“Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory” focuses on simple things that became powerful images of survival. In some instances, everyday things like keys, a piece of clothing or a document were all that remained of a person’s previous life as he or she struggled to begin again.
Bishop Edward Malesic and Father Joe Hilinski, the diocesan delegate for ecumenical and interfaith affairs, previewed the exhibit at the Maltz Museum of Jewish History in Beachwood. The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland is among the sponsors of the exhibit, which runs through Feb. 27, 2022.
Mary Ann Corrigan-Davis, who retired in 2019 after serving 13 years as president of her alma mater, Saint Joseph Academy, helped guide the bishop and Father Hilinski through the exhibit. She also explained the museum to Bishop Malesic, a first-time visitor. For the past nine years, Corrigan-Davis has been a Maltz Museum board member.
The exhibit evolved from “What We Carried: Stories by Iraqi Refugees,” an exhibition by photographer Jim Lommasson that was featured at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. It looked at the refugee experience through the few keepsakes refugees were able to bring with them as they began new lives in the United States.
Museum officials noticed a similarity between the Iraqi refugees’ items and its collection of Holocaust survivors’’ possessions. They saw an opportunity to tell a different – yet similar – story showing how these new refugees, much like the Holocaust survivors, overcame hardships and used keepsakes from their past to remember their previous lives.
The exhibit drew from the experiences of genocide survivors from the Holocaust and refugees from places like Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Iraq and Syria, Rwanda, Somali and Sudan. Survivors left their native countries after enduring untold hardships, able to bring only a few things with them, as they began a new life.
They were asked to write about the items and Lommasson photographed them. The items, as well as his photographs, are featured in the exhibit. Two questions are asked in the exhibit: What would you leave? What is your story?
Simple, everyday items are displayed, such as a set of dominoes that remind the owner of enjoying the game with his friends. A pair of infant pajamas that a Holocaust survivor once wore and later used for her doll. A dress worn by a child victim of genocide. Keys that once belonged to a wealthy Jewish businessman who lost everything but was able to escape the Holocaust and begin a new life. A dish that reminds a Syrian woman who escaped her war-torn country of the family dinners she used to enjoy in her native land. Travel documents that helped Holocaust survivors escape war-torn Europe. A scarf worn by a Holocaust survivor, then tucked into a drawer for decades. A wallet with a bullet hole that helped save the life of a man in World War II.
The bishop and Father Hilinski also paused to reflect on a rosary and photos sharing the story of a young Jewish girl cared for by Catholic nuns during World War II.
The stories have common threads of persecution and loss and for the survivors, a new beginning.
Corrigan-Davis and Michelle Feinberg, Maltz development manager, also introduced the bishop and Father Hilinski to Stanley Bernath, a lifelike experience featuring a Holocaust survivor who shares his experiences using artificial intelligence and holograms.
Bernath, who survived four concentration/work camps during World War II, eventually settled in Cleveland with his wife, also a Holocaust survivor. She never shared her story, but he began to do so in his final years. Bernath was chosen to participate in the USC Shoah Foundation project spearheaded by Hollywood director Stephen Spielberg that features Holocaust survivors’ testimonies and stories.
The permanent exhibit featuring Bernath allows visitors to interact with him through the use of artificial intelligence. Bernath died in 2019, shortly before his 93rd birthday.
“We must never forget,” Bishop Malesic said as he viewed the exhibit and asked questions of Bernath.
For more information on the exhibit, click here.