4 children in 6 years sidelined Monni’s dream of becoming “a world class photographer.” But several years later, in her own way, she’s become one. Among Holocaust survivors and their families, Monni’s not only a world class photographer, but a mensch.
When youngest daughter Sabrina turned 16, Monni, “not a shopper or a lunch lady,” went back to work. Having studied photography at the Brooks Institute, and previously been a professional photographer, Monni began taking pictures of her kids’ friends, elders and babies. She and friend/assistant Linda Schlesinger-Wagner dressed in fanciful costumes and dubbed themselves Photo Fairies.
Monni was booked to take progressive pictures of a pregnancy, beginning on Nov. 14, 2007. The night before she received a call from her distraught oldest daughter, Miya, in Colorado. After 7 months of marriage, Miya’s “abusive” husband wanted a divorce. Monni did her best to calm her daughter. The next day she took the pregnancy photos, then tried to reach Miya.
Her daughter had hung herself.
“My life stopped,” Monni says. “I was in the trenches of unfathomable grief.” When Monni was 3, her sister Debbie, 6, died. The family never talked about their lost child. Monni feared the same would happen to Miya.
4 months after Miya’s suicide, Monni received a call from the Jewish Community Center. Would she photograph children at a Purim party sitting on Holocaust survivors’ laps?
At that point, she could scarcely bring herself to get out of bed. “I can’t do it,” she said.
That night, unable to sleep, she thought about Holocaust survivors and about her affinity for photographing elders. By morning, she knew what she had to do.
She put an ad in the Jewish News and sent out fliers inviting survivors and their families to dinner. To her surprise, 100 showed up. She offered to shoot their portraits and tell their stories. It was May, 2008. She promised to have a book out by Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Fall, 2009.
While Linda drove and recorded survivors’ stories, Monni surveyed a subject’s home, decided on a background, selected an outfit, and took portraits. It was a race against time—subjects were elderly. Monni and Linda averaged 2-3 portraits a day, spending 3-5 hours with each.
Committed to a deadline, Monni didn’t apply for funding. She financed the project herself. “I was so driven I’d have spent my entire life’s savings if I had to,” she says. (Husband Joel Must, a food broker, supported the household.)
After taking most of the photos, Monni recalls, “I was still a mess.” On a cold, rainy day, she and Linda drove to a part of Detroit where they’d never been. Monni’s heart wasn’t in it. She said to Linda, “I can’t do this today.”
Still, they walked into the home of a German woman, Aline Schuraytz. The homeowner said, “I only have 10 minutes, and I don’t want to be photographed.” The house was “in disarray,” Monni says, but she was captivated by the light through the front window. She asked Aline, “Why not today? The light is so beautiful.”
Aline relented, and Monni photographed her by the window. Aline noticed Monni looking at a picture of a young woman hanging on a wall. Aline said, “That’s my daughter who died.” Then, watching Monni, she asked, “How did your daughter die?”
Monni was startled. ”How did you know?”
“I know the look.”
Monni and Aline talked for more than 2 hours. Monni recalls, “Up to that day, I never discussed Miya with any survivors. I couldn’t talk about her without falling to pieces.”
At the end of their conversation, Aline said, “Monni, I want you to know something. You will find joy again.”
After, Monni sobbed through dinner with Linda. The conversation with Aline was, Monni says, “a turning point, the beginning of my being able to function.”
Monni made her deadline. Her book, Living Witnesses: Faces of the Holocaust, was published in September, 2009. It was introduced at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, MI, and featured at the nearby Jewish Community Center Book Fair. About 70 survivors attended Monni’s SRO talk at the fair and stood to be recognized.
Within a week, Monni got requests from people and agencies around the U.S., wanting inclusion in another book. She called Linda, who promptly declined. Monni said, “We have to do this.” And so they traveled to Illinois, California, Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, and D.C., spending about a week in each.
As if that weren’t challenge enough, requests came from Europe. She and Linda also traveled to France, Germany, the Czech Republic, the UK, Poland and Israel. They produced a boxed set of 3 books, Triumph over Tragedy, covering survivors in Europe, Israel and the US, weighing 15 pounds! Books include subjects’ maiden names, original and changed (Christianized) names, birthplace, tattoo numbers and current residence and have helped connect survivors worldwide.
It’s been 8 and ½ years since Miya died. Monni says, “I didn’t think I’d ever find joy again. But I have. My daughter is part of everything I do. Everything is in Miya’s name and for her.”
Miya lived in Colorado and loved dogs. Monni participates in a dog parade in Miya’s name for a rescue organization in Gunnison, CO. She supports Kadima, which focuses on mental health, and Jewish Hospice. She donated a garden in Miya’s name at Haven, a Michigan facility for abused women.
Most remarkable to me: Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, MI, calls Monni at night when an infant dies or is still born. If grieving parents want a picture, Monni gets out of bed and drives to the hospital to take photos and donates the prints.
“Whenever I visit Holocaust survivors, they show me pictures. Survivors taught me how important photographs are. They’re a tangible record of our past, evidence that we mattered.”
Monni lives and works in Sylvan Lake, MI. She remains close to her 3 living daughters and 1 granddaughter (and 1 on the way). Her Holocaust survivor books are available through her studio at naturallymonni.com or at the Holocaust museums in Farmington Hills, MI and Skokie, IL. All proceeds go to the causes Monni supports.
About her energy and productivity, Monni says “Miya makes things happen. Most important for me is to have my daughter’s name remembered.”
Thanks to your energy and devotion, Monni, she is and will be.
(Thanks, Linda Schlesinger-Wagner, for connecting me with Monni.)