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Immigrant stories in ‘To Bear Witness’ exhibit capture horror of persecution, hope found in Oregon

UPDATED: Wed., Jan. 26, 2022

By Douglas Perry The Oregonian

PORTLAND – People come to America every year for economic opportunity and religious and cultural freedom.

Some also come to save their lives.

The Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, with its new exhibit “To Bear Witness: Extraordinary Lives,” reminds us that the U.S. always has been a “safe haven,” a place you go to – or try to go to – when your native land becomes too dangerous.

“In today’s politically charged environment, the subject of immigration can make for a controversial museum exhibition,” Oregon Jewish Museum director Judy Margles said when announcing the exhibit.

But that’s also what made it an essential topic.

Throughout its history, the U.S. has regularly seen unnerving nativist surges like the one it’s experiencing now. It nonetheless has remained a beacon of hope for oppressed, desperate people around the world.

“To Bear Witness” tells the stories of immigrants from several countries in several eras, from Nazi Germany to 1970s Cambodia to today’s war-torn Syria. The subjects’ experiences are stark, traumatic – and uplifting.

Leslie Aigner, who died last summer at 92, told the museum about being lined up with other Jewish prisoners in front of the murderous Dr. Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death,” at the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

“He was in uniform, yes,” Aigner said. “He was in a white coat, an open coat, with a uniform and a belt on him. And a sidearm.”

But Aigner couldn’t remember the notorious Nazi’s face. He insisted he wouldn’t recognize him even if shown a photograph. His mind had permanently blurred it out.

It didn’t get much better for Aigner after the war – now he found himself under Hungary’s communist dictatorship.

“You didn’t want to talk to your neighbors about politics because if you talked against the government or (said) something anti, you disappeared,” he said.

Finally, after Hungary’s failed anticommunist uprising in 1956, Les and his wife Eva Spiegel Aigner escaped to Austria by bribing a border guard and making a run for it.

“Our decision was made to leave the country one morning when we were standing in line for bread, my husband and I,” Eva said in an interview for the Jewish Museum. “There were two men in front of us standing in the line and talking, and they said, ‘Let’s take care of the communists first, and then we get the leftover Jews.’ And my husband and I looked at each other, and we knew in that second that we were not staying in this country anymore.”

Such virulent persecution and scapegoating take a tremendous toll, infusing those targeted with constant dread, often stunting potential.

“We so much wanted to be unknown, unnoticed,” Eva said.

But the Aigners found a welcoming community in Portland, and they eventually became comfortable being known, with Les referring to their arrival in the Rose City as their “second lease on life.” In the 1980s, when Holocaust deniers in the U.S. started to become bolder, the couple decided to speak out, to share their experiences.

“To Bear Witness,” a collaboration between the Oregon Jewish Museum, Sankar Raman’s The Immigrant Story project and photographer Jim Lommasson, focuses on about a dozen men and women – including the Aigners – who escaped dire circumstances in other countries for new lives in Oregon.

The subjects of the exhibit, which runs through May 15, are not famous immigrants – no Albert Einstein, who emigrated from Germany shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power there, or even Gloria Estefan, who as a child fled revolution-wracked Cuba.

That doesn’t mean they are any less fascinating, their experiences any less meaningful or resonant. Rebecca Biggs, the museum’s communications manager, said, “It was personally humbling for me when I realized these amazing people are all our Portland neighbors.”

“To Bear Witness,” which fills a compact, light-infused space on the museum’s first floor, features a significant object each immigrant has from their native land: a carved ivory medallion that Portland restaurateur Saron Khut’s mother kept with her when she fled Cambodia’s murderous Khmer Rouge; a hand-me-down outfit that college student Rama Youssef brought from Syria as a “physical reminder” of her sisters; a viola that Pacific University music professor Dijana Ihas “carried in snow” through the mountains as her family escaped a Serb attack.

The Aigners’ story – as well as that of Eva Simons Rickles, whose family fled Berlin in the 1930s – rightfully keeps the Nazi horrors front and center in the exhibit. The inclusion of recent immigrants, meanwhile, offers another message, pulling the museumgoer out of black-and-white history and into the familiarity of the present.

“Never again” became a popular rallying cry worldwide in the aftermath of the Holocaust. But genocide, the experiences of these younger immigrants show, hasn’t disappeared into the past.

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