Near the end of Jerusalem-based exhibition “Flashes of Memory: Photography During the Holocaust,” is a glass case containing a loose pile of postcard-size photographs of scenes from the Dachau concentration camp. Some show inmates shoving dead bodies into crematoria. Others show torture scenes, with prisoners’ bodies hanging from nooses.
These images in Yad Vashem: The World Holocaust Remembrance Center’s new show are horrific, but they are not here merely to shock. Rather, they — like the other more than 1,500 others — are meant to provoke questions about who took them, where, when, how, and why.
The Dachau photos are authentic, but not in the usual sense of the word. They were taken by US Signal Corps troops who liberated the camp in April 1945, and the scenes depicted in them are reenactments staged with the help of former inmates. The images were captured, printed and disseminated widely throughout Allied-occupied Germany for the purpose of reeducating the German population.
They also ended up in the hands of historical commissions set up by Jews in displaced persons camps throughout Europe, and in those of US soldiers who took them home with them. More than 70 years later, people are still discovering them in old shoeboxes and albums and regularly offering them to Holocaust museums. Most of the donors are ignorant of, or mistaken about, the true context of the photos’ creation.
Virtually none of the still and moving images made by the Nazis, Jews and liberating Allied forces displayed in “Flashes of Memory” are revealed here for the first time. They were previously published or shown elsewhere, with some, like “The Warsaw Ghetto Boy” photo having achieved iconic status. Most are from Yad Vashem’s collection of over half a million Holocaust-related photographs (originals and copies).
However, these images are exhibited here in a different light, and in a way that casts a more critical lens on Holocaust-era photography. The exhibition goes beyond the usual emotional response and takes a more cerebral and analytical approach.
“This exhibition is for the brain, not the heart,” said Dr. Daniel Uziel, director of Yad Vashem’s photo archives as he gave this reporter a tour.
The thoughtfulness of the exhibition is highlighted by its creative and intelligent design by Yossi Karni of Design Mill Studio, who said he aimed to make viewers feel as though they are entering a giant camera obscura.
The experience begins before even entering through the doors, with a huge round window resembling a camera lens cut into the wall outside the exhibition. The view from this “lens” leads straight through to a very large round projection at the far end of the exhibition hall, on which are shown clips from Holocaust-era films and quotations about photography.
Along the room’s central axis between these two points are several long light tables covered in hundreds of scattered copies of photographs beginning with Jewish life in Germany and ending with the liquidation of the ghettos.
The visual language of photography and cameras carries over to the exhibition’s black walls inspired by the look and texture of an old Leica camera, as well as by unwound film spools.
Curated by Vivian Uria, “Flashes of Memory,” is organized into three main sections following along a timeline starting from the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany in the 1930s to the trials of Nazi war criminals in the immediate post-war period.
The first section, “Political Photography and Filming in Nazi Germany,” deals with Nazification efforts through visual means. Photographs and film posters related to the making of director Helena “Leni” Riefenstahl‘s propagandistic “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia” films figure prominently.
Photography is also presented as a mirror of growing anti-Semitism. Here we see private and amateur photography reflecting growing anti-Semitism among average Germans, as well as examples of how editors of Der Stürmer, the propagandistic newspaper published independently by Julius Streicher, redacted photographs and accompanying captions to transmit anti-Semitic messages.
The exhibition’s second area deals with photography in the ghettos from two view points — that of the Germans and that of the Jews. Of the tens of thousands of photos from the ghettos, most were taken by German soldiers, either for official Nazi propaganda purposes, or personal objectives.
In some cases, the personal turned propaganda, as can be seen with small snapshots taken by German soldiers on display. The soldiers wrote anti-Semitic commentary about the ghettos and their forced inhabitants on the backs and sent them to Der Stürmer for publication.
In what is arguably the most engrossing part of the exhibition, the work of Jewish photographers in the ghettos is presented. There were few such photographers, as Jews were prohibited from owning and using cameras. Those who did do photography did it in an official capacity, creating images that the Judenrats (Jewish councils set up by the Nazis) could use to prove efficient self-rule and productivity. Indeed, photographers were key players in Jewish survival efforts in the ghettos.
These photographers often took the risk of taking additional photographs for non-official purposes in order to create a more realistic documentation of life in the ghettos.
A stunning example is a shot of photographer Mendel Grossman surreptitiously photographing the deportation of Jews from the Łódź ghetto as a Jewish policeman looks the other way — whether purposely or inadvertently. The photo was taken by Grossman’s assistant Aryeh Ben-Menachem.
Uziel pointed out a page from an underground album prepared by Ben-Menachem in 1943 presenting harsher aspects of ghetto life than those appearing in the official Judenrat statistic reports. Ben-Menachem survived Auschwitz, although his original album did not. The existing copy was believed to have been made in 1944 by members of the Polish Underground after the album made it into their hands.
Zvi Hirsch Kadushin (later, George Kaddosh or Kadish) was the only photographer in the Kovno ghetto, working underground for the Judenrat. He developed techniques for taking pictures through a buttonhole in his coat, and went into hiding with his photos before the liquidation of the ghetto. His photos were exhibited in various locations after the war.
Although the Warsaw ghetto was the largest, the images from the Jewish perspective produced there amount to a fraction of the 14,000 that survived from Łódź.
According to Uziel, Jewish photographers were rarely permitted to work in the Warsaw ghetto. No trace remains of the names of the photographers whose pictures survived the war in the underground “Oneg Shabbat” archives directed by historian Emanuel Ringelblum.
“Early on, the Warsaw ghetto Judenrat called on Polish photographers to do the visual documentation required, like in the case of this 1940 album prepared jointly by the Judenrat and the Joint (JDC) to raise support for the ghetto’s residents,” said Uziel as he pointed to a photo of a truck delivering matzah for Passover, and another of Jews in line to receive aid packages.
The final section of “Flashes of Memory” contains images made by Allied forces as they liberated the Nazi death and labor camps. More than any others, these graphic images have had the greatest hand in shaping the collective memory of the Holocaust over the last seven decades. Among their immediate uses were showing the folks back home what they were fighting for, reeducating the German populace, and creating documentation for the prosecution of war criminals.
Although many of the photographs and films were made in real time as the troops entered the camps and discovered who and what was within, some — like the Dachau ones — were staged at a later date.
The Russians, for instance, arrived at Auschwitz on January 27, 1945 unprepared to create visual documentation, so they brought in official government photographers and international press a week later for a “liberation” photo op.
“They simply put the inmates in their uniforms back inside and closed the gate,” Uziel said.
“Flashes of Memory” is designed by all its creators to provoke questions, including ones about the morality of exhibiting and publishing Holocaust-era images, the majority of them produced by the Nazis.
“It’s the right thing to do, because in many cases it’s all we have to show what happened and the people who were killed,” Uziel said.
Then he walked over to some pages from a diary kept by Rachel Auerbach in the Warsaw ghetto. Auerbach expressed the same sentiment, writing (in Yiddish) in 1942 upon observing filming taking place:
“They should leave a sneak view of the Jewish passersby on the crowded streets in the movie. The faces, the eyes that in future years will shout out in silence. They should all be commemorated; the droves of beggars, the people of yesterday slowing dying from the hardships and starvation in the closed ghetto. And another thing, the main one — they should add the German participants in this drama. They were the lead actors in this play,” she wrote.