Look around your house. Your bedroom. Your kitchen. Look at those items that have been amassed over the course of a lifetime, or passed down to you from generations long-gone.
Now imagine which one (or two) precious items you would choose to take with you on a moment’s notice — as you flee from religious persecution, war or worse. Or would all be left behind?
Visitors to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie will find the answers to those questions and more in a new exhibit, “Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory.” The exhibit, featuring a collection of personal mementos, everyday household objects, toys, clothing and writings, speaks to the lives of those lost and those who survived the Holocaust as well as genocides and wars in Rwanda, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Syria, Sudan and Cambodia. But unlike other exhibits from the museums’ vast collections (and others amassed from outside sources for this particular exhibition), the items in “Stories of Survival” are also depicted in the work of award-winning photographer Jim Lommasson, who combined his photos of the items with the personal messages and stories written by survivors or their families. The photos speak volumes; their personal messages reveal even more.
“We’ve been working on this exhibit for two years,” said Lommasson, during a recent visit to the museum as the exhibit was taking shape. “These are stories of Holocaust and genocide survivors told through those items they brought with them as they escaped conflict. I photographed the objects and sent 13-by-19-inch prints to the survivors or their families and asked them to write something about the item or their family member, or the story of their homeland. Whatever message they felt the item conveyed to them. Whatever story they wanted to share. Then I took those stories and the objects and photographed them together and blew them up into these 28-by-48-inch prints, which make up the 65 photographs in the exhibit.
‘Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory’
When: July 19-Jan. 13, 2019
Where: Illinois Holocaust and Education Center, 9603 Woods Dr., Skokie
“All of the images tell a story,” he continued. “When the participants add the narrative to that story it brings another level to it. In essence it makes the photograph its own artifact because it now has hand-generated writing on it.”
Family members wrote letters or poems, embellished the photos with stickers, glitter or even colorful inked handprints of children just now learning the fate of their grandparents and other relatives. Some touched Lommasson in ways he could never have imagined.
“I guess a few of them really did make me pause for a while longer,” Lommasson said. “There is the tiny blood-stained dress, for example. A Rwandan mother didn’t know where the bodies of her 3- and 5-year-old daughters were after they were killed in the Rwandan genocide [in the 1990s]. When they opened a mass grave [in her village] over 20 years later [in 2017] she couldn’t recognize her daughters’ remains, but she recognized the dress that her 5-year-old was wearing when she was killed. When this dress came to me from the museum’s collection to be photographed I already knew the story, but holding this tiny dress and reading what the mother wrote, I just lost it.”
The mother, Immaculee Mukantaganira, chose to decorate the photo of the tiny dresses and a cardigan with stickers and glitter to celebrate the lives of the her young daughters. “It’s much like you or I would put flowers on a grave,” Lommasson said. The mother writes about the pain of losing the two little girls and how her two daughters were always dressed in the adorable dresses. And how she would never be able to dress them again.
Another item, a leather billfold carried by a Jewish soldier in WWI is damaged by a single bullet hole, in essence slowing the bullet enough to wound and not kill or maim its owner. A typewriter, used to type exit papers or forge other documents to save the lives of Jews seeking to exit Nazi Germany, calls to mind images of the lifesaving paperwork generated during the machinery’s heyday.
“Documents are the most important things when you’re under siege,” Lommasson said. “A document can save your life. These were papers that allowed Jews to exit Germany or Austria and leave Europe altogether.”
“Changing someone’s name, nationality or date of birth or country of origin on a document could mean the difference between life and death,” said Arielle Weininger, the museum’s chief curator of collections and exhibitions.
A collection of recipes, written by a concentration camp prisoner during the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, might seem quaint at first, but they represent so much more. “These recipes, handwritten, are about ethnic foods,” said Weininger. “They’re a connection to your legacy and your culture. You’re heading to new parts of the world, longing for those times before the hardship, and suddenly these foods become the only things that will help tie you back to your culture.”
Most of the items included in the photographs and exhibit have never been seen before, which adds a wider scope to the museum’s overall mission.
“We have the chance through this exhibit to bring a broader understanding of the collections. We looked at geographical span. We wanted to represent a wide variety of stories. Some Jewish refugees, for example, went to China, because you didn’t need papers to enter. Some escaped to South America. They took very different journeys to get to new lives.”
Other items in the exhibit include a dominoes game from a child in hiding during the Holocaust, a train set from a family taken during Kristallnacht. Not every object was a take-along. One remarkably preserved teddy bear would eventually bring joy out of such horrific events.
“For whatever reason, the teddy bear was buried in a family’s back yard as the family fled the Nazis,” Lommasson said. “After the war when the survivors returned to their homes they found the bear. Can you imagine what that meant to them and to anyone who sees this bear? We all have teddy bears. So here is a connection, our shared humanity.”
“Stories of Survival” precedes the museum’s 10th anniversary celebration in 2019. It is the museum’s first exhibit specifically designed for touring. Specific dates/locations for the tour are in the earliest planning stages.