The Last Album: Lives in Memory  


They were the photos that no one was supposed to see,
photos that showed Jews as normal people living normal lives, not the subhumans that Hitler deemed “life unworthy of life.” I found them by accident, and that accident has changed the course of the rest of my life.
    It was autumn 1986, and I was traveling in Czechoslovakia and Poland with a group of prominent Jewish leaders from Philadelphia. We were being shown culturally and historically significant sites, feted at elegant soirees, and briefed by government representatives about the official state of affairs in these then-Communist countries. Throughout these travels, I visited cities and towns where Jewish life had formerly flourished. But now I saw only the evidence of what once had been, since neither the culture nor the people yet remained.
    In this era of Cold War and KGB, we were surveilled everywhere we went. Agents monitored our conversations and followed our every action. Our group had been briefed, in advance, about the kinds of discussions not to have (anything critical of the government) and about the kinds of issues not to discuss (anything political).
    In Poland, among other places, we were taken to see the Warsaw ghetto and Kazimierz, the Jewish section of Cracow. And we visited Auschwitz, site of the largest Nazi death camp, now a museum.
v I have always been fascinated by the stories of people’s lives—what they think, what they believe, what they cherish. The discovery I made in a locked room at Auschwitz would change my passion for stories from a serious avocation to an all-consuming pursuit.
    The stories I was accustomed to hearing were the happy stories my own family would tell, gently and lovingly, when I was a child. They were my mother’s stories about relatives I never knew, streets I never walked, adventures I never had. Through her stories, I came to know the people she loved and the times she cherished. And I was able to “meet” my family, murdered years before I was born.
Both my parents are survivors of Nazi concentration camps, and both knew, firsthand, the barbarity of what one individual is capable of doing to another. But these aren’t the stories I heard, not for a very long time—not until I was older, and not until I asked.
    Instead, I heard stories of life and of love, of family holidays and family vacations, of innocent carefree times, and then later, much, much later, of the devastating times that both defy words and defeat understanding. With these stories as my foundation, the firmament of my adulthood, I walked into Auschwitz for the first time.
    I did not know what I would see, nor could I anticipate its impact upon me. I knew only that I was ready to face this cursed place that had taken on mythic proportions in my consciousness. Auschwitz-Birkenau. The largest of Hitler’s death camps. Auschwitz-Birkenau. Its very name had become an archetype for death.
    When my group was led through the camp, now a museum, the tour guide began reciting her rote presentation, ticking off facts—dates, transport lists, numbers killed from different towns—as if they were items on a grocery list. Suddenly, in this place of death, I felt a strong need to breathe life, to be alone, and away from the droning voice of the tour guide. I needed both silence and space, to breathe, to think, to feel. As the group proceeded to the next gallery, I remained behind.
    It was as simple as that. The group walked ahead, and I stayed behind.
    For a long time, I remained in a room filled, floor to ceiling, with shoes, thousands of pairs of shoes left from the last few days of killing. The shoes were broken and bent, with holes in their soles, abandoned witnesses to what no words could express. I stayed with the shoes, and thought about the lives of their owners. Time ceased to exist for me, only the shoes. Eventually I “returned” to the present and found myself completely alone in Auschwitz.
v Panicked, I began to run, from gallery to gallery, and from building to building, searching for someone from my group, searching for anyone alive. Eventually, in the distance, I heard a sound and made my way toward it. I ran into an employee, a woman, who pulled me aside in the deserted hallway and, quite remarkably, asked me, “Do you want to see what’s in this room?” Though I was nervous, I immediately answered, “Yes.” A locked door was unlocked, and it was then that I saw the amazing photos that were to change my life.

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Copyright 2001 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 11/1/01

Artur Huppert of Czechoslovakia holds his child, Peterle, and displays the photo of his parents, Rosinka and Jusekl Huppert of Poland, 1941.