To Bear Witness:

Extraordinary Lives: Stories of Holocaust and Genocide Survivors

Even today in the 21st century, genocide continues as a scourge upon humanity. The Immigrant Story seeks to draw attention to these senseless, mass killings by providing a forum for stories of survivors of Holocaust and genocide. Partnering with renowned Portland photographer Jim Lommasson, this project aims to document and archive these personal histories through a multidimensional approach.

By using a narrative style that foregrounds the voices and personal perspectives of these survivors, The Immigrant Story will produce long-form accounts to document their experiences. The stories we tell will be accompanied by compelling images of survivors in the form of a closeup portrait of the subject so that viewers may connect more fully with that person. In addition, we will include some of their personal photographs to provide additional context.

Sankar Raman
Holocaust survivors Eva and Les Aigner in their home in Tualatin, Oregon. Photo: Sankar Raman

Through this project, Lommasson will build upon the work he has produced for his projects, ““What We Carried: Fragments From the Cradle of Civilization” and “Stories of Survival: Object. Image. Memory.” Specifically, this project will be an extension of “Stories of Survival,” originally produced in collaboration with the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, in which Lommasson documented a photography and storytelling project with Holocaust and genocide survivors who fled to safety in America. His work focuses on objects they were able to carry with them on their perilous journeys. From his photographs of the objects, the participants respond with handwritten testimonies — stories, memories, poems, drawings. Their stories speak to the luminous inner life of these ordinary things and testify to the unspeakable anguish of a life forever left behind. Ordinary objects become sacred objects.

Process of Collecting and the Body of Work
The project will be an extensive body of work that will be an intersection of oral history, visual and literary arts. Content will be collected over a period of two years. These stories of survival will include some of humanity’s worst crises, such as the Nazi Holocaust of World War II, the Cambodian Killing Fields, and the Rwandan, Bosnian, Rohingya and Darfur genocides.

We intend to conduct thorough interviews to document these voices from an oral historical perspective and, when possible, record them on video as well. Our main aim is to capture these voices, not only for historical purposes, but to provide a platform for voices that would otherwise go unheard.

Lommasson will photograph objects carried by “To Bear Witness” participants, then give them a 13-inch by 19-inch archival print with white space around the image of the carried object where the participant can contextualize the image by writing directly on the print. The object gives participants a focus or a point of departure for personal storytelling.

While the majority of these stories of survivors will come from Oregon, we intend to travel to other states to collect compelling stories that need to be told. We believe this body of work will take two years. Once it is completed, it will be comprehensive and will cover major genocides starting with the Holocaust.

Jim Lommasson
A blood-stained dress of a 3-year-old girl killed in the Rwandan genocide is the object her mother carried with her when she migrated to the United States. Credit: Jim Lommasson, “Stories of Survival: Object, Image, Memory.”

Display and Public Access

It will be a multidimensional gallery exhibit that includes historical facts about the crises, visual displays of materials collected over two years (including photographs), audio soundtracks to amplify the voices of survivors, and journalistic accounts of their stories.

Each story will be created by an author and a photographer from the pool of volunteers who produce material for The Immigrant Story. We will be partnering with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and the Never Again Coalition, as well as local and national organizations representing a broad community of survivors.

We are looking to expand our storytelling platforms to video and podcasts, which we will produce using the audio from our original reporting. Additionally, we are considering including such educational pieces as panel discussions, meet-the-survivors events and artists discussions.

Why it Matters

Through these displays, our main objective is to educate and ask probing questions as to why we continue to have humanitarian crises that leads to genocides. Our hope is that by bringing attention to these atrocities within a single space, viewers will have an opportunity to reflect on these important issues.

This goal feels especially urgent at a time when people denying historical events such as the Holocaust have achieved political traction, and when survivors of these events are themselves fading with the years.

If ever there were a moment “To Bear Witness,” it is now.

Rough Timeline:

  • August 2018: Start Date
  • August 2021: End Date
  • September 2020: Final stretch
  • April 2021: First Show 
  • April 2021 – September 2021: Additional Stories, Edits, Final Preparation, and Completion.
  • October 2021: Final Presentation 
  • Jan 2022: National tour start; other venues