By showing their faces and publishing their words, Harry Borden gives a voice to those once threatened with death
In Harry Borden’s portrait, Arno Roland is seated at his kitchen table. The photograph, for Borden’s book Survivor: A portrait of the survivors of the Holocaust, published by Cassell Illustrated, shows walls covered in art and Roland looking towards the light that shines into his home in New Jersey, where he settled in the 1960s.
He was 92 at the time of the picture and, although he was active in community theatre and served on the town council, he had remained unmarried and without children all his life. He died just a few months after Borden took his photograph, on 8 August 2015.
In 1938, Roland was 15 years old and his brother Ulli a year younger, when their mother checked into a hotel and took an overdose of barbiturates. The Berlin police report noted that many Jewish women had recently taken their lives in such a way. On Kristallnacht the same year, when Nazis torched synagogues and killed almost 100 Jews, their father was on a business trip to Holland and managed to bring his sons to Eindhoven.
In 1940 the Germans invaded and two years later the boys had to go into hiding to avoid deportation to the camps. One day, Ulli was suddenly arrested on the street and sent to Auschwitz, a fate narrowly avoided by Roland.
“The Dutch Resistance brought me into a hiding place,” he told Borden. “My protectors were a 70-year-old couple, the Hurkmans, who, based on their socialist convictions, were ready to save a young boy from deportation. For this act they would have faced the death penalty.”
Borden invited each of the survivors he photographed to write something to accompany their portrait. Opposite the image of Roland, we can see the old man’s handwriting. He recalled the life he led in America without his brother, “who perished in Auschwitz”, and thanked Borden and researcher Miriam Hechtman for showing “the faces of those who outlived the Nazi nightmare”. Compiled with the London Jewish Cultural Centre, the book was published on 27 January to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.
Other handwritten notes are more pointed than Roland’s. “I survived Hitler,” Sam Goodchild states. “That is my revenge.” Jadzia Opat writes: “I am happy to be still here.” Cesia Altstock recalls: “They took my mother and pushed me back with the butt of a gun – I knew I would never see her again.”
Manek Altstock writes: “Even now I dream of the moment my father told me to run… I never saw him again.” Mayer Braitberg writes simply: “I have nothing to say.”
Borden only discovered his Jewish ancestry as a teenager and has never approached the subject before. Indeed, his career has been in commercial and editorial work, rather than conceptual portraiture, through long relationships with The New Yorker, Vogue and Time.
“At the age of 40, having spent half my life photographing famous people, I wanted to do something with meaning,” he says. “I grew up on a farm in Devon in England. My dad, Charlie, was a resolutely atheist Jew who derived nothing from his background except a fear of anti Semitism.
“When I was a boy, he once told me that the Nazis would have killed us. I was shocked. I attended a Church of England primary school, sang in the choir and had always considered myself a Christian like my mum.
“I think it was my dad’s ambivalence towards this heritage – and his disturbing revelation that it had once been deemed punishable by death – that really motivated me to create this body of work.”