Growing up in Brooklyn, Beth Burstein knew that her father, Isaak Burstein, and her grandfather, Max, had been inmates at a slave labor camp called Landsburg, a satellite of the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich.
Her grandmother, Rachel, and her father’s sister, Ida, were sent to their deaths at Auschwitz.
As tangible proof of their ordeal, Isaak Burstein held on to the striped uniform he was forced to wear when the Nazis took him as a teenager from the Kaunas ghetto in Lithuania. After he and his father were liberated by the Allies near the end of World War II, he brought it to America, then stored it in a closet in a yellow plastic bag.
“I forgot what age I was, but I was very young when he brought it out of his closet and showed it to me,” said his daughter.
Some four decades later, Isaak Burstein decided to donate the uniform to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
“Before he did, I wanted to photograph it,” Burstein, a professional photographer, told NJ Jewish News on Nov. 26 in a sandwich shop in her hometown of Montclair.
The series of photographs she took will be on exhibit between Dec. 11 and Jan. 24 at the Gaelen Gallery on the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany. Along with a grouping from her father’s hometown in Lithuania, the exhibit will feature a series of close-ups of the blue-and-white garment and its crude buttons and frayed cuffs.
Perhaps the centerpiece of the exhibit is a photograph of Burstein herself. She is seated in a wooden armchair, wearing her father’s uniform.
“In a way, it was part of my everyday wardrobe,” she said. “I think, as a child of a survivor, you are always wearing that legacy, that history. Putting on the uniform was a very literal translation of that feeling.
“The first impression I had when I put it on was that it was very itchy and scratchy,” she recalled. “The second impression was that it fit me perfectly, which meant that my father was very young and small when he wore it. It didn’t make me feel uneasy. It didn’t freak me out. It was just an impulsive thing.”
Her father, now 83, lives in Matawan and works full time operating an antiques store. He makes occasional speeches to groups of students in Holocaust education programs. He is scheduled to attend the opening reception of the exhibition, which is called “The Legacy: A Daughter’s Experience of the Holocaust.”
When her father learned that she had put on the uniform for the photograph, she said, “it didn’t shock him. He didn’t say much about it. I was concerned about others of our relatives seeing it, but he said, ‘If they don’t understand what you are doing, it’s their problem.’
“I felt comfort in that.”
The uniform set Burstein on a trail of discovery that led to her father’s birthplace in Kaunas in 2005.
“I grew up as an American but I felt a connection to a place where I had never been,” she said.
In Kaunas she photographed the street her father’s family had lived on, trying to find evidence of their home and a connection with the Jewish culture that had been decimated there.
“My exhibit is about my father’s memory and the memory of a lost culture,” she said. “The message is that this history is carried on from generation to generation. Genocide really does affect generations to come.
“I have lost grandparents I’ll never meet, family stories I’ll never hear, family recipes and photos I will never see. They were stolen from me. But doing this has helped relieve some of the sadness.”