‘Still Here’: A study in inspiration

‘Still Here’: A study in inspiration

Brian Marcus will talk about his photos of Holocaust survivors at Wyckoff shul

It seems that just as physical traits – hair color, eye color, height, propensity for male-pattern baldness – can be inherited, so too can less tangible predilections. Like, say, a passion for photography. A love of light and color and shapes and angles, of faces and places.

That’s what Brian Marcus inherited from his father, Andrew, and both of them got it from Andrew’s father, Fred.

Brian Marcus will speak about one aspect of his work at the Henry and Elaine Kaufman Center for Jewish Living Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff on December 3. (See box.)

Although most of Mr. Marcus’s official work is of weddings, bar and bat mitzvah parties, other smachot, and a wide range of formal and informal events, he’s also assembled portfolios of photos of people and places around the world. When he speaks publicly, though, it tends to be on one specific piece of work, his book, “Still Here: Inspiration from Survivors and Liberators of the Holocaust.”

The book’s genesis is Fred Marcus, who was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1910, to a family that had been in the sporting goods business, and who became a photographer there. He planned a career as a photographer in Germany. But the Marcus family was Jewish, so his plans were irrelevant.

After Kristallnacht, in 1938, Mr. Marcus was sent to Buchenwald. Because it was early in the Holocaust, it was still possible for people to get out of there, and he did. He fled Germany for Cuba; somehow, he’d managed to bring a camera with him, although he’d had only 24 hours to leave the country.

In Cuba, Mr. Marcus learned to expand his craft to take advantage of the brighter light and deeper color he saw there. In 1939, he also took photos of the doomed German passenger ship the St. Louis — doomed not by any mistakes by the ship builders or the crew, but by the malice and indecency first of the Cuban officials and then U.S. bureaucrats who refused to let it dock and disembark its passengers, almost 1,000 Jews trying to flee the Holocaust. Most of those passengers were returned to Germany, where they were slaughtered. Some of Mr. Marcus’s family were on that ship, his grandson said.

Next, Fred Marcus managed to get a visa to the United States, joined the U.S. Army, was sidelined by an injury from what he had hoped would be a stint as a translator in Germany, and after demobilization moved to New York and created Fred Marcus Photography.

Mr. Marcus’s business took off; his son, Andrew, and later his grandson, Brian, who all live on Long Island, kept it prospering.

“He was a huge inspiration to me,” Brian Marcus said. “He is at the heart of my Jewish identity. We lost him about 20 years ago. I thought that I owe it to myself to do something that would have a lasting effect on my family, and on other families, and on the world. So I started to organize photoshoots of survivors and liberators.

“We have an incredible history of working with survivors and their families, and I wanted to tap into that. I started calling clients and recommending that they bring their grandparents into the studio to take their portraits.

“And then that snowballed.

“I started talking at events at local synagogues in the area, on Long Island, and also in New Jersey.” The more he asked, the more he found.

“Sometimes the whole family would come in together for a portrait. Sometimes it was one of their last portraits together. I’d give them a print.

“And June Hirsch, the writer who worked on the book, interviewed the survivors, and got inspirational quotes from them.”

Why do it this way? “Because we wanted this to be a very positive book,” Mr. Marcus said. “We wanted it to be a book that you can open every day, and turn the page, and show it to your kid. Nothing too dramatic. Nothing too sad.” Because everyone in the book survived.

“We want this book to be a tool to educate younger generations,” he continued. “It’s a positive outlook on survival. It’s something tangible to start the conversation about how important it is for us to know what happened. How important it is to educate ourselves.

“It was meant to be inspirational.”

Now, Mr. Marcus said, he speaks about his book three or four times a year. He is accompanied by Sami Stiegman, a survivor who tells his story. Mr. Stiegman was a child during the Holocaust; he now not only talks about his experiences but also answers questions about it. Neither he nor Mr. Marcus are professional speakers, Mr. Marcus said, but the program they’ve developed together is powerful.

“I’ve been talking about this book for almost a decade,” Mr. Marcus said. “It’s not just history. I’ve always known how important it is. My grandfather talked about it, so that it will never happen again. And as we see, when we lose sight of that, anything and everything can happen, at any time.

“If I had spoken in front of this group at the Kaufman Center a few months ago, it would have been a plea for them to believe me that we need this book to be an inspiration to the younger generation. And they’d say ‘yeah, yeah, yeah. We know.’”

That was before October 7. He’s spoken to one group since Hamas’ murderous raid.

“Now it’s totally different,” he said. “People are listening differently now. We don’t really appreciate things, and act on them, until we are forced to.”

Who: Photographer Brian Marcus and survivor Sami Stiegman

What: Will talk about Mr. Marcus’s book, “Still Here,” and Mr. Stiegman’s experience

When: On Sunday, December 3, at noon

Where: At the Henry and Elaine Kaufman Center for Jewish Living Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff

How much: Temple Beth Rishon members, $18; nonmembers, $25; everyone under 18, free. Proceeds go to SelfHelp Community Services, “an organization that began supporting Holocaust survivors and now provides comprehensive services to over 25,000 elderly New Yorkers every year,” according to Beth Rishon’s website.

More information: Go to bethrishon.org.

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