Daniel Owen's story 'The Jews of Oradea: A Story of Survival' got a Silver award in the Documentary category at the recent CPOY 70, and is a part of Daniel's award-winning portfolio. Catching Photo of Yours (CPOY) is a new CPOY Blog feature that gives photographers a chance to share the emotional and technical aspects of making their award-winning photograph.
The image is from early on in my documentary about the Jewish community in Oradea, Romania, and, in my opinion, it contains the essence of the story.
The documentary started while I was in Romania working on a separate story about the Roma. During an evening walk to the city center from my house on the edge of town, I noticed an enormous synagogue just sitting there, dilapidated and empty.
The more I learned about the community that once thrived here, the more I felt a responsibility to tell their story. So what was initially a three-week trip turned into ten months, and finishing the piece would mean several trips back to Romania over the next two years.
I was eventually able to get a meeting with the president of the community and propose my story idea. Until then, the community had been very protective of the survivors, and rightly so. I had been told about photographers trying to photograph survivors without any respect for what they had gone through.
I assured them that I had no desire to tell a story that focused only on the Holocaust, whilst ignoring all the good that had been done throughout the community before the war. I wanted to tell the complete story of these people and their struggle to survive. Their history had nearly been erased seventy years ago, and I wanted to do my best to preserve it.
The image was taken during a Torah reading at the Sas Chevra Synagogue, the only functioning synagogue left in the city. I had been invited to be a part of their sacred ritual. I remember shooting and just being aware of the solemnity of the moment. They had survived genocide and now they were reading from this scroll just like their ancestors had done for thousands of years. It was a humbling experience.
Looking through a window into the empty sanctuary, I saw their reflections fill the seats. It was like looking into the past. Thousands of their relatives were murdered simply for being Jewish. Yet despite it all they were still there, and they were still praying. It changed my life.