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Larger than life size, black and white portraits of Holocaust refugees and liberators convey a powerful story in an exhibit at the East Tennessee History Center.
Sponsored locally by the East Tennessee Historical Society, the "Living On," exhibition was organized by the Tennessee Holocaust Commission and has traveled throughout the state. It will be displayed in Knoxville through October 22. Robert Heller, a University of Tennessee professor, was the primary photographer for the project, and Will Pedigo, an alumnus, produced an Emmy Award-winning documentary on the exhibit.
"The photographs depict close-up portraits of people who lived through one of the most horrific periods in the world's history," said Heller, associate professor of journalism. Heller took the photographs and writer Dawn Weiss Smith interviewed the survivors and liberators to compose the stories that accompany the photographs.
The portraits are 4 square feet each and are hung next to large text panels that tell each person's story.
"A few of the interview subjects had never told their stories before, even to their children," said Heller. "It’s so important to hear their words, see their pictures and see their faces."
The Holocaust Commission expressed an interest in documenting the pictures and stories of survivors and liberators living in Tennessee. Robert Levy, vice president for academic affairs at UT and Gilya Schmidt, professor and head of the religious studies department, are both commissioners and were familiar with Heller's previous work on a Holocaust photo documentary project in Miami, Fla. They invited Heller to be the exhibit's photographer.
“The Holocaust Commission felt there was a critical need for a documentary project of Tennessee survivors and liberators," said Ruth Tanner, executive director of the Tennessee Holocaust Commission. "Our ability to supply speakers to classrooms and civic groups had declined as those with crucial first-person experiences aged and grew frail."
Survivors and liberators were identified through a series of press releases describing the project, personal letters and visits to synagogues throughout the state asking for volunteers. Locations were set up in each of the major cities in Tennessee and interviews and photographs were taken during a period of three years. Heller and Smith were accompanied throughout the state by Will Pedigo, a student of Heller's, and Susan Knowles, guest curator of the exhibit.
Seventy-three individuals were located and agreed to be part of the project.
"Sometimes we worked all day, sometimes at the location, sometimes in their homes," said Heller. "It was emotionally exhausting to hear their stories and relive those memories with them.
"I was given free reign to design the look of the portraits," he said. "I wanted the person, the gesture, the face, the expression to be all the picture was about. I wanted to focus on the face and let that, particularly the eyes, tell the whole story.
"What was startling about the process was that once they sat down, these faces in the view finder were so incredible and so filled with expression, I hardly had to do anything -- just press the shutter a few times," said Heller.
Heller's former student, Pedigo, now a producer at a Nashville television station, joined the group to document the process on film and later produced a documentary piece about the project. The film has since received three Emmy nominations and won a southern regional Emmy. The documentary will air on Knoxville's public television station at 7 p.m. August 20 and at 2 p.m. August 27 on ETPtv.
"We wanted to create an exhibition that spoke to visitors with their voices, that made the watershed event that we call the Holocaust personal," said Tanner. "And, we wanted to give their voices a permanence that lives on. The exhibition, the documentary film and now a dedicated Web site have made this dream a reality.”
"Hearing about the Holocaust from the people who were there is the best way to learn about it," said Heller. "There will come a time when we won't have the benefit of hearing their first-hand experiences, so we need to take advantage of the time we have with them."
Programs planned in conjunction with the exhibit include sessions featuring UT professors and other Knoxville educators as well as Holocaust and Jewish culture experts. Public lectures and a teacher workshop are also planned.
The exhibit and all programs are free and open to the public. Student and adult group tours may be arranged on a call-ahead basis.
A special reception also will be held August 27 for invited guests to raise money for the Holocaust Commission.
WVLT-TV and ETPtv will sponsor the exhibit.
For more information on the Living On exhibit, visit the Tennessee Holocaust Commission Web site at http://www.tennesseeholocaustcommission.org/livingon.html.
The East Tennessee Historical Society is located at 601 S. Gay St. -- across the street from the Tennessee Theater -- in Knoxville and is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information and a list of programs associated with the exhibit visit their Web site.