Photo exhibition to open at Jewish Federation

Todd Weinstein’s  photograph ‘The Healing Hand’ is part of an upcoming exhibition at the Jewish Federation building.  An opening event with the artist is planned for April 3 (full details on page 4).

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

A rock outcropping in Germany. A traffic sign in Poland. A torn poster in Jerusalem. A twist of barbed wire in Dachau.  

To others, these might be simply random objects but for photographer Todd Weinstein, each has a face.

“They are basically pictures I took of stones, of walls, of trees — just organic imagery,” he said. “But they were inspired by this mythological story.”

Weinstein’s interpretation of that story will be on display at the Jewish Federation building in an exhibition entitled “Legends of the 36 Unknown.” 

The showing, co-sponsored by the Morris and Ann Lazaroff Endowment for the Saul Brodsky Jewish Community Library and The Rubin and Gloria Feldman Family Institute of the Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, will feature a dessert reception and a musical performance by Rabbi James Stone Goodman. The Center for Jewish Learning, Central Reform Congregation, the Jewish Federation and Goodman’s congregation, Neve Shalom, are all contributing additional support to the program.


As for Weinstein, the noted artist said his work, which grew out of an eight-year project chronicling the reemergence of Jewish life in Germany, is based on a Talmudic story about 36 righteous individuals whose presence, though kept secret, ensures the world’s continued existence.

Weinstein said the idea developed over time after a 1995 visit to Auschwitz for the project on German Jewish life.

“I said after I hung the show that there is a part of this project missing,” he said. “What could have possibly saved the world? When you go to Auschwitz and these places of remembrance – Dachau, Bergen-Belsen – so many of these concentration camps, your mind sort of plays tricks on you. You sort of lose your sense of gravity and you can’t make sense of all of that. It is just senseless that this thing could have happened.”

Making sense of it involved learning the story of the 36. He also found himself looking more closely at one of his photographs from Block 11 at Auschwitz where people had undressed before being taken to be shot in the courtyard.

That’s where he had taken a photo of a cracked stone that he called “The Lovers” because of its abstract resemblance to two people face-to-face. Soon, he began seeing “faces” everywhere. The project lasted until 2001 by which time he’d taken photos across Germany, Poland and Israel.

Many of the individual frames have names like a stain on a wall entitled “Scholar” or a twist of metal at Buchenwald labeled “Pretty Girl”. A Krakow road sign becomes “The Mourner” because of two “tears” of rust. A hole in the side of a Berlin building shaped like a singing mouth is dubbed “Cantor.”

Weinstein said the idea had no set plan and simply developed as he went along.

“I just started doing it,” he noted.

That statement might encompass much of the impressive career for the Michigan native who grew up in a town just outside Detroit.

“He’s not like other people I know and his work is not like other people’s work I was familiar with,” said Goodman of Neve Shalom.

Goodman should know. He was a childhood friend of Weinstein’s. 

“He devoted himself to the path of his artistry,” said Goodman. “He went to New York as soon as he could and from that moment on, he gave himself entirely to the pursuit of his work.”

For Weinstein, the Big Apple was a way of broadening horizons but questions still lingered in his mind rooted back in Michigan where he grew up in a Hungarian family that never taught him Hungarian. The push toward assimilating into American life took priority in the 1950s. That meant passing on cultural heritage — even with major events — didn’t always happen.

“I grew up amongst children whose parents were survivors,” he said. “They talked to their parents a little more but I never really got into discussions with them and their parents about the Holocaust.”

He said there just wasn’t much conversation about the past. It was an effect that was even felt in Weinstein’s own family. When he told his mother he’d be visiting Auschwitz, her response surprised him.

She said ‘By the way, we might have lost family in the Holocaust,’” he said. “I said ‘What are you talking about?’”

It was only then that Weinstein learned of a Romanian branch of the family he hadn’t even been aware of.

Experiencing New York at an early age helped put Weinstein in touch with mentors like Ernst Haas and Ben-Zion, the latter of which would eventually introduce him to the story of the 36 unknown, a tale that would later influence his attempts to comprehend the Holocaust.

Those attempts also impressed others. 

“He approached the legend of the 36 in an original way, a way I’d never heard before – a purely visual way,” said Goodman, who would go on to provide text for the project and create music centered on the concept. “Eventually, his visual work and my concert and writing work converged and we started to do these shows together.”

When Weinstein first wanted to set up a showing of “Legends of the 36 Unknown” at the Holocaust museum in Detroit, he said the rabbi there was skeptical at first.

“He said to me, ‘Mr. Weinstein, what makes you think that these images of these 36 were in these places of remembrance?’” he recalled. “I said ‘Rabbi, what makes you think they weren’t there?’ He gave me the show. He loved that answer.”

Weinstein himself found a degree of optimism in the idea.

“Mythological stories have a lot of hope in them,” he said. “I did this to try to deal with issues and to try to find some hope in wanting to go forward and live in this incredible time.”

Meanwhile, on a planet that seems increasingly beset by jihad, terrorism and hatred, Weinstein still thinks of the 36 common people who arise in times of danger to save the world.

“They are needed right now,” he said.