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Photographer's portraits tell Holocaust survivors' stories

Photographer's portraits tell Holocaust survivors' stories
Clifford Lester, a photo instructor at Cypress College, has dedicated part of his career to photographing Holocaust survivors and chronicling their stories. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley)

Photographer Clifford Lester has devoted more than a decade to telling the stories of Holocaust survivors through his craft.

Lester, 62, has photographed close to 100 survivors, with 32 of the portraits lining walls along a long hallway in the student center at Cypress College, where he has been a photography instructor for 16 years.

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Lester's portraits, lit only by windows, capture the emotions of his subjects during their most intimate, introspective moments.

The expressions are profound.

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Every wrinkle, blemish and age spot are seen.

The subjects' often-horrific testimonies are etched in text boxes alongside each portrait.

"Every one of their stories are so unique, even though you can (say) they sort of went through similar things," Lester said. "I go there with a sincere interest with what they have to say — and we're just talking as I'm photographing them."

His portraits will appear in a slideshow at Cypress College theater for the third annual Yom HaShoah event on April 17, where Holocaust survivors will share testimonies and World War II veterans involved in liberating the concentration and death camps in Germany will be recognized.

Clifford Lester describes one of his portraits of a Holocaust survivor on display in the gallery at Cypress Community College's student center.
Clifford Lester describes one of his portraits of a Holocaust survivor on display in the gallery at Cypress Community College's student center. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley)

Both of Lester's parents are Holocaust survivors.

In November 1938, Lester's father, Harry, witnessed the violent pillaging of Jewish neighborhoods in Germany.

The event became known as Kristallnacht, or "night of the broken glass," referring to the glass that blanketed the streets.

Lester's father fled to the U.S. in 1939.

Lester's mother, Ursula Lowenbach Foster, spent much of the war with her parents in Amsterdam and eventually went into hiding for 18 months with a non-Jewish family.

She later spent years speaking to thousands of American schoolchildren about her experiences during the Holocaust.

After his mother's death in 2004, Lester read letters his mother received from students who expressed gratitude for hearing her story.

"The letters were so powerful," Lester said. "They would talk about her courage and her bravery and how she impacted their lives and all these different things behind her message. I thought, 'Well she is gone. I'm here. I've got to continue her work.'"

For Lester, the logical way to do that would be through photographs.

"Survivors have been photographed so many different ways," he said. "I said, 'How can I do something different?'"

Lester's first portrait in the series was of Nathan Langer, a family friend and founder of Langer Juice Company.

Langer was taken to concentration camps with his family in 1939 and eventually escaped. He was the only member of his immediate family who survived.

Lester photographed Langer outside his factory in Commerce.

Speaking about the horrors he endured during the Holocaust, Langer became too distraught to continue and the photo session abruptly ended, Lester said.

"If there is one survivor whose anguish still shows in his eyes and clearly the depths of his soul, it would be Nathan," Lester said.

Clifford Lester inspects prints he has created of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans at Cypress Community College.
Clifford Lester inspects prints he has created of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans at Cypress Community College. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley)

Lester showed Langer's portrait to Dr. Marilyn Harran, director of the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education at Chapman University.

Harran appreciated the image and sent Lester on assignments to photograph more Holocaust survivors.

He has since connected with survivor support groups and located survivors through a variety of other sources.

Lester researches his subject before each shoot and spends hours talking with him or her during the shoot.

"I don't pose them at all," he said. "All these portraits are done by conversation."

Another portrait is of Tova Cohen, who was imprisoned in Auschwitz at age 12 and credits her survival to being on Schindler's list.

During the shoot, Cohen spoke about her rebellious personality and once receiving 25 lashes by a Nazi guard without making a sound by chewing on her hands to keep from screaming.

While in Poland, Lester photographed survivor Philip Bialowitz, a U.S. resident who traveled the world to share his story.

Bialowitz was transported to the Sobibor death camp in Poland, where 250,000 Jews were sent.

Only about 50 survived.

The collection of survivors' portraits at Cypress College is believed to be the only exhibit of its kind in any community college in the state, said Paul de Dios, dean of counseling, student development and admissions and records at Cypress College.

"It's an opportunity to bring the community to our campus, from K-12 kids who are probably studying history to our own students on this campus and our own community," said de Dios, who helped spearhead the exhibit along with Lester. "We like to promote diversity on this campus and we want our students to learn that diversity and to be inclusive along with the other core values that we have."

Clifford Lester stands in the gallery displaying his photos of Holocaust survivors at Cypress Community College's student center.
Clifford Lester stands in the gallery displaying his photos of Holocaust survivors at Cypress Community College's student center. (Photo by Drew A. Kelley)

In 2016, Lester organized the first Yom HaShoah Holocaust Day of Remembrance at Cypress College and invited several survivors to share their testimonies.

Yom HaShoah has been observed annually around the world since 1951 and Cypress' third annual Yom HaShoah event will take place at 7 p.m. April 17.

Survivor Jacob Eisenbach will share his memories at the event for the third time.

"I want people to know what the consequences can be to accepting ideas of hatred, discrimination and intolerance," Eisenbach said. "Because this is what led to the Holocaust."

For the first time in the event's history, U.S. World War II veterans involved in liberating the concentration and death camps in Germany will be recognized along with survivors.

World War II veteran Henry Nahoum, 98, of Laguna Woods is one of the veterans who will be honored.

In 1945, Nahoum was a member of the 109th Regiment of the 28th Infantry division. He approached a Nazi prison camp, prompting guards to run away.

Lester recently photographed Nahoum and is adding a section to the Cypress exhibit to include portraits of military veterans.

Adding veterans is a natural next step, said Lester, in part, because of the large number of veterans who take classes at Cypress along with the presence of a new veterans' center on campus.

Lester is retiring from Cypress after the semester ends in May but said he will continue shooting portraits of Holocaust survivors and adding them to the exhibit.

"It's rewarding," Lester said. "It's an honor to me, beyond belief, that they want to share their stories with me."

The third annual Yom HaShoah event at Cypress College is at 7 p.m. April 17 at Cypress College, 9200 Valley View St., with the free event being staged inside the campus theater for the first time. Attendees are required to pre-register at https://bit.ly/2JzQekd. The ceremony also will be streamed live on the Cypress College Facebook page.

Lou Ponsi is a contributor to Times Community News.

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