Choosing Love and Marriage During the Holocaust

Weddings During the Holocaust” is one of 70 ongoing online exhibits depicting the Holocaust that was conceived, organized and produced by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, Israel’s largest Holocaust memorial and museum. Intentionally debuting on Feb. 14, 2024, it is the only retrospective illustrating couples who married during World War II, at a time when millions of Jews were killed at the hands of the German Nazis and their allies.

Natalie Mandelbaum oversaw the photographic project, her first since taking on the role of online exhibitions coordinator in the museum division last August. The weddings exhibit was six months in the making and the result of a collaborative effort between researchers, digital image organizers, and graphic designers.

“We wanted to ask the question: ‘What made people get married in those horrible years,’” said Ms. Mandelbaum, who began working at Yad Vashem in 2014 as a photography researcher in the museum division.

“The men and women who got married during the Holocaust were so brave and had such a complicated life — not a lot of people know these stories,” she said over Zoom from her home in Jerusalem. “The goal was to make them accessible to the world.”

The exhibition highlights 11 couples, with 40-plus photos that explore their weddings across various landscapes and events during three specific times: Weddings under restrictive law, depicting the first days of the occupation and deportations while Jews were still in their homes; weddings in ghettos and camps, highlighting Jews who fell in love and wedded in the concentration and labor camps; and weddings after liberation, when Jews were determined to rebuild their lives and their families post-Holocaust.

“After the war, many Holocaust survivors found themselves in displaced persons camps in Europe. Many focused their efforts on emigrating from there to build new lives in other countries,” Ms. Mandelbaum said. “It is important to understand that many did not have a home or community to return to. Some migrated to Mandatory Palestine, later the state of Israel, while others immigrated to the United States and other Western countries. There were also Holocaust survivors who remained in Eastern Europe.”

She added, “Even amid the Holocaust’s horrors, individuals chose love and marriage, defying all odds.”

In addition to the photographs of newlyweds and their families, the exhibit offers an array of wedding invitations, diary entries, birth announcements, signed ketubahs and personal objects paired with descriptions and information about each couple.

“Getting married wasn’t just about love — it was bigger than that, it was beyond love,” Ms. Mandelbaum said. “These survivors lived with the dead constantly in their thoughts, yet they rose again and created a new world together. They wanted the continuation, to build a home after homes were destroyed and their family was murdered. These survivors wanted something for themselves; they wanted a place in the world. And they wanted love.”

The following interview, which took place over the course of several conversations and email exchanges, has been edited and condensed.

Weddings represented resilience, courage, hope and a desire for life. Marriage was synonymous with love, survival, faith and power. There was also the value of being together. Even if you were running and hiding in the ghetto, these people were running and hiding together. They overcame difficult things as a couple, not as individuals. Their relationships became a source of stability.

Getting married during the Holocaust and after was a very strong act during that time, under darkness and in horrible conditions. Some married to save each other’s lives. At that time, there was a proliferation of fictitious marriages in the ghetto. Many women sought to marry men with documents that would protect them and their families.

Others married to look to the future and build something, even in these difficult times, even in the darkness, for their children. And to see beyond what was happening in their everyday lives. We didn’t talk about it in the exhibition, but after they got married, they had children, something very important to them, and to build the family again.

It was imperative to present stories of couples from different geographical locations (including the Netherlands, Prague, Benghazi, Oradea, Lodz Ghetto, Warsaw Ghetto, Mogilev-Podolski, and Ferramonti di Tarsia detention camp) and represent Jews from all walks of life. It was important that the stories coincided with the items or documents related to the Yad Vashem collection. We tried to show as many different aspects of the topic as possible: weddings for the purpose of survival vs. weddings that emanate from a place of love .

Every person we highlighted had a family and a community, and through that person, we found a much bigger story. Each story exposes us to a couple who faced their own questions and struggles, and each story is a unique narrative of its own.

Many couples that appear in the exhibition were married in a religious ceremony officiated by a rabbi. Some of them were married in civil ceremonies. After the Holocaust, rabbis played a central role in organizing weddings, striving to alleviate burdens and bring joy to the bride and groom, as their families were often absent during the event.

At certain weddings, the bride and groom wore regular clothes without a special wedding gown. This is a consequence of the difficult times. At other weddings, brides can be seen wearing white dresses and tulle, such as in the wedding photos from the Lodz Ghetto in Poland.

After the war, there’s the story of Kala Selzer, who wore a warm brown wedding dress made of chiffon fabric and used a white bread crust as a head covering. In contrast, there’s the story of Lili Friedman, who wore an elegant white gown made of parachute fabric.

We delved into our archives, including documents, photographs, artifacts and art collections. We gleaned invaluable insights from the testimonies of Holocaust survivors preserved within the Yad Vashem’s archive. Firsthand testimonies from the survivors enrich the fabric of our exhibits, infusing them with a sense of humanity and resilience.

We are so afraid these details will be lost forever because the few Holocaust survivors that are still here are getting older. And in the next generation, we will not have any survivors to tell these stories. When I looked into these 11 couples’ lives, I felt like they were passing their stories down to me. And I need to pass it on to the next generation.

It made me think about the power of details and about my grandparents, who were in the Holocaust together. I connected to each one of the people in the exhibition. I admire their human resiliency. I learned about the immense strength hidden within people, which I hope to one day embody during challenging times.

Marriage was a way of survival. I think together they were much stronger and made each other stronger. These survivors chose life. They chose love. They chose to be together. I think this is an amazing thing that we need to learn, not only in marriage, but in life.

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