By Elizabeth A. Davis ’86
The stories John Pregulman has heard are shocking and sometimes unbelievable, and that is why listening to and remembering them is so important.
Over the last four years, Pregulman ’70 has taken 487 portraits of Holocaust survivors living in the United States. This journey of discovery led to the creation of a non-profit to help survivors.
While taking the photographs and meeting survivors, he discovered the positive attitude and resiliency of these men and women but also that many of them suffer new indignities as they age and have unexpected expenses that make it difficult to pay the utilities, buy medicine or shop for groceries.
John and his wife, Amy, whom he met taking photographs in Memphis, began KAVOD in November 2015. Amy Israel Pregulman serves as the executive director. Kavod means dignity in Hebrew.
Pregulman, who was a freelance photographer in New York City after graduating from McCallie, Vanderbilt University and Parsons School of Design, began taking survivor portraits in 2012 when the director of the Holocaust Museum in Chicago, a friend, contacted him to help. He photographed 65 survivors over three days in Chicago, spending the entire time immersed in the history of the Holocaust. “As a boy, I was never really exposed to the Holocaust like we are today. I was amazed by these survivors. They are the most positive and outgoing people I have ever met,” he said. “I found it very enlightening.”
His friend, the museum director, encouraged Pregulman to continue taking photographs around the country. “Along the way as I would visit these people, I noticed they didn’t have a lot and were making choices between food, medicine and clothing. It bothered me,” he said. Research into Holocaust survivors revealed that 25 to 30 percent live in poverty in the United States, and while they receive restitution from Germany through the Claims Conference, it is sometimes not enough. There are agencies that can help, but often they involve slow processes and applications that collect information that make survivors nervous.
KAVOD differs from other organizations because it provides emergency aid with the only requirement being that the person is a survivor. Local Jewish family services help locate people who need help. The help comes in the form of gift cards to Target, Walmart, Walgreens and other stores, and it is all confidential. “They don’t want to tell their children or divulge information. They have a real fear of being on a list for obvious reasons,” he said.
Pregulman has found examples of need almost everywhere he’s been. There was a 92-year-old woman he visited in New Jersey, who had difficulty playing for her electricity each month. There would be times that the lights were turned off because she had to choose between that and food. Another 94-year-old woman in Orlando offered Pregulman something to eat when he visited, but all she had was cheese and milk.
While he continues to take photographs, there is no connection between the portraits and aid. Some of them could have received aid, but since the service is confidential, Pregulman does not know who receives the gift cards. The photographs are a service to the survivors. He gives them the portrait prints and a letter and listens to stories if they want to talk.
The stories are many. There is the 97-year-old man who left Poland when he was 16 or 17 but could not convince his parents to flee with him. “A lot of these people were World War I veterans and didn’t believe anything would happen,” he said. The man walked to Russia and was gone three years. His parents did not survive, and all he has of them is a picture of his father, who was a rabbi. “He is amazing,” Pregulman said. “He still lives alone.”
The oldest survivor Pregulman has met is 103 and lives in Chicago. This man and his mother, who were Russian, survived by living in a hole a sympathetic farmer dug on his land. “They lived there for two years. Can you imagine? We don’t know what suffering is,” Pregulman said.
Some survivors don’t want to tell their own children about what happened to them, but most of the time, they end up telling Pregulman their stories. He said close to half of the survivors he’s met went to Auschwitz, the only concentration camp that tattooed occupants. “They always want to show us the number,” he said.
What do the survivors get from having their pictures taken? Pregulman said: “They want to know someone is going to remember them. Here is proof. Their biggest fear is that they will be forgotten,” he said.
Pregulman started Bright in the third grade, following his sister, Betsy ’68, and ahead of his brother, Robert ’74. “I have a very positive memory of being there,” he said, recalling most of his teachers’ names. He remembers breaking his arm twice, going to the picnic and Mrs. Bass as his P.E. teacher. His daughter, Ally Pregulman, graduated in 2000, and he served on the board from 1990-2000. Now, Pregulman splits his time mostly between Memphis and Denver, sometimes stopping in Chattanooga, where he keeps an office near Siskin Steel and Supply Company, which his great-grandfather founded in 1900.
So far, KAVOD has raised more than $64,000 and given out more than $43,000 of that so far in gift cards that range in value from $50 to $2,000. “We have helped a lot of people. It doesn’t take a lot. They just need a little to get them by,” he said.
They do not have plans to create a book or documentary of the photographs: Pregulman will reach 500 portraits by the end of this year.
But he does tell their stories to others. “How would you feel if the police knocked on the door and took your parents and you never saw them again? Pregulman said. “We really don’t understand.”
For more information about Kavod, visit the website: http://kavodensuringdignity.com/.