RAMAT HASHARON, Israel — Marti Dotan, 87, never saw herself as a photographer.
“Too often the narrative is that you need to feel sorry for Holocaust survivors, to focus on their loss. But when you see them at Cafe Europa, it’s so clear they’re asking for a place where they can have fun.”
A mother, of course. A grandmother, with great, great pride. And a Holocaust survivor, too, with all of the pain and complex emotions that come with that label.
But an artist?
Enter the JDC-supported Photography With Joy art therapy program, affiliated with the Israeli network of Cafe Europa social programs for Holocaust survivors. Over the course of three months, Dotan and about 15 other survivors from this leafy suburb 20 minutes from central Tel Aviv met 10 times, discovering the ins and outs of lighting, composition, and Photoshop.
And at the same time, they were learning about themselves.
“I realized I have so many stories to tell,” she said. “And I found that I didn’t want to tell only about the atrocities. I wanted to show something positive.”
The program is designed to give sometimes socially isolated Holocaust survivors a new skill and a new skill outlet, but it’s also intended to help them exorcise some of the demons of their past.
For the final project, a biographer and oral historian came to meet with the survivors, helping them to craft a personal narrative of their time during the Holocaust. Then, they’re tasked to take a modern photo that symbolically and thematically relates to their personal history.
These showcase photos were recently displayed in the Knesset for Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day commemoration.
Sigal Harel-Mor has coordinated Photography With Joy for six years, working with 200 participants in 20 locations across Israel.
She said it’s difficult to convince the elderly to take on a new skill, but the payoff is worth it.
“I literally force them. And they say, “At our age? You should have come to me 30 years ago,’” she said, laughing. “But it’s not a matter of age. Creativity is timeless.”
The program helps her participants remember they still have something new and vibrant to contribute to the world.
“In many of the other programs, they sit there and they smile and they clap their hands at the accomplishments of other people,” she said. “But they’re not too old to do things for themselves.”
Rachel Gaon, 80, was skeptical when Harel-Mor invited her to participate.
Originally from the small Greek city of Komotini, near the Bulgarian border, Gaon’s final Photography With Joy project was designed to tell the “forgotten” story of the Greek Jewish community, which was almost completely decimated by the Holocaust.
She chose to photograph a monument to the Greek Jewish community at the cemetery in Holon, about 12 miles from Ramat HaSharon.
“When they approached me, I said, “Oh, leave me alone, I’m too old for these silly things.’ But by the end, I was crying,” she said. “Now I tell my friends, “Try, try, try! You’ll see how rewarding it is.’ And the photo I took is a very nice souvenir.”
Photography With Joy is just one piece of the programming JDC helps make possible for Holocaust survivors throughout Israel — a component of the ESHEL partnership with the Government of Israel to serve the nation’s elderly.
Shelly Harel, who has coordinated programming in Ramat HaSharon since September, is particularly proud of Cafe Europa, which meets Sunday afternoons and gives survivors a chance to dance to the classic music of mid-century Mitteleuropa and enjoy pastries and tea with close friends.
“Too often the narrative is that you need to feel sorry for Holocaust survivors, to focus on their loss,” she said. “But when you see them at Cafe Europa, it’s so clear they’re asking for a place where they can have fun.”
Frankly, it’s heroic, said Harel, herself a third-generation Holocaust survivor.
“From nothing, they built up lives, built families and hobbies, and when they come dance at Cafe Europa or take pictures at Photography With Joy, they celebrate,” she said. “It’s the triumph of the human spirit. They still have a present and a future, and they dance until we shut off the music and turn off the lights.”