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BOOK REVIEW: Survivor – A Portrait of the Survivors of the Holocaust, by Harry Borden

| 25 April 2017 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Survivor – A Portrait of the Survivors of the Holocaust, by Harry Borden

Cassell Illustrated
April 2017
Hardcover, $49.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Non-Fiction / Portraits / The Holocaust


“something really to behold, a substantial project of some real depth and authority. By flicking through the pages you can sense the amount of research, patience and hard work that has been invested. The portraits, as always with Borden are simple, effective and very telling.” – Martin Parr ‘A masterpiece and deeply moving’ – Alain de Botton ‘A wonderful piece of work’ – Lynn Barber

Over the course of five years, acclaimed photographer Harry Borden has travelled the globe photographing survivors of the Holocaust. The people featured vary in age, gender and nationality, but are all tied together by their experience and survival of one of the darkest moments in human history.

Each photograph is accompanied by a handwritten note from the sitter, ranging from poems, to memories, to hopes for the future, creating a strong sense of intimacy between sitter and reader. This intimacy is amplified by the home settings of many of the photographs, along with the photographer’s use of available light at each scene. At the end of the book is a section providing more information about the person in each portrait, and about how and what they survived, together with the historical context of the events they lived through.

Thought-provoking and touching, this book conveys the dignity and humanity of each subject’s character. Survivor is a unique and powerful testimony of what it is to live with memories of the Holocaust.


There is something so very honest in the way that Borden has gathered together these images of Holocaust survivors, taken in environments that are known to them, without the aid of artificial lighting. The reader is seeing the survivor where they are now, after all the pain and torment of their childhood, having found a place to belong without persecution.

Their own words are shown on the opposite page as written by the survivor themselves, or their family, repeated in plain type at the bottom of the page, lest the writing be hard to read or even written in another language. Borden could have presented this work without the original, hand-written notes, but the decision to include these gives the readers a stronger feeling of connection to the people they’re reading about.

In his foreword, Howard Jacobson talks about the lack of discussion had about the survivors’ experiences, through their own inability to voice the suffering the saw and underwent, but more worryingly because of society’s reluctance to listen.

But however oppressive that burden, however cruel the cost of remembering – “If you could lick my heart, it would poison you,” a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto famously admitted – the story has to go on being told. Not as an individual imperative, where such an imperative still exists, but as a communal duty. Because, for all the apparent “visibility of the Holocaust today – and the memorials and museums and countless films and books and articles on the subject certainly seem to have given the lie to the prison guard’s hellish prognostications – there remain voices urging scepticism, forgetfulness, even a renegotiation of pity. “Negators of truth,” Primo Levi called them.

And how this has led to a general dismissing of the atrocities of World War II.

Thus we have competing Holocaust Memorial Days, some held quite deliberately without the presence of Jews. Why privilege the Jews when the Holocaust was a crime against all humanity, and why privilege this Holocaust, when other groups have suffered at the hands of genocidal tyrants? What about our Holocaust? As often as not, such avidity is motivated by a familiar malevolence and spite.

This book is something of an answer to that, sharing the stories of a variety of survivors, giving access beyond that which even families of survivors might be privy to, as we read about survivors of a variety of situations, whether they were hidden children, sent away on Kindertransport, those who survived POW camps, or any number of other specific atrocities.

Jack Jaget
My name is Jack Jaget. I am a Holocaust survivor. My family was hidden for 22 months under a pigsty. There were twice searches by the Gestapo. If we were discovered, my family and the Polish family that hid us would have been shot on the spot.

Lilly Glass
This is in honour of Angela, our governess. She was the one who saved us during the Holocaust by arranging for my mother to be hidden in a farm, my brothers to be put in an orphanage and myself in a convent.

Sometimes words escape them, even after all these years.

Mayer Braitberg
I have nothing to say.

And sometimes its’s the removal of things the rest of us take for granted that hit the closest to home.

Aliza Shapiro
We were rehearsing Brahm’s lullaby in the singing lesson when the Headmistress came in and said “you’ve got to leave now, you’re Jewish”.

While there is definitely a strong repetition of “how could this happen?” and hope that the world would learn from these atrocities, but disappointment that people still kill each other so freely,

Ruth Barnett
Our planet is as beautiful as the Garden of Eden, so why do we make weapons and slaughter each other instead of enjoying it?”

Sarah Saaroni
After surviving the Second World War I hoped that people learned from it, but unfortunately nothing changed. People still kill one another.”

Henri Obstfeld
… and what has the world learned of all this?

there is another message here that is stronger. So many of these people had friends and family ripped away from them, so many were set adrift or went through immense suffering to come out the other side, not unscathed, but at least alive. And yet their feelings of optimism shine through, along with their incredible resilience and hope.

Maurice Blik
There is a mountain of literature, film, music, painting, sculpture, archive and history that refers to the horror of the Holocaust. Little is said of those survivors who, despite their pains and loss, made a success of their lives. I wish to move the story on to honour and celebrate those of us whose rich and full lives have embraced the future.

Sam Goodchild
I survived Hitler. That is my revenge.

Sarah Capelovitch
We must not forget, we must always remember, share our memories. We must not hate, it is a destructive emotion, it does not help to survive and tell the story the way it should be told.

Eve Kugler
I am a child survivor. Those of us who survived were not more worthy than those who perished. Nor were we braver, richer, smarter or more resourceful. We were not. We were just luckier.

This book contains a range of the human emotions one might experience, after such a terrible event during their childhood.

Each portrait and note also comes with a page reference for the sitter’s biography, and more specifics as to what they went through, some of which are only a few paragraphs, and others that expand to multiple pages. These pages go on to show readers the range and yet the similarity of the events these survivors went through, all reinforcing the message of “Never again”, in a time when anti-Semitism seems, beyond all logic, to be on the rise in certain parts of the world.

It is important to record these messages while the survivors are still around, or their experiences risk falling into the realms of stories and legends, and human beings risk repeating history.


Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

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