The Photo – 9 Years Later

Many photographers, like myself, can recall those unique occasions where they knew the minute they ‘clicked the shutter’ that they had something special.  They remember the moment, the setting, and the minute details that lead up to capturing the shot as if there was a story in the making culminated by capturing that ‘picture worth a thousand words’.

This is such a story about a photo I was privileged to take nearly ten years ago and a follow up to it. The original photo is that of a 90 year old Holocaust survivor holding his 7-week old great grandson in his arm that is clearly marked with a tattooed number he received in the death camp known as Auschwitz.

I retired from public school teaching nearly five years ago and had waded back into my photography 8 years previous to that as just a fun ‘hobby’.  I taught 6th and 7th grade Reading in a rural school district about 100 miles NE of Dallas, TX.  One of my favorite reading units to teach centered around the Holocaust…a subject I had always had great interest in.  Novels and biographies that dealt with this dark chapter in history fascinated me and it was rewarding for me to pass this passion on to my 7th grade students every year. So many life lessons spun off from our readings and discussions in class.

One of the annual highlights for my students and I was taking a field trip to the Holocaust museum in downtown Dallas. The prime motivation for this undertaking was so the kids had the privilege to meet and listen to a living holocaust survivor speak to them about their own experiences growing up, and the hardships they endured in the death camps which my students had just finished reading about.

I remember after my second visit to the museum, I met the director of the center and simply reached out to them sharing my passion for the mission they carried out there. I wanted them to know that not only was I a school teacher, but also a photographer, and offered my services to them should they ever have a need to photograph these aging survivors whose time on earth was growing shorter with each passing year. 

I never expected to hear from anyone given my geographical location from the city, but was pleasantly surprised when they followed up and invited me to photograph an event they were hosting.  Pleased with the results of my work, they approached me a few months later about an idea they had been considering.  Would I be willing to spend some time going into the homes of a dozen or so living survivors, taking photos of them and their extended families while we captured their stories in greater detail.  They did not need to ask me twice.

So for the next six months, I would drive back into the Dallas area, usually on Sundays, meet up with my liaison from the museum, Nanette Fodell, and she would escort me to various homes where we might spend an hour or two visiting with these incredible souls.  We would first take some family photos. Afterwards, the survivor would begin to share some of their own history related to growing up in WWll Germany/Poland. It was then I would snap away, yet while still totally engaged with their personal stories.  Often times, I would set the camera aside and just listen reverently …and on occasion wipe tears from my eyes.  Being in their presence and in this intimate setting was almost like being on ‘holy ground’ for me, personally.

On one of those Sunday afternoons back in July of 2010, we had the honor of visiting the home of William Schiff.  Mr. Shiff was a 90-year-old survivor and had spent time in Auschwitz, one of the more notorious death camps.  He had a large extended family there that day along with his wife, who also survived the same camp, as well as his kids, grandkids, and even a 7-week-old great grandson.

As we finished up taking the large group photo, it was time to do some individual photos of Mr. Schiff.  While he was taking off his suit coat, I heard his granddaughter ask if we were done with the group photos as she was going to put her newborn son down for a nap.  It was then I noticed that tattooed number on Mr. Schiff’s forearm.

I don’t know what it is about those markings that I find so riveting.  It’s one thing to see a movie where the ID markings were tattooed in to the prisoner’s arms…but to see an authentic one, in person, on a living survivor always had a profound impact on me when doing these sessions.

It was at that moment when I asked the young mother if we could do one more photo with her newborn. I strategically placed Mr. Schiff in a chair by a nearby window and we settled the drowsy child onto his arm where the baby’s hand rested just above that black scratching of his prison number which was visible on his arm.  The moment I snapped the photo…and previewed it on the back of my camera, I was stunned.  I motioned to Nanette to come look…and a hushed silence was all we could muster up.  Both our eyes filled with tears…and we both knew something incredibly special had just been captured on my camera.

Fast forward 9 years … when I was recently reminiscing over that photo and was wondering what the young child might look like today.  Mr. Schiff had passed away a year or two after that first photo was taken.  I decided to reach out to the family and pitch the idea of maybe doing a follow up photo with him holding a print of him, as the infant, in his grandfather’s arms.  And they were gracious enough to invite me over to take this very shot.  So here is 9-year-old Asher with this photo taken of him nine years earlier nestled on the arm of his Great grandfather, William Schiff.  You see his tiny hand resting above the black tattooed number that for all practical purposes…was inscribed as a death sentence …an inevitable death in the gas chambers which Mr. Schiff escaped; eventually making his way to America, reunited with his wife, Roasalie.  It was here in Texas that they went on to live a fulfilling and productive life.

Asher’s mother, Jennifer, described her son to me as  “the soul” of our family.  He is very affectionate and empathetic for a kid his age – he is innocent and sweet. –   It’s kind of nice to think that because my grandfather and grandmother survived such an awful, hateful event in history the world has such a beautiful soul in it like Asher – 

January 29th is fast approaching.  It has been designated as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

And so I remember.

I remember the day I took a photo; a simple photo of a grandfather holding his great-grandson.

I remember that old saying about how a ‘picture is worth a thousand words’,  and reflect on the story this photo tells.

I also remember the writings of the ancient psalmist who penned:

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well. … Your eyes saw my unformed body;
    all the days ordained for me were written in your book
    before one of them came to be. Ps 139

Oh, and in case anyone was wondering, the Hebrew meaning of Asher is “happy” (fortunate; blessed)