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Yuri Dojc, a Canadian photographer born in Slovakia, photographed abandoned prayer books in his family’s ancestral village, where he uncovered a life the Nazis destroyed and his relatives refused to discuss

Stephanie Butnick
March 31, 2011
A prayer book found in a school in the town of Bardejov.(Photographs by Yuri Dojc)
A prayer book found in a school in the town of Bardejov.(Photographs by Yuri Dojc)

Entering the Last Folioexhibit of photographs at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage, visitors are greeted by stares. These are the weary, aged faces of Slovakia’s remaining Holocaust survivors, whom Slovakian-born photographer Yuri Dojc began documenting in the late 1990s. Most are no longer alive.

Dojc, a commercial photographer who has lived in Canada since his family left Slovakia in 1968, returned to visit several towns, including his family’s onetime home, where he learned about the fate of its Jews during the Holocaust, a history his relatives refused to talk about. Dojc’s project shifted with the discovery, during a trip to Slovakia to interview survivors, of abandoned prayer books in long-empty synagogues and schoolhouses that had gone untouched since the Nazis deported Slovakia’s Jews to concentration camps.

The photography exhibit, which opened this week, moves from the hallway of portraits into a light-filled, six-sided room featuring breathtaking images of prayer books in various stages of physical decay and sustaining damage far greater than the wear and tear of everyday use. Katya Krausova, a London-based filmmaker, traveled with Dojc through Slovakia and her documentary plays in the exhibition space.

The layout of the exhibit reflects the genesis of the project and Dojc’s personal journey—the pair discovered a prayer book belonging to Dojc’s grandfather, whom he never met, among the unearthed volumes. The books star in the photographs, commanding attention while revealing layer after layer of abandonment by society and destruction by nature. Yet Dojc believes these books—and all books, for that matter—possess an enchanting, transcending quality. The photographs are about beauty and decay, he explained before the exhibit’s opening: “beauty in decay.”

Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.