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Photographer Captures Resilience of Holocaust Survivors in Argentina

By Chiara Varcellone

On Nov. 13 the Argentinian Embassy hosted photojournalist Pablo Cuarterolo's collection of color photographs documenting the past and present of Holocaust survivors who moved to Argentina after the end of World War II.

The collection arose after one of Cuarterolo's trips to Europe, in which he visited and documented the ruins of notorious concentration camps, along with the ghettos of Warsaw and Prague. But upon his return to native Argentina, he realized he was missing the most important part of this history: the people.

Cuarterolo then contacted survivors who emigrated to Argentina after 1945; 17 of them agreed to take part in his project "Sobrevivientes de la Shoa (Survivors of the Shoa)."

The series, which first opened in Buenos Aires in November 2017, is meant to represent a deeper, more personal understanding of the horrors and devastation of World War II. More importantly, the portraits illustrate "the humanity of those who survived and searched for a new place to begin a new life," Cuarterolo said.

"Nowhere is the beauty and power of art exemplified more than here, where an unblinking view is taken, where ugliness is transformed into a complex, rich and ultimately human experience," said curator Alfredo Ratinoff.

Jewish immigration to Argentina began in the 16th century, after practicing Jews were evicted from Spain following the 1492 Alhambra Decree issued by the country's Catholic monarchs. The settlement of Jewish communities kept growing well into the 20th century as a result of the country's open-door immigration policy toward European immigrants.

Memorial

Argentinian photojournalist Pablo Cuarterolo has compiled portraits and memories of the Holocaust survivors in Argentina for his exhibition “Survivors of the Shoa,” on display at the Argentinian Embassy from Nov. 13 to Dec. 7. Photo: Embassy of Argentina

But Argentina is also synonymous with a much darker open-door policy — one that welcomed and aided thousands of Nazi war criminals.

In 1938, the Argentinian government led by Juan Perón imposed new regulations on immigration that limited the number of Jews allowed into the country. Officially, Argentina was neutral during the war but sympathy for the Axis powers, along with anti-Semitism, ran high. After the war, Perón and his government helped fugitive Nazis escape to Argentina, creating an extensive network that allowed other Nazi leaders to flee Europe and avoid the Nuremberg Trials.

Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's "technician of death" who was the architect behind the Holocaust, lived in Buenos Aires under the alias Ricardo Klement until 1960, when he was captured by Mossad agents and taken to Israel to face trial for crimes against humanity. Josef Mengele, known as the "angel of death" for conducting macabre experiments on Auschwitz prisoners, also found safe haven in Argentina in 1949 until he moved to Brazil in 1960, where he lived until his death in 1979.

Despite the political climate, many Jews still fled to Argentina after 1945 to escape the horrors of World War II Europe.

Diana Wang was born in Poland in 1945 and moved to Argentina in 1947 with her parents, both Holocaust survivors. Aware of the atrocities her parents endured, she became involved with the organization "Generaciones de la Shoa en Argentina (Generations of the Shoa in Argentina)" in Buenos Aires.

Cuban

Pictured on the left is part of a striped uniform worn by the prisoners at Nazi concentration camps. On the right is the tattoo of a Holocaust survivor with the pink triangle identifying him as homosexual. Photo: Embassy of Argentina

The organization, founded by survivors in the 1960s, started as a place to congregate, share memories, support each other and honor their families. Today, through projects like Cuarterolo's "Sobrevivientes de la Shoa," the organization pairs young students with survivors to raise awareness about World War II history.

"We've found out that the oral testimony of somebody has such strength and energy. It can't be forgotten," Wang said in a video that played at the exhibition opening. She described Cuarterolo's photography as "so emotionally potent that it touches everybody — survivors and non-survivors."

Argentina is currently home to 209,000 registered survivors of the Holocaust, although Jaime Monllor, international outreach officer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, believes not everybody was accounted for due to the fear of being deported for those who entered the country illegally in the '40s and '50s.

The museum, now in its 25th year, has been working to register all survivors — Jewish and non-Jewish — to "make it easier for them to find possibly displaced family members," said Monllor.

Margit Meissner is one of the millions who was displaced by war. Born in Austria in 1922, her parents sent her to France the night before the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. Meissner was 16 years old and said she had no idea what was happening at the time.

"It is unconceivable right now to think how ignorant I was at the time, but it's true. I didn't know what was happening in Germany or anywhere else in the world for that matter," said Meissner.

Cuban

Pablo Cuarterolo photographed 17 holocaust survivors upon his return to Argentina. He said his portraits illustrate “the humanity of those who survived and searched for a new place to begin a new life,” Cuarterolo said. Photo: Embassy of Argentina

Meissner was able to find her mother a year later in France, along with a small suitcase that was all that was left of the family's belongings. Once the war caught up to France in 1940, Meissner was forced to leave on a bicycle bought with the little money her mother gave her before being deported. After miraculously finding her mother again in Marseille, they crossed the border to Spain and embarked on a wine cork Portuguese ship going to the U.S. Meissner and her mother arrived very seasick but safe in the United States in 1941.

In 1963, after almost 12 years in the U.S., Meissner moved to Argentina with her husband. She described her time in the Latin American country as "the most productive years of [her] life."

In Argentina, she started the Buen Vecino Program, created to bring immigrants and native Argentinians together.

"It was difficult at first, but eventually many people saw the many advantages of the program and appreciated it," said Meissner.

Meissner went on to become a sixth-grade teacher and the founder of a daycare center in Villa Miseria. She left in 1966 and describes her time in Argentina as "an unforgettable experience."

Cuban

Jaime Monllor, international outreach officer of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, holocaust survivor Margit Meissner and curator Alfredo Ratinoff were all guest speakers at the opening of Pablo Cuarterolo’s photo exhibition “Survivors of the Shoa.” Photo: Embassy of Argentina

Meissner now works as a volunteer at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where she translates Czech into English for the archives and serves as a tour guide.

"I always say to people you've got to be curious. You must find out what goes on in the world. You must never be a bystander. If you see any kind of prejudice, or bullying or anti-Semitism, don't just stand there. You cannot let this kind of thinking go on without you trying to be helpful," she told the embassy audience.

Cuarterolo's images shed light not only on the unimaginable human toll of World War II, but also the strength and resilience of its survivors.

Cuarterolo said he wants his work to not only tell the personal experience of survivors, but also lift everyone else from "the corrosive dust of indifference and be forgiven for frequently looking far away." His work looks back at the past but also focuses on the future to ensure that history does not repeat itself.

Cuarterolo's visual essay will be on display at the Argentinian Embassy, located at 1600 New Hampshire Ave., NW, until Dec. 7, when it will go back along with its owner to Argentina.


Chiara Vercellone is an editorial intern for The Washington Diplomat.

 
 

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