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Images of Altruism - Ellen Land-Weber


(in above photo) SORTS THROUGH boxes of photo prints stored in the office at her home on Fickle Hill. She pulls out one box full of pictures of graveyards, haunting images taken when she was in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Among them is a shot of a wall in Cracow, Poland, a patchwork of masonry covered with Hebrew lettering. Land-Weber explained that the wall is made of broken tombstones. During the Nazi purge of Polish Jews, the grave markers were pulled up and used for paving stones in a deliberate policy to demoralize the people. The idea was to wipe out any memory of the past.

[photo of tombstone memorial] A wall collage memorial of salvaged tombstones that had been taken from a Jewish cemetery during WWII.

After the War the broken stones were assembled into a new kind of memorial. "It's a testimonial to the endurance of spirit of the people," said Land-Weber, "and it's also a condemnation."

On Saturday Land-Weber will celebrate the completion of a memorial project of her own, one she has been working on for 15 years. A show of Land-Weber's photographs at the First Street Gallery in Eureka marks the publication of To Save a Life: Stories of Holocaust Rescue.

Land-Weber has assembled a collection of photos and personal stories of Jews who lived through the War and of those who helped them, rescuers who hid Jews in their homes to help them evade the Nazis.

"Everybody knows about the horror stories -- the camps, the atrocities, emaciated skeleton bodies," she said. "This is an upbeat side of it, if you can call it upbeat. These people suffered too, but they lived through it."

[photo of Tina Stobos]At left, Tina Strobos, who rescued many Jews from Nazi capture. She poses next to her portrait painted by one of the people she was hiding during that period. Below is Louise van Santen, who was rescued by Strobos.

[photo of Louise van Santen]

The seed for To Save a Life was Land-Weber's involvement in research for another book.

"It started with Pearl and Sam Oliner, They were professors at Humboldt State, retired now. They wrote this landmark book on altruism, The Altruistic Personality. It was a study of altruism using people who rescued Jews as subjects. Of course Sam was a rescued Jew himself.

"Altruism is extending help to another without thinking about your own safety, putting another person ahead of yourself to help them. A lot of altruistic acts are momentary --is drowning, you don't think, you just jump in and try to save them.

"But these actions were of an altogether different order. They were deliberate decisions made over a period of time. And the rescue activities often extended over years and years and involved whole families."

Land-Weber volunteered to work on the Oliner's book, a scholarly sociological study that endeavored to pinpoint the nature of altruism so it could be taught to others. Like the Oliners, Land-Weber is a professor at HSU, but sociology is not her field. She teaches photography.

"I was interested in the subject because of my Jewish heritage," she said. "I started out working as an interviewer for them, and I was also taking photographs hoping they would need them."

After conducting interviews for the Oliners, Land-Weber wanted to take her side of the project further and decided she would put together a book of her own.

"The initial idea was coming from the standpoint of a photographer. My plan was to do a series of portraits accompanied by a story, but an abbreviated story. That amount of information was based on the first question on the Oliner's interview schedule. It was: `Now, please tell me in your own words what happened.'

"My original conception was to follow in the tradition of the `photo book' that was developed in the '30s with Walker Evans and James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell's You Have Seen Their Faces. They were documentary studies where photography and text were independent yet intertwined, working together to tell the story. Each gave an understanding to the subject but coming from different perspectives."

She returned to the people she had spoken with for follow-up interviews and expanded the range of subjects.

"The Oliner's study didn't involve the people who were rescued. I talked with some of the people who the rescuers had helped as well. I was more interested in the human story. My project gradually evolved out of that interest.

The stories she gathered were compelling, so compelling that she changed her mind about the nature of the book. "I ended up visiting the people again. Some of them I spoke with three times and when I interviewed them again I realized that the story was too complex. The fact is that the pictures didn't tell the whole story. You really have to read it."

The stories are powerful personal histories that, added together, paint a picture of what life was like for Jews and for those who protected them during the war.

"One person I interviewed was Bert Bochove. He and his wife had as many as 26 Jewish people hiding in his house at one time. It started with a friend asking for help, the Bochoves said, `Stay with us.' Pretty soon that person's husband came and then someone else needed help. It grew into a whole network. There were a whole series of challenges to deal with.

"They had to figure out how you keep everyone fed. Some could never go out. Others, those who didn't look Jewish, could go out. They were able to pass as non-Jewish people. But some were stuck inside for well over a year. And you have to think about keeping up their morale.

"Some (of the rescuers) paid a price. One woman I interviewed, a Polish woman, was sent to a concentration camp because she was caught. She barely survived herself."

As Land-Weber's project took shape, she began the search for a publisher. It wasn't easy finding one, in fact at one point she gave up and put the book away for several years. She wanted to share the stories she had collected, but she couldn't publish them by herself.

That changed in the mid-'90s as technology advanced and a new medium was gaining speed -- the Internet. Land-Weber decided to put the book online and set about learning html. coding.

"I thought I'd get it on the Web and get it out of my life," she said. "But then I started getting all this mail. People were actually reading it. I won some awards -- best of this, best of that, awards from places like the History Channel."

Online the project took on a life of its own.

"It was really satisfying. In some ways it's even better than writing a book because people write to me and share their feelings. Some are relatives of people I had interviewed. In some cases they didn't know these stories.

"One person who wrote to me was the son of one of the people who was rescued. He had seen this wedding picture of his mother and father that accompanied their story. He had never seen it before.

"Another person who was writing to me was a reviewer from Booklist, the journal of the American Library Association. One of her specialties was Holocaust literature. She just loved it and wanted to see it published. She suggested some university presses that might be interested. One was University of Illinois Press who put the book out."

Online the collection of stories had grown. For the book Land-Weber trimmed down the number of stories and photos. She continues to add material to the Web version as she finds time to transcribe more interviews. In both forms text and images work together to show us how some true heroes reacted in the face of what seemed to be overwhelming odds.

"These were ordinary people at an extraordinary moment in time. It wasn't that they looked for the opportunity to help people. But when it came, they took it. And most people did not, sometimes because it was dangerous or scary. Sometimes because they just didn't want to get involved. When people read these stories they ask themselves the question: `What would I have done?'

"You don't know. You never can know."

 The show of photographs from To Save a Life: Stories of Holocaust Rescue will be on exhibit from Oct. 3 to Nov. 4 at HSU's First Street Gallery, 422 1st St., Old Town, Eureka. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Land-Weber will be on hand for a public reception and book signing during Eureka's Arts Alive! October 7, 6-9 p.m. For additional information call 443-6363.


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