Wiesenthal Center Dedicates Witness to Truth Portrait Gallery

In 2005, Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Marissa Roth approached Elana Samuels, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), Museum Volunteer Services, and Liebe Geft, director of the Museum of Tolerance (MOT), to pitch a photography project. Roth proposed to create a gallery of portraits of Holocaust survivors that would line the atrium of the museum lobby. Although there was no budget for such an endeavor, Samuels and her husband Zachary felt passionately that the project had to go ahead, and they wrote the first check.

Geft, along with her husband, Dr. Ivor Geft, wrote the second check as additional support arrived. Fifteen years in the making (representing a two-year setback due to COVID-19), with a number of photoshoots over the years, the Witness to Truth portrait gallery was completed and inaugurated on May 19, the International Day of Holocaust remembrance. The gallery is a collection of 104 black and white portraits of Holocaust survivors.

Dedication ceremonies were attended by 28 SWC MOT Holocaust survivors as well as family members representing 13 deceased survivors. Samuels presided over the ceremonies with Geft and Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and CEO of the SWC, delivering remarks.

Those whose portraits are featured in the gallery were active SWC volunteers at one time. “Some were greeting the public; others were tour guides; most were speakers sharing their experiences of the Holocaust with students,” Samuels said. “A survivor worked in the library and archives. All were very proud to be part of the museum, to share their message of hope and tolerance and to preserve the memory of the Holocaust.

Elana and S. Zachary Samuels

During COVID, the gallery went live and survivors hosted weekly virtual webinars live about Holocaust survivors being heard from people around the world.

“With 100 recorded testimonials, last year Virtual Zoom presentations reached more than 100,000 listeners in every corner of the world,” Samuels said.

Addressing his remarks to the survivors in attendance, Hier said, “It is up to you, who know first and foremost, what it means to experience a Holocaust, who have moved forward in history. All of you here today, whom we honor, who have continued to rebuild Jewish life. Build Jewish institutions of learning to return to the Promised Land. That today there is a State of Israel, and so to you, we cannot thank you enough for what you have done for all the Jewish people.

Yesterday then turned his remarks to contemporary world events: “Here we are just 80 years later and look how many haters, how many fanatics, how many anti-Semites have infested our world here in the United States, in North America and in Europe”. he said. “Look at Putin and Ukraine, the Ayatollahs of Iran denying the Holocaust and developing nuclear weapons. We know who will be the first customer for their nuclear weapons. It will be the State of Israel.

Among the participants was Amrom Deutsch, 97, born in a small town between Romania and Hungary. “In 1944, on the last day of Passover, they came to the house,” he said.

Among the participants was Amrom Deutsch, 97, born in a small town between Romania and Hungary. “In 1944, on the last day of Passover, they came home,” said Deutsch, whose portrait is featured in the gallery. “We had nothing to steal. We lived a normal and poor life. We didn’t know who they were or what they wanted.

Deutsch’s family consisted of 11 members, nine of whom survived the Holocaust. After being imprisoned in a ghetto, he was taken to Auschwitz and eventually to Bergen-Belsen until his release.

Also present was Jerry Weiser, 80, who described himself as a child in hiding. “My mother smuggled me out of [modern day] Bratislava, ghetto of Slovakia. I ended up in Ireland and was brought up as a Christian. I crossed several religions until I found my mother in Israel, where I became an Orthodox Jew.

jerry weiser

Weiser’s mother never spoke about the Holocaust. “But she told me that in 100 years, no one will remember that the Holocaust even happened,” he said. “I decided I had to tell the story, so I volunteered at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.”

Over time, 42 Holocaust survivors from the gallery of witnesses are still alive today. Many are very fragile, in hospital or care facilities and were unable to attend the event in person.

Over time, 42 Holocaust survivors from the gallery of witnesses are still alive today. Many are very fragile, in hospital or care facilities and were unable to attend the event in person.

In addition to the Witness to Truth gallery, Samuels launched The Legacy Project in 2011. The Legacy Project consists of video interviews with Holocaust survivors with the goal of creating a library of testimonies for use in the MOT for educational programs and for public visitors. So far, the stories of 30 survivors have been captured on video. Tragically, 19 of the original 30 survivors have already died, leaving only five still able to share their stories.

With the gathering of Holocaust survivors and their descendants in the SWC auditorium, mixed emotions filled the room. The Witness to Truth exhibit depicts the human faces of the survivors. It personalizes the fact that the Holocaust was not just a statistic of six million Jews murdered, but also of people who survived.

One of the questions often asked is how many survivors are left to tell their story. The answers vary and are difficult to pin down.

“I don’t know how many Holocaust survivors are alive today,” Samuels said. “However, I am very aware of the fragility of life. They are the most precious and diminishing good. Holocaust survivors are my role models and my mentors, and that’s why I’m so passionate about the Witness to Truth Portrait Gallery and the Legacy Project.

Julia P. Cluff