For the JC March 23 2021
The photograph that Marc Wilson didn’t take is, nevertheless, etched in his memory.
It was the moment when the documentary photographer was talking to a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor, Rita, in her Tel Aviv home. Whatever terrible experience she was relating at that moment remains unspoken. But Rita’s daughter Ronit, was in the room, too. “Rita was telling me a part of her story”, remembers Marc, “and she started crying. And I started crying, too, And Ronit went over and knelt beside her and put her hand on her mother’s knee, and Rita held her daughter’s hand. It was so beautiful”.
Though he didn’t reach for his camera then, believing it was a private encounter, Wilson says it was moments like that which drove him on to continue his extraordinary project — an enormous book of photographs called A Wounded Landscape, which will be published in June this year.
It’s a project which has taken him six years, with travel to 130 locations in 20 countries. It tells the stories of 22 individuals, some survivors, some who perished in the Holocaust, whose experiences are relayed by surviving members of their family. The work is being aided by a kickstarter campaign, enabling him to print a larger number of the 750-page volume.
It sounds truly a labour of love. But as Wilson tells it, speaking from his family home in Bath, Somerset, it nearly didn’t happen. For a long time, he hovered on the periphery of working on a book about the Holocaust, but wasn’t sure he was experienced enough or mentally ready to embark on such a project.
“I didn’t think I had the right voice, the right visual language, to tell this important story. And alongside that was the knowledge of my own family’s history — unspoken to a point, though small things were hinted at”.
Eventually, Wilson — who had, by this stage, been a professional photographer for 25 years — decided he was ready. His mother’s cousin, who lives in Geneva, suggested he should go to Rivesaltes, the site of a former internment camp in the south of France. “I set my cameras up on a hill overlooking the camp, and before I’d taken a photograph, I knew this was wrong. I knew I was being objective. I took some pictures and they left me cold. I realised I had to do what I had avoided, which was to go into this place”.
The Geneva cousin worked with Holocaust survivors, taking them into schools to talk. One of them had spoken about Rivesaltes and had mentioned that during the war, the Swiss Red Cross had taken paints into the camp for its interned children. Wilson determined to find the children’s barracks, K12, to see if there were any remnant of the paintings left.
“I found the barracks, and I could see some of the children’s paintings still there — a tree, a train, a ship”. Outside the half-ruined barracks, Wilson saw a beautiful flower which he photographed, thinking it could represent one of the children. But he realised that one flower was not enough. “I went back and manically started photographing all the flowers I could see, my way of recording all the children’s memories and their stories”.
On his return to the UK Wilson decided that he needed “not to gaze at places objectively, but to tell very specific stories. My aim was that each story would be a reflection of countless others. It would be what they wanted the world to know… these people were exactly like us, all sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, parents and grandparents”.
And so the project began, with the first story “the easiest to find, but the hardest to do” — that of his own maternal great-grandfather.
This was Aaron Ianco, a Romanian Jew who, in the late 1930s, first moved with members of his family from village to village in Romania, and then to Paris. “They all went to Paris, and like most Jews, he was arrested and taken directly to Drancy. From there, about six months later, he was taken to Auschwitz — and probably, because he was about 72 at the time, murdered straight away”. Wilson discovered that 42 members of his mother’s family were murdered during the Holocaust. “The reason that I’m alive is that Aaron’s daughter, Annie, met and fell in love with a Swiss man who came to Paris, and she moved to Geneva with him before the war. And that’s where my mother was born. And that’s a story which is echoed by thousands of families”.
The next story evolved from this. It’s the experience of Sylvia, a friend of Wilson’s mother. Sylvia was a one-year-old Jewish child in Paris when the round-ups began, who was given up by her parents so that she would survive.
Wilson began travelling and by degrees, each story evolved in some way from the last. On a bus in Israel, on his way to see a survivor who had ended up on a kibbutz, he fell into conversation with his seat neighbour, a young woman who worked with Holocaust survivors. She offered to put him in touch with her boss who would see if anyone would be ready to talk to him.
“I really liked the idea of finding people who actively wanted to tell their stories — three or four of the stories in the book came from that meeting on the bus”.
The last story in the book actually began four years ago. Wilson was at Leitenberg Hill, used as a mass grave by the SS, the final resting place of 7,609 prisoners of Dachau concentration camp.
He found a memorial at Leitenberg, where someone had left the name of one of the victims. He traced this man’s granddaughter and had many on-line conversations with her, but she and her family weren’t yet ready to talk to Wilson for his book. Just 18 months ago, when Wilson had run out of funding, the granddaughter contacted him from Holland saying she wanted to pick up their conversation. So much so, in fact, that she booked a flight to the UK, and visited him in Bath, armed with every detail of her grandfather’s story.
He rarely had to ask more than a couple of questions. “What was important, was for them to share what they wanted to say, on that given day, with me”. His overall conclusion? “I am all these people. How easily this could have been you and me”.
A Wounded Landscape, by Marc Wilson, will be available from June directly from his website, priced £45. Contributors to the kick-starter campaign, which concludes on April 1, can buy the book for £40.