Moments in Time

Cops, firemen, dogs, the circus: Photographer Jill Freedman deftly documents life's little happenings

In these, as in her other photographs, Freedman exhibits an almost mystical ability to capture the story she is after solely in the expression on her subjects' faces. The pursed lips and bearded chin of the only rabbi in the Czech Republic. A little girl twirling in circles in the playroom of a Jewish kindergarten in Prague. A toothless old man clapping with delight at a dance for Jews in Hungary. A man in tennis shorts and a baseball cap exiting the barracks at Auschwitz, his face etched with a pain too deep for tears. Three teenagers, members of a church group cleaning up a Jewish cemetery in Poland, smirking defiantly at the camera.

All of these pictures have captions typed on the back -- spare commentaries that not only reveal Freedman's knowledge of the subject, but also make her point of view blatantly clear. One photo shows a "Jewish tour" in Prague, a tourist activity during which, Freedman writes, "German tourists walk on Jewish graves." To accompany a seemingly innocent photograph of two adolescents embracing on a bench in Poland, she writes: "Teenagers making out next to the river where the ashes of 22,000 Jews who died in the ghetto were thrown."

The photographs link the plethora of lives affected by Hitler's pogroms -- Jews and Gentiles, young and old, living and dead -- conveying great emotion without pathos. "I've seen a lot of so-called art and pictures about the Holocaust that have nothing to do with it -- it's just crappy-ass stuff," Freedman huffs. "I was worried, 'Am I worthy of the subject? Do I have something to contribute?' I really suffered about the worthiness number, then I thought, 'That's a cop-out.' I have as much right to say something about it as anyone else because it's been with me my whole life. Everyone in my generation who was born during the war or after or around that time -- it really affected us, the fact that it could have been us."

It was in Pittsburgh, after World War II, that Freedman discovered the Holocaust. At age seven in 1946, she came across some copies of Life magazine that her parents had piled up in the attic. She started going up there every day after school to look at the pictures in the magazines. Children in the Warsaw ghetto. The emaciated bodies of people in the concentration camps. Piles of cadavers. It was her first exposure to photojournalism.

"They say a picture steals your soul," she wrote in her application to the Alicia Patterson Foundation. "Maybe those pictures stole mine. Like they stole my innocence."

Fourth-generation Americans, the Freedmans were one of the few Jewish families in a middle-class Pittsburgh neighborhood whose residents were mostly of Polish and Irish descent. Her father was a traveling salesman who hawked steel cabinets, her mother a nurse-turned-housewife. Freedman recounts how her classmates chased her and beat her up after school, calling her "a dirty Jew." She fought back, and they learned to leave her alone.

She also played softball -- shortstop and substitute pitcher. "I wasn't allowed in the Little League and I could play ball better than any guy in grade school," she scoffs. "The Mighty Midgets, big deal. I hit two homers over the fence, and they wouldn't let me play because I was a girl. That really pissed me off. I lived for baseball."

One pleasurable event in Freedman's childhood was a trip she took to Miami Beach with her parents. They stayed at the Raleigh hotel on Collins Avenue. She still remembers the glamorous showgirls, the elegant guests, the retirees dancing in Lumus Park on Ocean Drive. "I expected Miami Beach would be the same way that it was then," she laughs, walking the few blocks from her apartment to the Raleigh for a late lunch on a Monday afternoon. She grimaces at two Winnebagos, sure signs of a fashion shoot in progress, parked in front of the hotel. "If I knew this town was full of models, I wouldn't have come," she snaps. "Where are the lovely old Jewish people? They all had stories. I love a good story."

Within seconds after sitting down at a table on the hotel's patio, Freedman has made friends with a young waiter, who brings her a hamburger, even though the kitchen has already closed. She picks up her story as she eats. After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied anthropology and sociology, she went to Israel, still fascinated by the Holocaust. "I wanted to make sure that the Jews there were all right," she explains. "For next time. I always knew there'd be a next time." There was also a more frivolous motive for her trip. "I met an Israeli waiter the summer before," she grins. "He was gorgeous."

Freedman booked passage on a ship, landing in the port city of Jaffa. "I loved the sea," she says wistfully. "If I were a man, I would have shipped out. Merchant marine." Instead, a pretty girl, with corn-silk hair and a turned-up nose, she played guitar and sang, performing in small clubs and coffeehouses. With some musicians she met in Israel, she took off to Europe, where she traveled around, supporting herself as a singer for two and a half years. "I was no Sarah Vaughan," she laughs. "I did have the chance to make a record. That's when I said, 'No, there's something I should do with my life.'" And she decided she wanted to do that something -- whatever it was -- in New York, so in 1964 she moved there. "I was always waiting to grow up and go to New York," she says, taking a sip of iced tea. "I figured I was a native New Yorker born in Pittsburgh."

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