It’s Holocaust Remembrance Week – and that remembering is getting tougher, because so few survivors remain. That’s where Dallas documentarian Dylan Hollingsworth comes in. He’s traveling the world, recording and photographing survivors. But the portraits and audio he produces aren’t purposed for a gallery opening, a library or or a coffee table book.
What does Thursday night look like in your Facebook feed? If you’re friends with Dylan Hollingsworth, one post would set the flood of updates to a halt: A photo he just took of a fence -- outside Auschwitz.
Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
“I’m really happy to share it from social media because there’s this huge amount of sensational, self-serving, temporary posts about, hey my iPhone broke or, hey, there’s this new band or, oh, I’m mad at everyone,” Hollingsworth says.
Hollingsworth was setting the scene for a collection of stories told by Holocaust survivors about their lives. He's not Jewish – he financed this trip to Poland himself. He takes photos for corporate clients, which makes it possible for these stories to live on sites like open-source storytelling forum Cowbird, his tumblr, and his own site.
“A lot of the people that I hope to reach, they don’t watch hour-and-a-half-to-2-hour testimonies, videos and oral histories, but they might watch one that’s 5 minutes that has a theme that they can relate to.”
Themes like romance. A love story is what gave Hollingsworth common ground with 92-year-old Erica Leon, whom he met in Los Angeles. She described falling in love for the first time, with a boy named Bob, when the two were teenagers in Hungary. World War II divided them. Bob’s family fled to America as tensions rose in Europe. Leon barely avoided the death camps. In her family, only she and her mother survived. It became difficult to keep writing letters – Bob couldn’t find her. They lost touch.
Leon married a Hungarian soldier she met while hiding at a Red Cross hospital in Budapest. Decades later, after he died, Erica's friends chanced to meet a man named Bob a New Year's Eve Party in LA.
“They had established they were from the same place in Hungary," Hollingsworth says. "And she said, do you remember a girl called Erica? And Bob later said at that point it was like the sun came out from behind the clouds. And he was obviously a pretty romantic guy because he immediately wrote her a letter.”
Leon: So I get a very beautiful poem from America – and the refrain was, that “come to me come to me”
Hollingsworth: “The poem said, ‘Come to me, Come to me?’”
Leon: “Yes, that was the refrain.”
Bob spent the rest of his years with Erica in LA. These two did recover something beautiful from all the darkness – more than half a century after they met. But as Hollingsworth learned from the time he's spent with survivors, the pain is part of everything after, no matter what blessings find them.
“We definitely can’t say, OK, Holocaust survivors, they usually find some sort of meaning and purpose in their suffering. They find some sort of redemption, they go on to want to help people and become advocates of human rights. That’s not always the case. Some people, their faith, their views on humanity, are shattered forever.”
Belle Seals is 86 and lives in Dallas. Hollingsworth met her through a friend who works at a home health care agency. Seals has come to believe in God after surviving the Holocaust in Poland. But she kept telling Hollingsworth about a man who made her stop believing as a child in the death camps. He was a violent SS officer called Bottenschlagen who carried a stick and led the weakest prisoners away to their deaths. He continues to haunt her.
Dylan: Have you or would you be willing to ever forgive – Bottensl—
Dylan: You couldn’t forgive him?
Belle: No. Like I said, the ones that did the killing, never. I couldn’t kill a fish. But I could kill him. I still have a lot of hate in me.
Hollingsworth was most affected by this, that someone could keep living with those ghosts, forming new relationships, making plans. So he lets survivors speak to this complexity, and their stories unfold in a loose, unedited way. He doesn’t know what’s next for the project.
“I want to be a good steward of these stories and show all of that, and not just lean to one side because that’s what I want to hear.”
Maybe those stories of survival that continue beyond the struggle are what we need to hear – when we're online expecting much less.
One more story as told to Dylan Hollingsworth: