Nearly 80 years after the Holocaust, surviving stories have started to fade into history. Marissa Alper intended to preserve those testaments by following the footsteps of her Jewish ancestors and photographing the landscapes they once called home. In “Last Home,” her most recent show at the Anderson gallery, Alper uses abstract photography to explore familial intimacy, friendships and personal relationships.
“It got me talking to my grandmother,” Alper said. “I had known that she was a Holocaust survivor, but I’m just now old enough to fully understand the gravity of that. I became interested in her story and I made some work about her experience.”
Alper studies photography at VCU, and she enjoys using film to tell stories. Over the summer, Alper visited Berlin, Germany, with the photography department. Hoping to explore the country of her Jewish ancestors, she enrolled promptly.
“It was perfect because it was a photo study abroad program and also my family immigrated from Berlin and around that area,” Alper said. “I wasn’t really sure what I was going to make there, so I started visiting the locations that related to my family’s past. It’s really hard to track where everybody is and where everybody is from, but I did as much as I could.”
Alper found the site of her grandmother’s last apartment in Magdeburg, Germany. A McDonald’s now stands in its place. She also found the home of her great-great-grandparents, which was the last place they called home before their records disappeared. Alper believes they were likely sent to a concentration camp, lost among the millions who met the same fate during World War II.
“I started by just visiting and sitting in those locations,” Alper said. “I realized that there were so many unexplainable feelings that I felt, which I couldn’t really grasp at all … I still cannot fully grasp them. So that’s what I started making work about.”
To guide her exploration of Germany, Alper searched for her family members’ Stolperstein, small concrete bricks adorned with brass plaques which commemorate the victims of Nazi persecution. The Stolperstein project, which began in 1992, marks the last homes of over 70,000 people.
Alper’s great-great-grandparents have a Stolperstein marking their last home. Aside from the plaque, the landscape was mostly barren — but on her grandmother’s former homesite, golden arches stand as the only monument in sight.
“It’s confusing,” Alper said. “I’m angry, but I bet you every McDonald’s is built on top of something really intense. So it’s just a strange feeling, and it’s really indescribable. It’s a McDonald’s and it’s also my grandmother’s last home, but it’s really hard to merge the two.”
Alper visited the McDonald’s and ordered french fries. In “Last Home,” the cold, empty fry box was displayed like a historical artifact.
“I think it’s like an access point,” Alper said. “I started using those objects so that others could understand the mixed emotions I was feeling. It’s not just McDonald’s, it’s a symbol for this place that means a lot. And it’s not just about my grandmother. This is a place that so many people had to leave from, and now there’s this huge chain built on top of it.”
Alper’s visit to Berlin helped her reflect on the effects of the Holocaust within the Jewish community. Although she had visited the country on a backpacking trip when she was younger, she said visiting the sites of her family’s history taught her more about the traumatic memories shared by her ancestors.
“I tried to make ‘Last Home’ something that didn’t just spoon-feed information. If you really wanted to understand, you’d have to walk around, think and look at the plaques,” Alper said. “It was more of a connect-the-dots, so that even if your family didn’t have ties to the Holocaust you could relate to it in some way.”
One image in “Last Home” is of Alper and her grandmother. It’s an intimate portrayal of their relationship, produced with a medium-format Hasselblad camera. In the shot, Alper is resting her head on her grandmother’s lap. They are relaxing in her grandmother’s sunny apartment.
“I get a very specific feeling when I want to be photographing something,” Alper said. “I saw the light streaming in through the window and I had this instinctual urge to capture the moment. My grandma has Parkinson’s disease, so she had to be sitting down. And we weren’t posing, we were just sitting with each other, so it didn’t take hours of planning.”
When she returned from Germany, Alper shared the images she captured with her grandmother. Because she fled the country as a child, Alper’s grandmother was able to see the landscape for the first time in decades. Alper said her grandmother was shocked but glad to see her story preserved.
“I think there’s a fear that people will start forgetting about the Holocaust, since many survivors are starting to die,” Alper said. “So it’s important to capture these stories before they’re gone.”