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A Holocaust legacy, captured on camera
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A Holocaust legacy, captured on camera

Life Is Like a House of Cards from Aliza Augustine’s “Is It Safe?” series
Life Is Like a House of Cards from Aliza Augustine’s “Is It Safe?” series

As the daughter and granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, Aliza Augustine always sensed that there was something different about her and her family.

“I was obsessed with the Holocaust as a child,” Augustine told NJJN. “I don’t remember anyone telling me about it, but I knew about it.” 

When she was a little older, her grandfather did tell her stories about the war, and she also sought information on her own. “I had to watch and read about everything,” said the New Jersey artist and photographer. “Even if it seemed horrible to me, I knew it wasn’t as horrible as going through it.”

In her last year of art school, when Helen Epstein’s Children of the Holocaust came out, she realized that the feelings she had thought were unique to herself were shared by many others in the “second generation.” Epstein’s book describes feelings of survivor guilt and of being different from American Jews, and parents who were either distant or overly protective. 

Over 30 years later, Augustine’s portraits of Holocaust survivors’ children will appear along with work about her own family in an exhibition titled “After Genocide: Collected Stories.” It will run at the Bernstein Gallery at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School Aug. 24-Oct. 8.

Augustine’s part of the exhibit, “Documenting the Second Generation: Children of Holocaust Survivors,” includes her composite art photos, in which she sets an individual’s portrait and old family photos against one of the backgrounds she shot in Europe in 2013. For example, for Janet R. Kirchheimer, who is a poet, Augustine set the picture in an office in the factory of Shoa rescuer Oskar Schindler. It includes a typewriter. 

Before Augustine photographs the children of survivors, she listens to their family stories, a very emotional process for her. “You feel like you are related to the person,” she said. 

Augustine also scans the family photos her subjects bring along, which she said are “really precious” because so much got destroyed during the war.

Augustine’s own Holocaust connections begin with her paternal grandparents, who left Poland, met in Paris, married, and moved to Toulouse. In December 1942 her grandfather, who worked as a translator at the Le Vernet camp run by the Vichy government, got his hands on a deportation list and saw his family’s names. They left the next morning, making their way to the Spanish border, then hiking with a Basque guide over the Pyrenees into Spain. Finally reaching Lisbon in Portugal, Augustine’s father, who was nine, and his 14-year-old brother boarded a boat, with the aid of HIAS, to the United States, where they spent six months in a Newark orphanage until their parents were able to get visas.

Augustine, who lives in West New York, studied painting at the Rhode Island School of Design, but got interested in photography during a trip to Vietnam that she and her husband took with her father and his Vietnamese second wife. Coincidentally her husband had been teaching a high school class on American involvement in Vietnam, and the school gave him a sabbatical and paid him during the month-long trip. The quid pro quo was that he do a presentation upon his return, and he asked Augustine to help. “He put a point-and-shoot camera in my hand,” she said. The pictures were to be included in his trip journal. 

She found that with a digital camera, unlike film, she was able to compose the pictures on the digital screen. “I can do that because I am a painter,” she said. 

In 2006 Augustine completed a photography residency at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She used dollhouse-sized figures and furniture set against fairy tale backdrops “to retell visual stories, echoing the way that I was told tales of war and escape as a child on my grandfather’s knee.” 

In her “Is It Safe?” series (three pieces of which appear in the Bernstein show) she addresses both the lives of the survivors in her family and her own second-generation experiences. One photo in this series is of her father’s first cousin, Michel, or Micky, who was left with a Catholic family when his mother and father were sent to Auschwitz, where they died on arrival. Augustine placed his photo in front of the apartment where he had lived with his parents. In front of him is a pile of doll-sized people and furniture in disarray. 

Only over the last decade did she learn that both of her paternal grandparents had siblings who died or vanished during the war. She learned about one great-uncle when she saw her maiden name, Klipstein, in the list of survivors at the end of the film Schindler’s List. Yitzhak David Klipstein, her father’s brother, had attended her parents’ wedding in England, but returned to Cracow after the war.

“A lot of the parents are dying off, and we feel that we have to keep the story alive,” Augustine said. “I include the [family] photos to make a bridge.”

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