My parents met in London in May 1942 at a concert for Jewish refugees and married a few weeks later. … They stayed in England through the war years and eventually went to the U.S. in 1953, my father’s dream for many years.
My parents were able to make a pretty good life for themselves, but what happened to their families in Nazi Germany haunted them their entire lives. Indeed, they haunt me as well. — Jacky Poulsen
“My mother couldn’t talk about it without breaking down. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t. It’s more like she couldn’t,” says Jacky Poulsen of Livermore.
Her parents, Roy and Alice Calder, are among several Holocaust survivors profiled in a new exhibit at the Museum on Main in Pleasanton.
Their stories and photos complement “Multiply by Six Million: Portraits and Stories of Holocaust Survivors,” a traveling exhibition showcasing photographer Evvy Eisen’s 15-year-long project to create portraits of Holocaust survivors living in California and France. Eisen resides in Inverness, in West Marin County.
Eisen’s “Six Million” exhibition, which runs through Feb. 28, includes 38 portraits and personal histories from among the 200 in her collection. Each black-and-white portrait is accompanied by a narrative of the survivor’s experience during and after the Holocaust.
For the exhibit in Pleasanton, the stories of local families impacted by the Holocaust — such as the Calders and their daughter — have been added. Poulsen’s words (at left) have been excerpted from a longer piece, in which she writes about the pain of never knowing any grandparents, aunts or uncles, or cousins.
The timing of the exhibit ties in with International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday, Jan. 27. That date, when Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, was designated by the United Nations in 2005 as a day of remembrance and observance.
Including local stories and photos with the exhibit was the idea of museum education director Jennifer Amiel, whose grandmother fled Prague and the Nazis as a child of 14.
“Local students study the Holocaust and read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ in school,” Amiel says, “but what many people may not realize is that there are individuals in their own community who narrowly escaped the Nazis or whose families were exterminated in Nazi death camps.”
Though the “Six Million” exhibit opened Jan. 8, Amiel still is reaching out to find survivors — or second- and third-generation family members of those no longer living — in the Tri-Valley area (Pleasanton, Danville, Livermore, San Ramon and nearby communities) to augment Eisen’s work.
So far she has found eight: Six have already been interviewed and photographed, and two more are in process. “A lot of the children of survivors have a very keen sense of responsibility to tell their stories,” Amiel says.
Their biographical statements and black-and-white photos are displayed in a binder for public viewing at the museum, which has been in its current location — a 100-year-old building that has housed town hall, the police department and a library — since 1984. The museum’s roots date back 50 years, to the formation of the Livermore Valley Historical Society.
After the “Six Million” exhibit moves on, the binder of Holocaust stories, pictures and memories of Tri-Valley residents will remain as part of the museum’s permanent collection.
When Poulsen learned of the exhibit and Amiel’s efforts to locate nearby Holocaust survivors or their families, “I was just thrilled about it,” she says. “People find out that there are people impacted by the Holocaust who live right down the street. I do find it’s my generation keeping the education going. It’s our responsibility.”
The Calder family arrived in the United States “with absolutely nothing,” says Poulsen, who was born in London in 1950. The family settled in Marin. Her father, Roy, became the first regional director of the American Friends of Hebrew University, and in 1987 he founded the Northern California chapter of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, later known as Kol Hadash.
Roy Calder seized opportunities to speak to students about the Holocaust — something his wife, Alice, could never bring herself to do. He died in 2009 at age 87; his wife predeceased him in 2005 at age 84.
Shortly before my father died nearly a decade ago, while under the effects of strong medications, he hallucinated for brief periods of time. During those horrific moments when he lost consciousness, he cried out in horror about Nazis beating him up. No comforting words from us reached him. He could see the Nazis. They were there and real for him all over again. — Monica Friedlander
The daughter of Holocaust survivors from Romania, Livermore resident Monica Friedlander has no biological children. “I am the end of the line for my family,” she notes.
As such, “She feels an even larger burden, you can see it in her eyes,” says Amiel. “She feels such a connection with her father.” Amiel met Friedlander through a survivors’ group at Pleasanton’s Congregation Beth Emek, where both are members.
Though Friedlander writes in her bio that she felt the “loneliness of having such a small family,” she also says she was fortunate. “Because of the small size of our family and my parents’ wish to make my life so much better than theirs, I had the great luck of having an extremely close and loving family, something I will carry in my heart forever.”
Livermore resident Ruth Stern Gasten was able to escape Nazi Germany with her parents as a child. Her mother managed to get papers from an aunt in Chicago authorizing their immigration to America, and successfully pleaded with an SS officer in Stuttgart for her father’s release from Buchenwald so they could leave the country. Gasten attributes the officer’s decision, in part, to the fact that he, too, had a daughter about her age.
Her family left Germany in January 1939. Gasten was 6 years old. “I still remember the joy we felt when we arrived in New York City and saw the Statue of Liberty,” she writes. “Our new life was about to begin.”
Gasten does a lot of public speaking in local schools about her life. “She connects to students as a child immigrant,” Amiel says.
“Though my life has been a tremendous journey, and I have been an eyewitness to horrific events, I am convinced these experiences have only made me stronger. I credit my mother especially with displaying such an indomitable spirit, that she taught me to live courageously and that giving up is never an option.” — Stella S. Beck
Stella Beck of Livermore fled the Nazis in 1939 when troops invaded Poland, where her parents ran a dental practice. They hid in the woods, sometimes alongside partisan fighters, until reaching the Soviet border town of Lvov. Her family ended up as prisoners in a Soviet forced labor camp in Siberia, enduring brutal subzero temperatures, hunger and malnutrition until the war ended and they were sent back to Poland.
Their hardships did not end: Moving from one country to another, they ended up in a Displaced Persons camp until 1949, when an aunt in the U.S. sponsored them and found a job for her father in a foam factory in New York.
Both Beck and her older brother went on to better lives. She married, raised seven children and has a large extended family. At 78, she says she has no intention of slowing down.
When Evvy Eisen set out to document the lives of Holocaust survivors in her photo exhibit, “I didn’t want this to be like other projects of its kind that I had seen — talking heads, cutting away to the barking dogs [at the camps],” she says. “I work with each person for quite a while. They are very individual.”
A personal connection allows “a deeper understanding of one of the defining events of the 20th century,” Eisen says on the project website (www.multiplybysixmillion.com). “It leads viewers to consider parallels between historical events in Europe and concerns in a post 9/11 world in which new groups have become the targets for exclusion and prejudice.”
Eisen asked each of the 200 survivors she photographed to write a detailed biography of their lives before, during and after the war, and to choose the photo that would be part of the exhibit.
“I used to send letters to each once a year,” she says. Recently, “The letters started getting returned.”
Eisen has created a film, also called “Multiply by Six Million,” and it tours with Eisen’s photo exhibition. Her work is on archive at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Contemporary Jewish Documentation Center in Paris.
Eisen — who has never fallen out of love with the darkroom or film photography — says she focuses on subjects that are “socially significant.”
She is hoping for broader distribution of the film to schools, libraries and cultural centers. Available on the Sundance channel for a time, it is now distributed by Brandeis University.
“I worked with a professional on the film and a lovely score was written by one of the survivors [Nicole Milner],” Eisen says. Survivors’ stories are told in sections: destruction and loss, lives rebuilt, and reflections.
A DVD of the film plays at the Museum on Main exhibit. There is also a small “reflection room,” says Amiel, where visitors can place a stone on a memorial.
In the “Multiply by Six Million” film, Fanny Kreiger, a smiling brunette holding a photo album, tells how she escaped deportation: She had been on an overnight at a girlfriend’s house when the Nazis came to her family home.
“When I returned the next day, all I found was the family photo album on the floor,” she writes in her biography. “I spent the rest of the war hiding in the local boarding school waiting for the return of my family.
“But no one ever came back.”
Liz Harris of J. contributed to this story.
“Multiply by Six Million” through Feb. 28 at the Museum on Main, 603 Main St., Pleasanton. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-4 p.m. Sunday, closed Monday. Free. www.museumonmain.org or (925) 462-2766.
on the cover
Monica Friedlander, Stella Beck and Frank and Hella Roubicek (clockwise from top) are profiled in “Multiply by Six Million.”