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Behind the Cover: The Improbable Story of the Image on the Cover of Holocaust Survivors

Behind the Cover is an occasional series on book covers and the stories that accompany them.

Cover images: the all-important marketing tool that can perfectly capture the content and feel of a book—or cause people to glance over it, bored. Some images we toil over, going back and forth between options because co-editors disagree, we disagree, or the perfect image remains elusive despite our perseverance. Then there are the no-brainers when the authors have pre-picked images that work perfectly and after the original design is chosen the image hardly gets a second thought.

Holocaust Survivors by Dalia Ofer, Françoise S. Ouzan, and Judy Tydor Baumel-Schwartz was one of the latter. The editors had a number of images they found at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. In image after image of expectant, haunting faces of liberated concentration camp prisoners, their eyes shone with a glint of freedom. After everything, they still had some hope for life. Perfect.

A few months later when it was time to publish the book, we faced a typical scramble to get a high resolution picture with proper permissions and then the book was off to press! It was the end of the year and as I headed upstate for the holidays, the only things on my mind were those sugar plums.

But then four months later, I found an excited email in my junk mail box. It was a woman asking about the image on the cover of Holocaust Survivors. She said her uncle was in the photo and she that had a similar picture of her father. My first reaction was to hunt down the permissions info to make sure everything was in place and we had added the rights information to the back of the book. Exhale—it was all set.

I wrote to the niece that the image wasn’t a personal photo, but came from the Holocaust Museum, and she would have to contact them for more information. I closed my email and left for the night.

But that was too easy, on Monday I had new emails: the niece couldn’t find the photo in the museum’s online archive and she hadn’t received a response to the queries she sent. She also couldn’t find a copy of our book at Barnes and Noble (I wish they stocked our books). I didn’t know what to make of her excitement, but I dug around a little to see if I could find anything helpful and came across a brief email from the Director of the Photographic Reference Collection, Judy Cohen. Still a little worried about permissions (since the niece has said she had almost the same photo), I contacted Judy for more information and passed on her response (which was, essentially, that she didn’t know any more than I did). It appeared we had hit a dead end.

But things turned around when the niece emailed me thanking me for the scarce information I sent. She had made headway. The director at the Museum had a lead and put her in touch with the woman who had donated the picture, and was in the picture herself! She told me they spoke on the phone and were exchanging photos and stories—strangers who both had a close connection with the same man, the one wearing the striped tie.

A few mornings later, neck-deep in ebook metadata, which—ask our production assistant Joe— I don’t get interrupted while working on, my phone rang in the same I-want-my-food-now-even-if-you’re-still-in-bed attitude my cat gives me. I crankily asked Abby who’d answered the call to take a message and she obliged.
I overheard something about a cover and a moment later Abby was at my desk asking if the Holocaust Survivors cover had changed, which seemed like a crazy question. Cover images don’t change. I was confused, and a little worried, so I set the metadata aside.

It turned out that the cover that was all-too-easy really wasn’t. In my preholiday rush to get the book out the cover had changed. The high resolution version wasn’t the one that included the woman’s uncle!

I quickly emailed the niece to apologize, it had slipped by unnoticed and we had printed the book with the other image, I explained about the difference in resolution, and that the one on our website was outdated. I felt horrible, after all the back and forth, not to have actually used the image we discussed. As I drafted the message I received another email from her. I cringed, but as before received a pleasant surprise: an excited email, not a disappointed one. The new image on the cover was the one with her father, the same one she had a copy of! She asked if all of the books included that image. Eyes welling up, I confirmed—overwhelmed by her joy. She said she was “too busy staring at her late father smiling in the photo” to have read the book yet. But even if she never does, that book was worth every second spent on it, if just the cover image could have brought so many people together and caused such happiness. As Françoise Ouzan said “One such person happy is almost like the whole humanity… May this book give strength to many other people!” And may all of the other faces and numbers be given a story.

Though I haven’t received my promised hug, I hope that this Father’s Day will be an especially happy one for the woman and her family.

In the image that accompanies the post, my correspondent’s father is the second from the left, in the striped tie.

As a policy we don’t give out our authors’ contact information, but if you need anything we are always happy to pass on your request.