By Joseph Berger
Reporters often have no idea what impact their stories have had.
We may spend days gathering details, conducting interviews, stringing our notes together into what we hope is a well-crafted article, but silence often follows. We have no idea whether anything was significantly altered in its wake.
Sometimes, though, the effect can be seen quickly. My colleague Ralph Blumenthal and I worked for weeks on a story detailing a plan by the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in Lower Manhattan, to convert most of its viewing space into a special exhibition of haunting artifacts of Auschwitz — a cattle car, a Zyklon B gas canister used in the camp’s lethal “showers,” striped uniforms, confiscated shoes and eyeglasses, and 700 other items. Beyond re-emphasizing the museum’s original mission of commemorating the deaths of six million Jews, officials hoped the exhibition would — at a fraught time — remind people of the perils of anti-Semitism and racial hatred.
In late January, a few days after the article ran, I received a call from a Westchester woman named Debra Fisher. She had a precious photograph she wanted to add to the Auschwitz collection. It was a ragged-edged, black and white snapshot taken in 1927 of a group of 28 well-dressed people posed in front of an old-age home in the Hungarian village of Ricse.
The group’s most dashing figure sat front row center, wearing a stylish white homburg and gripping a walking stick. Improbably, it was Adolph Zukor, the legendary founder of Paramount Pictures, who happened to be the uncle of Ms. Fisher’s grandmother Olga. He had left Ricse for America in 1889 as a teenager, prospered in the fur business and — along with other Jewish garment manufacturers and cigar makers like Louis B. Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, Marcus Loew and the Warner Brothers — realized that there was money to be made in the novelty film clips being shown in penny arcade peep shows and nickelodeons. Those immigrants built what we today call Hollywood.
By 1927, Paramount Pictures had nurtured such internationally famous stars of the Silent Era as Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford, so the photograph was taken when Mr. Zukor was making a triumphant return to his hometown. The entire village of 2,000 inhabitants turned out to see the local boy who made it big, though he took some private time to visit the synagogue and pause at his parents’ graves.
Seventeen years later, almost everyone in the photograph, except for Mr. Zukor — Ms. Fisher’s ancestors and their Jewish neighbors — would be taken away by cattle cars to Auschwitz. Most of them would be murdered there. Ms. Fisher’s own father, Oscar Fisher, was 15 when he and two older brothers were deported. He survived because he was assigned to work in an Auschwitz hospital, where he had enough food and warmth to endure the bitterly cold winter of 1944-45. He was able to sneak food to his brothers, Nuchem and Mordcha. Nuchem survived. Mordcha was killed three days before liberation.