Holocaust exhibit to run through October in Elk River and starts with an Oct. 3 reception

Leo Weiss
Leo Weiss

by Britt Aamodt

Contributing Writer

You may not know David Sherman’s name. But if you follow the Timberwolves or the Lynx, you know his work. He’s the team photographer.

He’ll be in Elk River Oct. 3, but not to talk slam dunks or jump shots.

Sherman will be here to honor Ursela Cowan (born in Germany, 1938) Mark Mandel (Poland, 1930), Judy Baron (Transylvania, 1928), Ben Kibort (Lithuania, 1921) and many more.

They are the survivors of the Holocaust, of Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution, which, by the time the Allied Forces defeated the Nazis and liberated the camps in 1945, had already taken the lives of millions of men, women and children. The Jewish dead alone numbered 6 million.

Transfer of Memory, a photographic exhibition of Holocaust survivors living in Minnesota, will be on display in the Handke Center throughout October. The Oct. 3 reception, hosted by District 728 Community Education, begins at 6 p.m. with a presentation by Sherman and by Steve Hunegs, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

“This is a project I have been envisioning and wanting to do since before I was a photographer,” said Sherman, who has been photographing professionally for 20 years.

The idea took on added urgency as the years piled up.

Every year when Sherman attended International Holocaust Remembrance Day events, he saw fewer survivors. But to get the project off the ground he knew he needed a sponsor. He found that in the Minneapolis-based Jewish Community Relations Council.

Laura Zelle is director of Holocaust Education at JCRC. She is also co-curator of the exhibit and a daughter of a Holocaust survivor.

Her mother, Mary Ackos Calof, and her mother’s sister, Esther Ackos Winthrop, were photographed by Sherman. Each portrait in the exhibit is accompanied by the survivor’s story.

The Ackos story begins in Greece in 1941, when the Nazis swept into Athens.

“The Nazis set up in the synagogues and asked the heads of the Jewish councils to provide censuses,” Zelle explained.

This was their way of pinning down the local Jewish population. With people out of work and food hard to come by, the Jewish Greeks had little choice but to show up for compulsory roll calls.

“If they showed up they were given food,” Zelle said. If they didn’t, they were dragged out of their homes and worse.

Zelle’s mother and aunt survived, but her grandfather and his siblings and their spouses went into the camps and never came out again.

“Greece lost about 87 percent of its Jewish population,” Zelle said.

In 1951, the Ackos family started a new life in the United States.

“The great thing about Transfer of Memory is we don’t make a distinction about who is and who isn’t a survivor,” Sherman said. “There are people who escaped Germany early. There are people who were in hiding. There are people who ended up in camps.”

Beginning in 2010, Sherman started taking the photos that make up the exhibit. He met survivors in their homes, in places that were familiar and comfortable, around memorabilia and pictures of children and grandchildren. Sometimes when a spouse, also a survivor, had died, the sitter would pose with a photograph of that loved one.

Only one survivor, Leo Weiss, posed with a reminder of the Nazi camps.

“He had his work permit, a patch he used to pin to his uniform. As long as he wore that patch, he knew he’d live,” Sherman said.

Weiss will be speaking at Handke on Oct. 7.

Sherman didn’t know what to expect when he set off on this photographic odyssey. Yet what he took away was completely unexpected.

“I set up to document a dying group of Jews, but what I found was holiness. This sense of the elevated, something different from the mundane,” he said.

That special quality shines out from every portrait. The survivors smile. They hold hands. They snuggle close. They’ve known tragedy, yes, but they’ve also established careers and made friends and raised families.

“The point of the project,” Sherman said, “is to show people who have lived full and fulfilled lives. They were not defined by their victimhood.”