Dramatic photos capture survivors triumphant spirit

Del Calzo, a Denver photographer, has captured those eyes in his book "The Triumphant Spirit," a collection of black-and-white portraits and biographies of nearly 100 Americans who survived the war in camps or hiding.

Some, such as actor Robert Clary, novelist and poet Herman Taube or Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), rose to national prominence. Others have led quieter lives.

But the book is less about the survivors' credentials than the unsinkable will that has allowed them to forge ahead with daily life despite the burdens of the past.

"These new Americans established careers, built successful businesses, rebuilt their families and made many positive contributions to the social and economic fabric of our communities," says Del Calzo, who is not Jewish.

Many "are glowing metaphors for what an individual can achieve when determined to give wings to his or her life's dream."

The book, which has also been produced in both CD-ROM form and as a traveling exhibition, was released recently in conjunction with the prime-time network premiere of Steven Spielberg's award-winning 1993 movie "Schindler's List." In fact, Australian author Thomas Keneally, who wrote the book "Schindler's List," provides the introduction to "The Triumphant Spirit."

The volume is particularly poignant as Yom HaShoah is commemorated.

The survivors "want us, and others yet unborn, to see in this book some of the evidence of what they were subjected to and what they surmounted," Keneally writes.

What they surmounted boggles the mind.

Take dentist and mother Kristine Keren, a dark-haired New Yorker Del Calzo photographed sitting on a bench in Central Park Plaza dressed in an elegant suit.

As the Nazis prepared to liquidate the Lvov ghetto in Poland, Keren's father dug a hole through the floor of the family's lodgings and into the sewer below. For 14 months, the family lived in hiding — in the sewage-filled, rat-infested pipes of the city's sewers. A Christian sewer worker brought them food regularly.

At one point, during a heavy rainstorm, the water almost reached the ceiling, which was less than 5 feet high. Keren's parents, who constantly hunched over to fit into the short pipes, held their two children above the waterline so that they could breathe.

Or take Auschwitz survivor Freddy Diament. He watched his older brother Leo, a member of the camp's secret underground, publicly hanged for planning a mass breakout.

To this day, Diament can hear the three words his brother called out as the noose tightened around his neck: "Long live liberty!"

Del Calzo's project started in 1991, when he traveled to the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. He took snapshots there, intending nothing more than to document his visit.

On his return, his partner, Linda Raper, found herself gripped by the images and suggested he bring them to the Denver Jewish Community Center. He did, and was invited to hold a one-man show.

The project soon expanded, attracting corporate, individual and organizational sponsorships, and bringing Del Calzo into contact with survivors around the country.

Among those were Lantos and other Bay Area residents — Dr. Michael Thaler, former president of the Holocaust Center of Northern California; Max Drimmer and Herman Shine, boyhood friends who survived Auschwitz together and remain close to this day; and Paul Schwarzbart, a hidden child who is now a French professor and director of Maison Française, part of the extension program at the University of California at Berkeley.

The photographer also met people such as Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. Born in Poland in 1940, he was hidden as a infant by his Polish Catholic nursemaid, who baptized him during the war years. Now a well-known spokesman for the safety and security of Jews, Foxman did not even know he was a Jew for the first few years of his life.

Del Calzo captures the sturdy ADL director standing in front of the United Nations building, hands at his waist, an expression of sheer determination on his face.

"I think the lesson of the Holocaust that I want to convey is this," Foxman writes in the biography accompanying his photo.

"Yes, we all know what man is capable of. There is another message and it is the affirmation of life, the affirmation of hope, the affirmation of faith."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.