When Slovakian expats Yuri Dojc and Katya Krausova returned to their native country to film Holocaust survivors, one interviewee led them to an abandoned Jewish schoolhouse. Stepping inside, the film crew felt as if they had entered a dark enchantment: everything was exactly where it had been when the students were deported to concentration camps one day in 1942. “The school books were there still, essays with corrections, school reports, even the sugar in the cupboard.”
This experience was the inspiration for Last Folio: A Photographic Portrait, a book of lush, exquisitely detailed photographs by Dojc that document the remnants of Jewish life in Slovakia, the first country to adopt Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic policies. The haunting images depict objects and buildings in varying states of decay: shattered gravestones, stained-glass windows, doodles in a prayer book, a mikveh filled with trash and debris, an abandoned synagogue with roaming goats. In “Shed on the School Grounds,” a typical schoolroom clock is mounted on a wall, its face breaking off in shards — an image that is eerily symbolic of the way time suddenly stopped for the room’s occupants but continued to take its toll on the things they left behind.
With such arresting visuals, it would be easy to overlook Last Folio’s text, but Krausova’s thought-provoking narrative deserves a close reading. If the initial discovery of the schoolroom seems like a grim version of a fairy tale, other moments encapsulate fairy-tale-like coincidences and joy. Out of the dozens of abandoned books, Krausova happens to pick up one that belonged to Dojc’s grandfather. At another point she interviews a survivor who describes the courageous man with whom she fell in love before they were separated in the war’s aftermath. It is not until the very end of the conversation that the two women realize this man was Krausova’s father. “Come here, little Krauska, let me look at you!” the survivor exclaims. “I could have been your mother, you know!”
More than half of the photographs in Last Folio are simply of books. Dojc’s focus is not so much on their content as it is on their material composition; the camera lens zooms in on faded ink, disintegrating fibers, and peeling spines. It is difficult not to contrast these tomes with Last Folio itself — pristine, glossy, and tactilely pleasing. But Dojc doesn’t treat the old and new books as diametrically opposed. By rendering the abandoned books as nearly abstract forms, he integrates them into the artistic composition of Last Folio and gives them new life. His work gives hope that these remnants won’t in fact represent the last chapter of the vibrant heritage to which they belonged.
Becca Kantor is Jewish Book Council’s editorial director. She received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and her M.A. in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. She has lived in Estonia, England, and Germany.