Secret Histories | Yuri Dojc Discovers the “Last Folio” in His Native Slovakia
It was written. And then it was lost. But prophecies must reveal themselves. This is the story of serendipity, of miracles, of discovery that can only happen by the right person at the right time in life.
Yuri Dojc was born into one of the few surviving Jewish families in Slovakia in 1946. During the war, the nation had eagerly aligned itself with Germany, seizing Jewish businesses, closing schools, and carting the peoples off en masse to concentration camps where few lived to return. His parents escaped such a fate by fleeing to the mountains and hiding in a bunker outside a village that kept their presence a secret.
After the war, the Jews who returned or remained were careful to hide their identities. Dojc remembers, “You have to understand the history. Being a Jew was unpopular. You don’t tell anyone. You hide that because if you tell them, you might not have any friends. No one in their right mind would come out and do this.”
In 1968, the Soviet tanks rolling into town, putting the people of the nation under lock down. Dojc had been summering in London, and became a refugee, before permanently moving to Toronto, Canada in 1969. There, he enrolled in Ryerson University, where he took up photography. His early influences include master photographers Irving Penn, Man Ray, and Guy Bourdin, as well as painters Rene Magritte, Egon Sciele, and Amedeo Modigliani. Dojc worked as a commercial photographer, pursuing fine art projects on his own time.
Dojc’s parents never left the country where they had lived under oppressive regimes their entire life. Under Soviet control, Jews continued to hide their identity to avoid persecution. But, a fter the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, things changed. Dojc’s father, the headmaster of a secondary school, began working on a book about the history of Slovakian Jews. He invited his son to collaborate but Dojc declined. Too much time spent divorced from his heritage to protect himself had created a seemingly uncrossable divide.
When his father died in 1997, Dojc returned to his native land. He remembers, “I flew to Slovakia the day after he died for the funeral. When I was leaving the cemetery, I saw an elderly lady and we began to talk. She told me she had a duty in life. When she was a young woman at Auschwitz, she noticed a woman staring at her. She asked, ‘Why are you staring?’ Another woman explained that this woman was a great fortuneteller. ‘Ask her my fortune.’ The fortuneteller told her, ‘You are going to live. I will die. Only one person will come back. You will marry late in life. You will not have any children. At the end of your life, and angel will come and will take care of you.’”
From this fortune, the woman had taken it upon herself to make personal visits to the survivors of the camps in a nation where the last thing Jews were willing to do was identify themselves to strangers. She brought them trinkets and looked in on them. This was her mission, and it spoke to Dojc’s soul. He began to accompany her on her visits, with an aim to take photographs of the survivors before they died and their history would be erased.
Dojc remembers how hard it was to take these photos, to acknowledge their identity openly. “No one would pose for the camera. The last thing anyone would do is smile.”
In 2005, Dojc went to see the woman again. When he knocked on her door, a young woman answered. The old woman explained, “Yuri, I am getting too old. This young lady will take you around.” Then she told the young woman, “Wanda, you’re my angel.”
“This is a part of the prophecy!” Dojc exclaimed with joy in his heart. “The old lady didn’t remember the fortune teller’s word anymore, but I did.”
That same year, Dojc teamed up with Katya Krausova, a producer at the BBC, to make a documentary film about his work documenting the last remaining Slovakian survivors of the Holocaust. While they were visiting a small town in the countryside, a man approached them and asked, “Can I show you something?” Though they were pressed for time, the man was insistent. Finally they agreed and accompanied him.
The stranger brought them to an abandoned schoolhouse, which had been left exactly as it was the moment after the teachers and children were rounded up one day in 1942 and deported to the camps. It was a place frozen in time, a tableau of life interrupted, never to be the same again. The people had vanished and all that had remained were relics telling the story of their everyday lives: school books, essay notebooks with corrections, school reports, birth certificates, even sugar in the kitchen cupboard—all of this quietly decaying in places few dared to look.
In another town, they discovered another abandoned schoolhouse, this time with the prayer books stamped with the names of students. While Dojc was taking photographs, Krausova turned to him and said, “I never asked about your family…”
Dojc then realized that his grandfather, who perished in the Holocaust, was from the very town were they now stood. Krausova asked, “What was his name?”
Dojc was irritated. “Jakab Deutsch.”
She showed him a tiny little book with the name “Jakab Deutsch” stamped in it.
Dojc recalls, “It was another eureka moment. I immediately started feeling so many mixed feelings, I was overwhelmed. She asked me how I felt. I couldn’t say it properly. It was too much.”
Dojc was now at the center of the prophecy, the one that began with a fortuneteller’s words decades earlier. No longer was he an objective observer looking from the outside in; in one fell swoop, the distance between himself, his family, his nation, and the past had collapsed and a bridge appeared. That bridge was a small prayer book that stood for the people who had vanished without a trace.
Dojc turned his camera to those books, photographing them as more than objects of knowledge, but seeing them as repositories of soul.
From this work, Last Folio emerged, a series of photographs documenting the abandoned schoolhouses, synagogues, and cemeteries as testament to so many who perished at the hands of a madman and his mercenaries. A selection of photographs will be on view in Last Folio: A Photographic Journey with Yuri Dojc at Galerie Karsten Greve, Paris, through February 28, 2017. A book of the same name has been published by Prestel.
Dojc observes, “We all strive to leave something behind, a mark that remains after we’ve left. But there is almost nothing left of the people whose lives were cut short during the Holocaust. Photography allows me to build a private memorial to them. It is through these photos that I can pay homage to them and keep their memory alive.”
In Last Folio, Dojc confronts the story of the Holocaust with the eyes of a man who is a direct descendant of both its victims and its survivors. In many ways, such a story could not be told by anyone else, for Dojc has exact level of intimacy and distance to the subject to tell the story on spiritual, historical, personal, and aesthetic levels.
Dojc understands, “I was lucky to be born in two different worlds, one generation removed from the Holocaust. My parents, for the sake of survival, could not talk too much. It was not good for the children and they wanted to protect us as much as they could, so they kept it under wraps. No one ever thought Communism would collapse. We thought it would be here forever. The only way to survive was to adjust.”
But the beauty of life is that sometimes we are here to witness the change, to see the transformation occur while we still exist on the mortal plane. For Dojc, Last Folio comes full circle, picking up the thread where it was cut, restoring a sense of humanity and dignity to the people, the culture, and the nation itself.
All photos ©Yuri Dojc, from “Last Folio.”
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.