While viewing Marissa Roth’s exhibit “Witness to Truth: Portraits of Holocaust Survivors” at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum, I couldn’t shake the feeling that every face, etched with the grief and suffering of the Holocaust, looked eerily familiar. The faces captured so beautifully by Roth are part of the collective memory of the Jewish people.
Curated by Jan Krulick-Belin, the exhibit includes 20 black-and-white photographs of survivors with accompanying biographical information and personal statements about their Holocaust experiences. The exhibit will run indefinitely at the Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum at Congregation Beth Israel (see details box).
The Museum of Tolerance – Simon Wiesenthal Center commissioned Roth, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer based in Los Angeles, to photograph the Holocaust survivors who volunteered at the museum as a way to honor them. “Witness to Truth” is on permanent display at the museum.
Roth started the project in 2005 and over the next seven years photographed 80 survivors. “It turned out to be quite a profound project for me,” she says. “It gave me an opportunity to really connect with my own family history.”
The daughter of Holocaust refugees who fled to the United States two weeks before Kristallnacht in 1938, Roth says her parents never discussed the Holocaust.
“No anecdotes, nothing, so in a way, this project gave me back my own past,” Roth says. “I started telling the survivors my own family history and that became the doorway to share information, and it was also a way for them to let me into their world.”
Initially, the museum wanted Roth to just shoot portraits of the survivors, but she insisted on interviewing them as well. “I need to see who they are,” she recalls saying. “I can’t just shove a camera in their faces.”
The portraits were shot in black and white in different areas at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. “Black and white is really about light and shadow and shades of gray and contrast,” she says. “For me, I suppose, it’s a metaphor of life and death. I love black and white for its potency.”
Roth starting taking photographs at 11 years old with her mother’s Instamatic camera. She took a photography class in high school and then became a staff photographer at the UCLA student newspaper. She thought about being an artist, but wanted to “change the world.” “That’s when I took a hard right into photojournalism.”
She subsequently worked for the Los Angeles Times and, as part of the staff, won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Reporting, for coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. She also worked as a freelance photographer for The New York Times for many years.
Roth’s other significant work includes “One Person Crying: Women and War,” which encapsulates a nearly 30-year journey she took across the globe chronicling the immediate and lingering effects of war on women; and “Infinite Light: A Photographic Meditation on Tibet,” a visual poem of Roth’s impressions of Tibet featuring 72 photographs.
Currently, Roth is securing venues to display the “Infinite Light: A Photographic Meditation on Tibet” exhibit. The Phoenix Art Museum has committed to exhibit the show in the fall of 2017, she says.
In the future, Roth hopes to create a book of the “Witness to Truth” portraits for the Museum of Tolerance and include survivors’ stories (the permanent exhibit only includes a quote from each person).
This project hit Roth close to home. “I felt like the survivors became my lost family,” she says. “They were all so dear to me … and I connected with everybody.”
What: Marissa Roth “Witness to Truth” exhibit
Where: Sylvia Plotkin Judaica Museum at Congregation Beth Israel, 10460 N. 56th St., Scottsdale
When: 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays