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Showing Holocaust victims in a new light

A project to colourise the photographs of Auschwitz labourers is underway

    When Marina Amaral published a photograph of Czeslawa Kwoka, a 14-year old girl who was murdered in Auschwitz, she had no idea what it would lead to.

    Based in Brazil, Ms Amaral’s area of expertise is in the colourisation of old pictures. With painstaking research she transforms them, allowing people to see beyond the black and white boundaries enforced by the technology of the time, revealing people and places as they really were.

    Although she has colourised many types of images — from 19th century French colonial troops to the launching of the ill-fated Titanic — Czeslawa Kwoka was different.

    “I first published the [colourised] photo of her in 2016,” she said. It appeared along with a few paragraphs setting out what was known about the teenage Holocaust victim.

    “The reaction provoked by her photo was impressive at the time, but it was even larger when the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum republished the photo on Twitter a few weeks ago.”

    Ms Amaral had earlier contacted the museum to suggest an ambitious project: bring colour to tens of thousands of images in their archives.

    While over a million people went straight from the cattle trucks to their deaths at Auschwitz Birkenau, many thousands of slave labourers were slowly worked to death at the complex — and the Nazis took photos of many of these prisoners.

    Almost 40,000 such photographs remain.

    Artist Marina Amaral (Photo: Fabiano Aguilar Goncalves)
    Artist Marina Amaral (Photo: Fabiano Aguilar Goncalves)

    “I decided to negotiate the possibility with the museum again,” Ms Amaral said.

    “Thankfully they also realized how much Czeslawa’s photo had impacted people, and trusted my work so that I could finally start this project.”

    It is sponsored by Michael Frank, a New York-based philanthropist who heard about Ms Amaral’s work.

    “I saw the photo [of Czeslawa] and I was like ‘wow, this is amazing, how can I get involved in this’,” Mr Frank said.

    He got in touch with her and offered to help in any way he could.

    “The timing was amazing because on the first phone call I made she said ‘the problem is that the ownership of these photos belongs to this museum in Auschwitz. You can’t just take photos as you please and do whatever you like to them.’

    “She mentioned to me that she had proposed to them the opportunity to colourise more, but she hadn’t heard back.

    “And then two or three days later she sends me an e-mail and says ‘you’re not going to believe it, but the museum gave me permission to begin a project that could be up to 40,000 photos’.

    Ms Amaral then came up with the name – Faces of Auschwitz — and began the task of colourising more pictures taken by the Nazis of their victims.

    “Our goal is to try and take as many of these black and white photos as we can, colourise them and, more importantly, tell the stories of these victims,” Mr Frank said.

    “The goal of the perpetrators of the Holocaust was to eradicate these people’s story and erase them from the world.

    “Obviously we can’t bring them back to life, but it’s an incredible opportunity to bring them as close as we can back to life with colourised photos, and as best as we can tell their stories.”

    Ms Amaral is fully aware of the massive scale of such a project.

    “I need to be realistic and have in mind that it would take me years to restore all of the approximately 39,000 images,” she said.

    “If I manage to tell at least 200, 300 stories, I will feel happy.”

    But both Ms Amaral and Mr Frank have bigger plans for the project going forward.

    “One of my main goals when I started was to be able to not limit our activities to the digital world,” Ms Amaral said.

    “I want to go further and create lectures, exhibitions, and also a book in the future.”

    They both feel that the colourisation process will help people to see some of the victims of the Holocaust in a whole new light.

    “This is a black and white photo, which makes it feel like it’s from a thousand years ago, a different era, and then you see it in full colour and the girl comes to life,” Mr Frank said.

    “It makes it so much more real.”

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