Humans of the Holocaust – a slightly different photo project

Erez Kaganovitz photographs Holocaust survivors and shares his photos on Instagram and in exhibitions. We talked with him about his project "Humans of the Holocaust" and his view on Holocaust education in general.

„It´s not a classic Holocaust Education project. It´s something different, something new. Its something, that aims to create a better engagement between millennials et cetera and Holocaust education.” explains Erez Kaganovitz. His goal: Making Holocaust education interesting – and this in a way, that young people want to engage. In 2019, after the grandson of a Holocaust survivor came across a survey by the Jewish Claims Conference - which revealed significant gaps in American Millennials' knowledge about the Holocaust - his photo project took shape. Since then he photographs Holocaust survivors und shares their stories in exhibitions and on Instagram. 

When photographing, he says, the most important thing is to create a form of intimacy, because the person has to feel comfortable. This intimacy results in parts from the location itself:  the shoots usually take place at the survivors' homes as their mobility is often limited. At the same time Kaganovitz wants to direct the photos in a way, „(…) that will people make stop scrolling down their feed.” The photos are meant to be a contribution to Holocaust education, away from museum visits and black and white images, one that provokes conversation and reaction. This is why Kaganovitz isn´t creating classical portraits, but integrating personal stories, characteristics of the survivors, symbols or objects. He wants to build a connection between the stories and the photos. 

An example is the photo of Dugo Leitner (see photo), who is embracing a large balloon in the shape of a so-called yellow badge in the photo: „When we first spoke he told me, that the only thing what kept him going while he was in Auschwitz, was his sense of humor. So we both realized that his picture has to be something different, has to be something,  that will actually portray his message.” His humor and optimism may also show in the photo. A few weeks before this interview with Kaganovitz, Dugo Leitner passed away at the age of 93.

The portrait of Mihail Sidko, a survivor of Babyn Yar, also connects to his story. It shows him in the middle of bullet casings. Mihail Sidko had told Kaganovitz about the "Holocaust by Bullets" and immediately it was clear to him that this had to be processed in the portrait.

But the photos do not stand alone: Under the Instagram posts or via a QR-code in the exhibition, he tells the survivor's story. „What I am trying to do is to create some kind of invitation for those young people to approach it, to engage with it and later on to let them connect the dots for themselves. They can go the links, they can go to their parents and teachers and ask questions. The idea is to bring them into the table.” It is therefore important, to speak their language, says Kaganovitz. „Social Media gave us a lot of power and we need to use it, to reach out to people from all around the world!” 

He says the pictures trigger emotions, there is no right and wrong. „ And I think because I am not trying to impose my own ideas, people are actually comfortable to share their thoughts and I think because the pictures are interesting, they are trigger points to speak about democracy, to speak about human rights, to speak about the Holocaust remembrance, to speak about current issues.”

Kaganovitz wants to create at least 100 portraits and tell their stories. In the end, he wants to publish a book. Until the mid of august his photos had been shown in the Max Mannheimer Haus in Dachau. They should now continue to be exhibited at various locations in Bavaria. At any time the photos can be seen the on Instagram account @humansoftheholocaust or on the webiste.There you can also read more about the stories of Dugo Leitner and Mihail Sidko.