Old family photos bring Polish history exhibit to life

Over the past 22 years, American photographer and filmmaker Edward Serotta has lived in Budapest and Berlin and now Vienna. That has meant a lot of dinners — Shabbat or otherwise — in a lot of homes in a lot of cities.

Images from the Centropa exhibit at the Peninsula JCC.

He often finds himself seated with people like Roza Kamhi, an 88-year-old Jewish woman in Macedonia with war medals for being a partisan and family snapshots dating back to the 1930s.

“Who would not want to capture Roza’s story,” Serotta said by e-mail from Vienna. “Who would not want to hear of what it was like living in prewar Monastir, or Bitola as it’s called today, when 3,000 Jews lived there?

“This is history that belongs to us.”

It was with that spirit that Serotta and two historians, Eszter Andor and Dora Sardi, started Centropa, a Jewish historical institute that spent eight years training young historians in 15 European countries to create a different sort of oral history project.

Rather than interview Central Europe’s last living Holocaust survivors on video, Centropa has digitized more than 20,000 of their family photos (while also interviewing them).

Stories from Polish survivors have been put together to form the exhibit “Jewish Witness to a Polish Century,” which is currently on display at three Bay Area locations: the JCC of San Francisco, the Peninsula JCC in Foster City and the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.

The exhibit, based on 70 interviews conducted in Poland, was hatched from a series of conversations between Serotta and Tad Taube, founder of the Belmont-based Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture and chair of the Koret Foundation.

The foundation, which has made Polish Jewish heritage and culture one of its areas of focus in recent years, helped ensure that Centropa’s team of interviewers could travel around Poland to seek out elderly Jews still living there, and then interview them.

Instead of asking mainly about the Holocaust, Centropa queried the seniors about how they lived — from the small comedies of everyday life to the great tragedies that befell them.

At the same time, the team gathered and digitized some 1,600 old photographs of life in Poland. An editor working with Serotta in Vienna plucked many of those to create the exhibit.

Because every picture in the exhibit came from someone’s family album, none have been seen by anyone outside of family members and perhaps a few friends.

“[The exhibit] is like walking into a three-dimensional photo album,” Serotta said. “You find huge roll-up banners, and on each a picture and a story.”

Since Centropa’s launch in 2000, more than 140 interviewers, editors, historians and transcribers have worked to capture the stories of more than 1,250 elderly Jews still living in 15 Central European countries such as Estonia, Russia, Greece and Turkey.

“Our goal is simple,” Serotta said. “To sit on the sofa of an elderly Jew and ask him or her to tell us stories and show us pictures … of an entire lifetime. Our method has to do with building a relationship.”

Centropa then utilizes new technology — Adobe has donated some its most advanced software programs — to preserve these oral and visual memories, and then tries to disseminate the results to the largest audience possible.

The organization’s digitized archive of memory (pictures, stories and films) is available at www.centropa.org.

Centropa also produces educational materials used in schools throughout the world. And soon, Serotta said, he hopes to create a program allowing for uploads to the Centropa site of old family photos.

The international success of Centropa continues to amaze Serotta, who says he never forgets how it all began. 

“I don’t think there’s been a day since I’ve lived here [in Central Europe] that I haven’t been surprised to some degree,” he said. “I still remember walking into the Jewish soup kitchen in Bucharest in December 1985 and sitting at a table of elderly Jewish men who told me so many jokes I almost gagged on my brisket. I started Centropa because I felt it was the right thing to do, to preserve Jewish memory.”

Exhibition locations and hours

“Jewish Witness to a Polish Century” currently is on display at three local Jewish Community Centers. Here are the details on each, along with information about opening receptions that include Centropa director Edward Serotta.

JCC of San Francisco: Through Dec. 15 in the Katz Synder Gallery. 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Free. Opening event: Serotta and Koret Foundation CEO Jeff Farber. 7 p.m. Oct. 12. Free. Reservations required. RSVP to (415) 292-1233 or [email protected] More information: www.jccsf.org.

Peninsula JCC, Foster City: Through Nov. 28 in the Art Gallery during PJCC operating hours. Free. Opening reception and presentation: Serotta and Susan Wolfe, director of grantmaking programs and communications for the  Koret Foundation. 7 p.m. Oct. 13. Free. For reservations, call (650) 378-2702. More information: www.pjcc.org.

Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto: Through Nov. 28 in Koch Gallery. To schedule a viewing, contact Jennifer Landucci at (650) 223-8664 or [email protected] Official opening: Serotta and Tad Taube, chairman of the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture. 7 p.m. Oct. 14. Free. Reservations requested. RSVP to (650) 223-8699 or [email protected] More information: www.paloaltojcc.org.

The exhibit was made possible by the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, the Koret Foundation, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the Embassy of the Republic of Poland.