Margaret Simon Hantman was born to a Jewish family in 1926 in Berlin. Before the war, she was given this small black and white photograph of her younger sister, Eva Simon. In October 1942, when Eva was in her early teens, German authorities deported her to Riga.1 Margaret and her parents were deported to Theresienstadt in December of that year. Hantman kept the photograph with her throughout her imprisonment.
When Hantman and her mother were deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz in October 1944, they were separated. As camp guards forced her to undress, abandon her belongings, and shower, she made a quick decision to hide the photograph, along with the small Star of David necklace she was wearing, in her mouth—the only place she could.2 The three folds she made to the photograph so that she could hide it are still visible on the image where the surface is broken. Hantman managed to save the photograph and necklace at great risk, hiding it in or beneath mattresses or wherever she found a safe place.
In 2018, Hantman reflected with surprise at this split-second decision, saying this “daring” move seems so unlike her.3 She remembered herself as someone who often stayed in the background and followed the rules. In concealing the photo, she took a great risk: Jews could be beaten and even shot by camp guards for keeping such items. Family photographs were very common among the possessions that Jews in Auschwitz were forced to abandon.4
Soon after her arrival at Auschwitz, Hantman was transferred to a subcamp of Gross Rosen called Sackisch-Kudowa, which was linked to an airplane factory.5 When one of the eight women who shared her barracks learned of Hantman’s photograph of her sister, she made her a frame out of a piece of the burlap sack used for mattresses in their barracks.6 She added black vinyl tape on the corners to form a decorative border, and perhaps to reinforce the frame. This tape would have been available from the airplane factory. The picture, now framed, measures two by three inches—still small enough to hide. Hantman recalled her fellow prisoner’s gift as an act of kindness, and held the frame dear to her, keeping the photo in it even long after the war. With access to only simple and rough materials, the woman in the camp adorned the photograph with what was available. The burlap stitches even echo the pattern on Eva’s shirt. Hantman would also sew this dress when she was in the Deggendorf Displaced Persons camp after the war.7
Hantman's mother and father both died in Auschwitz. Eva was shot along with everyone in her transport after arrival in Riga. Years later, Hantman and her children donated this photograph to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. She completed an oral history in 2018. Hantman explained that they wanted to share this story and the photo with others so that people would know that what happened during the Holocaust “was real” and “realize that the stories that they heard were not stories but were truths."
Photographs like Margaret Hantman’s, kept over years of imprisonment and now preserved in museum collections, convey the difficult choices facing prisoners in Nazi camps. The endurance of this photograph is a testament to the great risk Hantman took to preserve it. Additions to the photograph—namely, the burlap frame—convey the intensity of her relationship to this last trace of her family and the material surroundings in Sackisch-Kudowa. Photographs, and the ways they were saved, also help to connect the general public with prisoners’ experiences of survival and their struggle to keep alive the memory of lost loved ones.8