Fort Worth photographer Loli Kantor longed to visit Poland and connect with the homeland of her parents, Jews who survived the Holocaust. In 2004, she took the first of many trips to Poland and Ukraine, and began capturing the images that would be collected in her book, Beyond the Forest. Kantor stopped by KERA to chat about about searching for the Jewish presence in Eastern Europe.
Your mom died hours after you were born, and your dad died when you were young. And finding photos of them is part of what got you interested in photography.
LKI’m just very interested in photographs that are like a witness to something that happened. I was just very moved by finding pictures of my mother. And it was sort of a secret. I wasn’t told that she died. My father remarried and I had another mother, and I thought she was my mother until I was told she was not my mother by my brother. And I was supposed to keep quiet and not tell anybody. And at some pint I found those photographs of hers. And it just really, really blew me away to see her. And then finding all these things that my father had kept. After he died all these documents and things came about. So I was very interested. All these testimonies from the past from the war years and after. Because everything was destroyed during the war from my grandparents at least.
Kantor’s parents, Zvi and Lola Kantor, Munich, 1946
Your parents were Jews from Poland during the rise of Hitler. How did they survive the Holocaust?
LKMy mother survived with Aryan papers. She had Aryan papers which I have and they are in the book. My father survived because he was in Russia at the time, and he was in a labor camp. Then he was freed or escaped from the labor camp. It’s sort of a story that’s a little vague. And he was in the forest with partisans. He basically survived this way. And he was a journalist, by the way. That’s why he kept every piece of paper he kept.
You were born in France and have lived in Israel as well as the United States. What made you want to visit Poland in 2004?
LK I’ve always wanted to go back. I’ve had it in the back of my mind. Again, it comes to this generation of mine, we are children of Holocaust survivors. I think a lot of us wanted to go at some point. Many people went at the fall of Soviet rule. I kind of waited for the right timing. I always wanted to go not as a tourist for a week. I wanted to go and spend more time there.
How did the book evolve?
LKThis time in Poland led me to come back to Poland. And I realized that there started to be Jewish life there. And I think now, in 2015, people realize there is Jewish life is coming back, but when I started it was just coming back. So I visited again and kind of strengthened the bonds with the place. And kept photographing, kept photographing. At the time I also talked with this coordinator, Kasha, and told her I wanted to find living communities that never left. She had some contacts in the Ukraine and she told me she could get me to the Ukraine. smaller towns. What’s called the shtetl, these little villages and there are still Jews here and there. I was interested in seeing survivors and homes and places that are important and documenting that.
“Kiddush, Sukkot,” by Loli Kantor. Bershad Synagogue, 2007. Ukraine.
Many of your photos show tables filled with food.
LKPeople who know me know that I really like food. I think food symbolizes a lot. It’s a tradition. Food shows celebration. Food shows happiness.
“Bronytsia Forest,” by Loli Kantor. 2005. Ukraine.
Loli Kantor. Photo: Jill Johnson
Your black and white photos feature images that seem familiar – train tracks, fog on a window, a forest.
LKYeah, it’s about the path. It’s about a path to somewhere. The photo of the forest is very symbolic because especially in the Ukraine, there were a lot of killings in the forest. I went several times to that forest, and to a couple others, and I felt very strongly about those. The fog, those were all earlier works. I worked in black and white. That was how I felt. I felt a lot of grief.
Your photos have a sense of history, but they also evoke time marching on.
LKYes. Because time is passing on. It was actually a very time sensitive project because many of the people are dying. Some are already gone that are in the photos. Even the forest is about time. Time is a center in my work. Thinking about time and presence and present and time are all connected.
“Yulia,” by Loli Kantor. Bershad, 2008. Ukraine.
It’s interesting how time can pass on, but history stays with you in unexpected ways.
LKYeah history stays. And for me a lot of my life is based on my history or effected or influenced or inspired. Or any word. For me it’s important. I sometimes try to fight it. Sometimes I wish I didn’t think so much about the past. I don’t want to think so much about the past. But I can’t help it. It’s really a huge part of who I am, the past. And these people represent that. They represent the family I could have had. They may have looked differently. But these are people who survived. And some people in my own family didn’t. And I’m sure that’s part of the reason I was drawn to go and photograph over there as well. I think it’s really important that history is a part of us.