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Seeing Holocaust survivors’ stories in the books they left behind

In 1942, Jews from then-Czechoslovakia were taken to the Auschwitz death camp. A window into their lives before the deportation can be found in a new book, "Last Folio," and a traveling exhibition at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. Jeffrey Brown examines how photographer Yuri Dojc rediscovered their story, and his own.

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  • Gwen Ifill

    : Finally tonight: Imagine finding a library from the 1940s, a window into the time before the deportation of some 70,000 Jews from what was then Czechoslovakia.

    Jeffrey Brown reports on a photographer who learned something about himself in the decades-old bookshelves.

  • Jeffrey Brown, you might wonder:

    : At first glance What is this? What am I looking at? Then it hits you: These are books, fragments of books, in various states of decay.

    They were photographed where they’d been left, an abandoned schoolhouse in the town of Bardejov, Slovakia.

    Yuri Dojc, a successful art and commercial photographer who’s lived in Canada since 1968, returned to his native country after his father’s death, to learn more about his own Jewish roots.

    He came upon the schoolhouse almost by accident, when a man he’d met told Dojc there was something he must see.

  • Yuri Dojc, Photographer:

    And then he take us across the square. He opened this door. And we were just stunned.

  • Jeffrey Brown

    : You had no idea what you were walking into?

  • Yuri Dojc

    : I had no clue. But I was stunned by the beauty of decaying books. I wasn’t thinking about history at that moment. It’s the visual effect of these old books was so beautiful.

  • Jeffrey Brown

    : Beautiful, but horrible at the same time, as the sense of history set in, for this was a Jewish schoolhouse, left as it had been in 1942, as Jews were being rounded up and taken by train to the concentration camp at Auschwitz.

    The story is told in a documentary Dojc worked on with another emigre from the former Czechoslovakia, Katya Krausova.

    The two began by seeking out and listening to the stories of Holocaust survivors.

    So, you went to meet these people, essentially, right? And one led to another.

  • Katya Krausova, Director, “Last Folio”:

    Yes, exactly.

    So, here is a mixture and a selection of some that, by the time I joined him, were dead, and others that we had found together, like this couple.

  • Jeffrey Brown

    : Yes. Tell me about them.

  • Katya Krausova, she said:

    : They’re very important to the whole story, because we heard about them in another town. And she didn’t want to even let us come to the house.

    And, eventually I said, “Can we just come and have tea?”

    And once we were there “I might as well tell you my story. Maybe nobody will ever come again to ask.”

    And so she told us her story, a very strong woman who talked about how they were betrayed and how, when they were taken to the camps, they actually believed that they were going to work.

    And she said that: “None of us realized once we got out of the truck that we would never be able to say goodbye to anybody again.”

  • Jeffrey Brown

    : Almost all of these people are now gone. In “Last Folio,” the two try to capture what remains.

    So these are books literally sitting on the shelves as you walked in?

  • Yuri Dojc

    : Yes, but I focus on this particular group.

  • Jeffrey Brown

    : Why?

  • Yuri Dojc

    : There is something like a rhythm here. There’s colors, a chance this color to this color to this. So there’s a beautiful — look at this. The shades of color, they are just stunning.

  • Jeffrey Brown

    : First an aesthetic experience, and then more, the books standing in for, almost becoming, the lives of the people who’d held them in their hands.

  • Yuri Dojc

    : I changed as a photographer on this project.

    I only started understanding what it’s all about. Until then, I was just — I had fun. I understand certain aesthetics. But I was missing something. And I realized that you don’t take art pictures with your eyes. You take them with your brains, and I didn’t know that.

  • Jeffrey Brown

    : What does that mean, to take it with your brain?

  • Yuri Dojc

    : You try to express something which was — which is more than just what I see. This is a process of showing you what happened to those people. Like, I’m projecting really people and this whole pain and all that is lost into the pictures.

  • Jeffrey Brown

    : And there was one more shock for Dojc and Krausova when they visited another abandoned building that contained books from all over Eastern Europe, including, incredibly, one that had belonged to Dojc’s grandfather, who died at Auschwitz.

  • Yuri Dojc

    : That was a miracle, just pure, pure miracle. And then I was thinking if this whole journey’s not a miracle.

  • Katya Krausova

    : So, nothing new under the sun, but very important to be outraged.

  • Jeffrey Brown, there’s more:

    : For Katya Krausova important echoes to the destruction of people and culture still going on today.

  • Katya Krausova

    : You know, what is happening right now in the Middle East is very tragic, because libraries are being burned, and monuments are being destroyed.

    And that is our heritage, and we need to somehow do everything to preserve it. So, when I say privileged to have worked on this, it was a privilege to learn people’s lives and their stories. And I think we need to go on telling it to each other and to others.

  • Jeffrey Brown

    : From Washington, D.C., I’m Jeffrey Brown for the “PBS NewsHour.”

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