Arts & Culture

“Humans of New York” Photoblog Captures Amazing Stories of Holocaust Survivors

The comments will restore your faith in humanity. (Or at least, internet commenters.) Read More

By / July 29, 2014

If you’re not familiar with the thought-provoking, poignant, delightful photoblog Humans of New York (a.k.a. HONY), today is the day to get yourself acquainted. Since 2010, photographer Brandon Stanton has been wandering the streets of New York, taking portraits of the city’s diverse peoples (and pets), and posting the images on various social media platforms, along with explanatory vignettes. (HONY has 8.4 million followers on Facebook alone.) Sometimes the descriptions are short and functional, but often they’re long discourses on life, love, philosophy, money, and education, told by the subjects themselves. And the comments! Hoo boy. THE COMMENTS. It’s like watching a talmudic debate unfold in the cafeteria of Mean Girls in the midst of a food fight. You will alternately despair for humanity and cackle with glee.

Today, Stanton posted two images of an elderly Holocaust survivor (not identified by name) who fled his home in Germany on Kristallnacht. It’s an extraordinary, harrowing story, and his survival—like that of so many Holocaust survivors—was due to a combination of quick thinking and sheer luck: “We were living on the outskirts of Hanover,” the man begins. “When my father came home from work that night, he told us that the synagogue was on fire, and that firemen were standing in a ring around it to prevent the flames from spreading to other buildings. He said: ‘We’re getting out of here.'”

The family flees to the Philippines, and ultimately have to beg for their lives from the Japanese: “They lined us all up against the wall to be executed. We begged and begged and begged for our lives. They finally allowed my mother and the children to step aside, but they told my father to stay. My mother dropped to her knees and asked the Japanese commander to imagine it was his family. And he finally let all of us go .”


This isn’t the first time Stanton has posted images and stories of Holocaust survivors to HONY. Here’s one from September 2013:


And another from April 2014:


What’s so heartening about these particular Facebook posts—at least for this expletive-weary social media editor—is the graciousness and decency conveyed in the comments, often across vast economic, cultural, and religious differences. (From Anisa Mohamed on the first of today’s posts: “Oh, dear God. I read so many memoirs of Jewish survivors. And their stories make me tear up. I wish you guys never had to go through that. Crystal Night must’ve been the scariest night. I’m sorry.—from your Muslim sister.”) When it comes to talking about the Holocaust, war, and human suffering on HONY, the algorithm is simple: nuanced, compassionate comments are liked “up,” and racist screeds are folded into the dark underbelly of the thread. In these dark days of Facebook trolling and insult-hurling, it’s nice to know that there’s one pocket of the internet where the Golden Rule is honored.