HMLC photo exhibit draws from Greitens’ award-winning book

This image of children in Bolivia is included in an exhibit at the Holocaust Museum of Eric Greitens’ photographs from his travels doing humanitarian work.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Have you read “Night”?

The question surprised Eric Greitens for a moment. It’s not an unusual query but one that held extra meaning coming from a 19-year-old English student in Kigali, Rwanda’s war torn capital. The questioner explained that he had often thought of Elie Wiesel’s classic of Holocaust literature during the central African nation’s infamous 1990s genocide in which machete-wielding mobs slaughtered more than three quarters of a million people.

It was proof for Greitens of a truism he discovered about the bravery inherent in human beings and the reality behind the ordinary heroes who stood up against the horrors surrounding them.

“They drew on stories from their faith or their community of other courageous people who had done things like this before them,” he said. “That’s why I think it is so important that we share these stories because it helps us all to tap into our own courage.”

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A taste of that courage will be on display during a presentation of Greitens’ photographs at the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center in Memory of Gloria M. Goldstein. It’s one of two major photo exhibits premiering in the Jewish community this month (see page 1). The Oct. 17 opening will present a sample of Greitens’ work to St. Louisans in 10 black-and-white images of scenes spanning seven nations from Rwanda to Bosnia. The pictures, excerpted from the photographer’s book, “Strength & Compassion,” display snapshots of ordinary life and the people he met doing humanitarian work in the troubled lands he visited.

“I’m sure that while we are the first venue for these photographs, this exhibit will become a national, if not an international, phenomenon,” said Dan Reich, curator of the HMLC. “One of the things we’re trying to show is that these issues did not end with the Holocaust but that man’s inhumanity to other human beings continues. Also in these photos, there’s definitely a message about the resilience of the human spirit.”

Greitens, 36, has an extensive and varied resume. A Rhodes Scholar and decorated Navy SEAL, the native St. Louisan has been honored as a White House Fellow and currently holds the title of senior fellow at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Last year, “Strength and Compassion” was awarded the grand prize at the New York Book Festival and earlier this year, Major League Baseball and People magazine named Greitens one of 30 “All-Stars Among Us.” His photography endeavor began in 1994 shortly after he started his humanitarian efforts, mainly as a way to document the work that was being done. Soon however, it became about the people he met.

By 1997, he knew he had a book on his hands and continued shooting for the next few years.

“I was amazed to see in situations of incredible hardship,” he said, “where there were kids who had lost limbs to landmines in Cambodia or street children in Bolivia or people who had survived genocide in Bosnia and Rwanda, it was really incredible to see the kind of strength that helped all of those folks to rebuild their lives.”

“They weren’t victims,” he said. “They were survivors.”

The photos chosen for the HMLC exhibit will feature children. It’s a choice in some ways reflective of the more than 100 photos in Greitens’ book.

“I would always focus on individual people and families,” he said. “Specifically, what I was focused on was capturing the kind of dignity, strength and courage that we don’t see broadcast on the news when people are covering these emergencies.”

One story that stuck with him was that of a 16-year-old boy who seemed to be the leader of more than a dozen youths in the local refugee camp. In talking to the boy, Greitens recalled him indicating each member of the group and saying ‘He is powerful with fire and cooking’ or ‘This one is powerful with the soldiers. They like him.’ The experience left a deep impression on the photographer.

“As he pointed to each one of the boys in the group he described each one as being powerful in some way,” he said. “I really saw the key to his leadership was that he had the humility to recognize the strength in everyone around him.”

Strength was also evident in Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager who became the unlikely savior of more than 1,000 endangered Tutsis. His story would later become the inspiration for the 2004 Academy Award-nominated film “Hotel Rwanda.” He wrote the foreword for Greitens’ book.

“One of the things that was so interesting about Paul and others who gave shelter is that a lot times they felt like they were the only people in their village or community who was offering it,” Greitens said.

Greitens, who spent his childhood at B’nai El Congregation and frequently did community service work with children growing up, said it’s all part of making “Never Again” more than a hollow phrase for the next generation.

“It’s one thing to talk about what the world should be like,” he said. “It’s another to really get in there and make our own effort to repair the world, even in the most difficult of circumstances.”

This event is made possible by Nancy and Kenneth Kranzberg, Hannah and Lawrence Langsam, Regions Bank and the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission.