At age 108, Alice Herz-Sommer is the oldest known living Holocaust survivor. Today she lives in London, but she was born in Prague in 1903 to a musical Jewish family.
Herz-Sommer was already an accomplished pianist by the time she was deported to Terezin, the concentration camp, in her early 20s.
Terezin (or Theresienstadt), in what is now northern Czech Republic, was a unique place. It served as a transit camp for western Jews en route to other camps like Auschwitz — but was also the temporary "home" to some of the most notable artists and cultural leaders from Germany, Austria and Eastern Europe.
Conditions were harsh, and only a small percentage survived. For many people like Herz-Sommer, art was the ticket to life. She would practice for hours and perform recitals for inmates. But those performances were also effectively used as propaganda when visitors like the Red Cross came through the camp: Especially at Terezin, Nazis exploited artists to give a false impression of civility to the outside world.
Survivors like Herz-Sommer were an exception — and therefore the people Dennis Darling wants to photograph. In a text introduction to his documentary project, which he is calling Families Gone to Ash, he writes:
"There are lessons to be learned from these people and compelling reasons to document as much as possible before the last living memory becomes irretrievable. ... This act of recording living history about to vanish has shaped much of my career as a photographer and has fueled a lifelong interest in history."
The most devoted readers will remember the name Dennis Darling. A few months back, we featured some of the work he had been sending via email installments. Since then, the photography professor has stayed in touch about this ongoing project documenting Terezin survivors, mostly in Prague.
"Reliable estimates place the number of Terezin survivors that are still alive at about 400," Darling writes. "I have now photographed the oldest among them and, in all probability, the youngest."
Oddly, one of Darling's first projects as a graduate student was photographing the American Nazi Party around Chicago. "I have now come full circle without ever knowing it," he says. The subject is close to his heart; Darling's father was a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II.
"What I just recently realized was that the camera for me has been a sort of divining rod," Darling says, "pointing and then connecting me with my personal past without me even being aware of the process."
The photos and captions tell the story. And they will be exhibited at the Texas Performing Arts center this fall.