Krakow. His father sold lumber and his mother sold fabric. When the Nazis began terrorizing Jews in 1939, Jack's grandfather was beaten unconscious for refusing to walk on the Torah; he died soon after. In early August 1942, Jack's mother learned that the Germans were planning to murder the town's Jews the next day, and the family fled, hiding for months in the forest. They were rescued by a Christian man who had worked for Jack's father and were hidden in a bunker under a woodshed floor. When they eventually moved to another hiding place, they were betrayed and arrested by Polish police. They escaped from jail by cutting through the wall with a penknife. They were again protected by non-Jews until the war ended in 1945.
The family moved to the United States in 1949, and Jack went on to become chief scientist at Hughes Aircraft, where he retired from in 1987.
Eva Brettler (nee Katz) was born in Romania in 1936. She was visiting her grandparents in Hungary in 1944 when the German soldiers took her grandmother and aunt as she hid. When she emerged, she sought out the town rabbi, who reconnected her to her parents. When her father was made to do forced labor, her mother tried to protect young Eva, at one point taking on a false identity as a non-Jew, for which she was later denounced and mother and child were arrested. In September 1944, the two were sent on a forced march to Germany with thousands of Jews; Eva's mother was killed on the walk, and the young girl tried to understand why her mother didn't come for her. Eventually, with the help of a fellow prisoner, she arrived at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she was encouraged and protected by women prisoners. With the advance of the Russian army, the Germans moved the prisoners to Bergen-Belsen by cattle car, and Eva survived -- and helped others -- by luck and ingenuity, squeezing through wire fence to steal scraps of potato peelings from a kitchen refuse area. After liberation, she reunited with her father and they returned to Hungary. In 1956, after the brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution, Eva fled her country, arriving in the United States in 1957, where she met and married fellow survivor Marten Brettler. In 1983, she earned a degree in psychology from UCLA and became a social worker.
Sally Roisman (nee Zielinski) was born in Sosnowiec, Poland, in 1930 to a devoutly religious family. When war broke out, the family had nowhere to flee to, so they survived by bartering jewelry for food. Young Sally was often sent to do the job. In 1942, her father was sent to Auschwitz, and the rest of the family was moved to the ghetto. Eventually her sisters, then Sally, were sent to Graeben, a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen. Sally, just 13, survived with the help of her sisters. In January 1945, as the Soviets approached, the Germans sent 250 prisoners on a death march to Germany; Sally was among the 150 to arrive at Bergen-Belsen, where she almost died of typhus. In April 1945, when the British liberated the camp, the sisters learned that their brother had also survived at a nearby camp and two other brothers were at Buchenwald. Their parents, three brothers and two sisters were murdered at Auschwitz.
The remaining six siblings eventually moved to Australia. On a vacation to New York, Sally met her future husband, Steve Roisman. The couple settled in Los Angeles, near Sally's sister and brother. Today, Sally is an artist, making award-winning paintings of Jewish life before the Holocaust.
Curt Lowens was born in 1925 in East Prussia (now Poland), to a home filled with music and laughter. His father, once a respected lawyer, lost all his clients with the rise of Hitler. The family moved to Berlin in 1936, hoping to find safety in the large Jewish community there, but eventually decided to immigrate to the United States. The day before they were to depart on the SS Veendam from Rotterdam, the Germans invaded Holland, preventing the departure. In June 1943, the family was sent to Westerbork, a transit camp, and then to Auschwitz. However, they were released and immediately went underground. Curt received a false identity and became an active and valiant member of the resistance, under the name "Ben Joosten."
After the war, in 1947, Curt, his father and stepmother immigrated to the United States; he became an actor, and met Katherine Guilford at the famous Berhoff Studio. He is a respected character actor, working onstage on Broadway and in film and television.Lidia Budgor was born Lola Gryngras in 1925 to a middle-class Chasidic family in the Polish city of Lodz. At 15, she and her family, along with all the city's Jews, were ordered into the ghetto in the Baluty slum. After serving as the family's breadwinner and risking her own life by smuggling food out of the meat factory where she worked, she was denounced and made to pull wagons of excrement to the outskirts of the city. In 1944, the family was sent to Auschwitz; there she lost her family to the gas chambers, and she was moved, eventually, to the Stutthof camp, near Danzig, and then survived the German's death march, against all odds. After the war, she met her husband, Wolf Budgor, in Pomerania. They moved, with a son, to the United States in 1952, and reunited with Wolf's brother in Los Angeles.
Lidia Budgor went on to help found the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum, and in 1959 to establish the Lodzer Organization of Lodz survivors. She is currently president of the council of Holocaust Survivor Organizations.
Leon Leyson was born Leib Lejzon in 1929, the youngest of six children, in northeastern Poland. Nine years later, the family moved to Krakow, just before the German invasion. The family was ordered into the ghetto, where Leon helped keep his family fed, dividing single slices of bread among them, by running errands for the elderly. The family was also helped by Oskar Schindler, who had hired Leon's father and brother to work for no pay but allowed them to leave the ghetto and get scraps of food. The family eventually was divided in various deportations; some members survived, however, in the Plaszow labor camp, because Schindler put them on his famous list, bringing them to his factory in Czechoslovakia, from where they were liberated in 1945. In a displaced persons' camp, Leon finally resumed the education he'd been forced to leave behind when he was 10, and when the family moved to the United States, he earned a high school diploma and college degree.
Leon Leyson taught for 39 years at Huntington Park High School. He also married, became the father of two and the grandfather of three. Since the film "Schindler's List" appeared in 1993, he has become a lecturer in schools and universities.
Fifty of Aron's photos from the project, along with text written by Harran from the interviews, are currently included in an exhibition honoring Sol and Fay Chase, Holocaust survivors, featuring members of the '1939' Club, a Holocaust survivors organization, on view at the Leatherby Libraries at Chapman University.
The project, planned to be expanded to a book, was made possible by a generous gift from Irving and Nancy Chase.
Los Angeles photographer Bill Aron has chronicled Jewish communities in the former Soviet Union, Cuba, Jerusalem, and throughout the United States. He can be reached at www.billaron.com