Portland photo exhibit reveals World War II through a dentist's eye

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PORTLAND — There were lots of things Jessica Lantos and her father, Henry Pollard, never talked about when she was growing up, including his service as a dental officer with the U.S. Army’s 1st Division during World War II.

It was only after her father died in 2003 that Lantos discovered his journals and thousands of photo negatives that documented his time in the military, including scenes of Algeria and Italy, and daily life as a soldier.

Now Lantos, who lives in Falmouth, has mounted an exhibit of 50 of her father’s photos at the Maine Jewish Museum, just up Congress Street from where he opened his dental office after returning from the war.

The exhibit, which runs through Aug. 31, is free and open to the public.

“Through My Father’s Lens: Images Captured from World War II from 1942-1945” was created with a lot of help, Lantos said, including a significant grant from the Linda and Joel Abromson Fund, among other funding sources.

Lantos first exhibited some of the many photos her father took during a small show at the Falmouth Memorial Library in 2009. She said that show was “very successful” and that people demonstrated “a lot of interest,” which is what convinced her to continue developing and mounting the images.

“His photography is gorgeous and every one tells an amazing story,” Lantos said of why she couldn’t keep the photos to herself.

“When I was going through his dark room after he died,” she said, “I found four cigar boxes full of (things) from the war; his dog tags, journals, negatives and newspaper articles. I knew it was all important, but I didn’t know what to do with them.

“I’ve spent the years since my father’s death contemplating these photos, considering how best to preserve and share them.”

The wartime photographs are powerful in their beauty, she added, and unique in that they were taken by someone who was not a journalist or a historian.

“The portraits of soldiers on board ship as they prepare to invade North Africa, Army officers at a Valentine’s Day dance in Rome, townspeople greeting soldiers in the streets, bombed out buildings in Pisa, and donkeys pulling carts across an Algerian backdrop, are both sensitive and evocative,” Lantos said.

In addition to the photos on display, each image is also paired with her father’s journal entries, which she said help to “convey the sense of time and place, the vitality and courage of those young men and women, and the grave expectations placed upon them.”

Lantos said her father was born in New York City, but he moved to Portland after marrying his first wife, Anna.

She said he was an active and curious man, and along with teaching himself photography, including building his own dark room after the war, he also taught himself carpentry and flying.

“I’m really not sure how much he knew about photography before the war,” Lantos said, “but when I was growing up you never saw that man without a camera in his hand.”

Lantos said Pollard was well known in Portland in the years after the war, when he volunteered for many different civic organizations. “Everyone loved my father. He was generous and well-connected,” even for someone who had many doors closed to him because he was Jewish.

“I never heard an unkind word said of my father,” Lantos said. “He was truly committed to this community and had some extraordinary qualities.”

She said working with the photos and reading his journals has been “a great way to connect with my father in a really intimate way.”

Pollard left for the war on Aug. 2, 1942. He was sent to Europe aboard the Queen Mary, with the 15,000 other soldiers. His journal entries for the crossing of the Atlantic include several pithy observations, as well as mundane reports of what he ate and what the weather was like.

It wasn’t until the ship anchored in the Firth of Clyde near Glasgow, Scotland, five days later that Pollard said he and his fellow soldiers first got “the low down” from their commanding officer.

It was in November 1942 that his division shipped out for North Africa. At the time, according to Pollard’s journal, the men didn’t know where they were headed, but they were allowed to enjoy steak dinners every night.

He said it was only after the sealed orders were opened that the division heard it was to attack Arzew, Algeria, and press on to Oran.

Even though he was a medical officer, Pollard saw his share of action, with some of his journal entries mentioning being strafed and having soldiers killed who were standing next to him.

Even so, there were many times when the action was slow. In one journal entry from October 1943 he mentioned “did nothing all day but eat and play gin rummy.” But the war was never far away – there was an air raid that night.

By early spring of 1944, Pollard was in Naples, Italy, where he noted the chance to see movies during his time off and also said that a package from home arrived that included baloney and candy.

He began the trip home from the war on Sept. 14, 1945. “The sea (was) very rough, (the) air cold and many men seasick,” he noted.

When the ship docked in Newport News, Virginia, Pollard said the soldiers were met with “gay banners on the dock” and the opportunity to enjoy ice cream sodas and “real milk.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Jessica Lantos, of Falmouth, has curated an exhibit of the photos her father, Henry Pollard, made during his time as a dental officer with the U.S. Army 1st Division in World War II. The exhibit is on display at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland through the end of August.

A 1944 self-portrait in Naples, Italy, by Henry Pollard, a dental officer from Portland who served in World War II.

Snapshots by Henry Pollard from his three-year tour of duty in World War II. The photos and many others are on display at the Maine Jewish Museum, 267 Congress St., Portland.

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