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Picture Imperfect

Are there right and wrong ways of looking at Holocaust-era photographs?

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Image from Henryk Ross’s Lodz Ghetto Album, c. 1942. (Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; anonymous gift, 2007; © Art Gallery of Ontario.)
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Almost as soon as the Holocaust ended, a debate erupted over whether, and how, photographs of the catastrophe could or should be viewed. (And even over whether they should have been taken; Robert Capa, for instance, refused to photograph in the death camps as they were liberated by the Allies, and James Agee would not watch newsreels of them.) It is a debate that has gained in vehemence—and, sometimes, vitriol—and that continues to this day. Some critics, photographers, and filmmakers—most notably, Claude Lanzmann—have argued that viewers are bound to have the “wrong” reactions to photographs of cruelty, including contempt for the victims, glib identification, or even a prurient fascination that can border on pleasure. I am not sure, though, what the right reactions would be.

Indeed, the impossibility of reacting to Holocaust photographs “correctly,” spontaneously, or on the basis of ordinary human intuitions is a key to the most diabolical aspect of the Nazi project. It is a key, that is, to the ways in which the victims were shoved into an indecipherable world where normal human instincts became crimes; where the survival of one was predicated on the deaths of others; where previously unthinkable forms of degradation became common; and where the victims were offered maliciously brutal choices that, if made, would annihilate them spiritually before their physical destruction was complete. The Nazis aimed to destroy the victims prior to their deaths, primarily by eradicating the bonds of self-respect, empathy, and mutual dependence that make civilization possible if not always good.

The Nazi project, in short, was something new, something original, something that “did not conform to any model,” as Primo Levi observed. It had two goals: to create a super-man, and to create a sub-man; as such, it was an assault not only on millions of individual human beings but on the very idea of the human being. What is a normal, natural, or appropriate reaction to this?

Photographs from the Nazi period evoke—though obviously in attenuated form—this demented universe, which is why our typical reactions to suffering are frequently upended when we look at them. To see such images is radically disorienting, for it is often hard to decide which kind of Holocaust image is worse: the ones that reveal the horror, or the ones that hide it. A collection of photographs taken by a Polish Jew named Henryk Ross and posthumously published, in 2004, under the title Lodz Ghetto Album epitomizes this confusion.

Ross was born in 1910. Before the war he had been a sports photographer for a Warsaw newspaper, and after imprisonment in the Lodz Ghetto he was one of two photographers employed by the Department of Statistics; in this capacity he took official photographs for the ghetto’s Nazi administration. Surreptitiously, though, he also took thousands of photos that documented the real face of ghetto life and death. Ross and his wife, Stefania, were among the 5 percent of ghetto inmates who survived the Nazi onslaught; after the war they remained in Lodz and then, in 1950, moved to Israel, where Ross worked as a photographer and zincographer. (He testified at the 1961 Eichmann trial, where some of his photographs were entered into evidence.) He died in 1991.

Ross’ crisp photographs look carefully composed, as if the professional standards he had learned in Warsaw had to be upheld at all costs—even if the subject, now, was the destruction of human beings rather than feats of athletic prowess. In the section of the book the editors have called “Public,” Ross portrays the despair and degradation of the ghetto as it was lived in full view of its inhabitants and its occupiers: the filthy, barefoot people on the streets with their battered tin soup bowls; the unburied corpses strewn on the sidewalks; the public executions; the human mules straining as they lugged heavy wagons of excrement (soon the carriers would die of typhus); the mutilated faces, disfigured by deep and bloody gashes, of those killed in the deportation roundup of September 1942, which targeted the young, the old, and the sick. One especially ugly picture of this event shows Jewish policemen grabbing ill people who, slated for transport to the death camps, were desperately trying to escape through the windows of the ghetto hospital. And everywhere in Ross’ images the yellow stars appear, like crazy little sparks of hatred: We see them sewn onto armbands, and onto coats front and back, and hanging on pendants around children’s necks. (Did the Nazis worry that these children would forget they were Jewish?) Even the scarecrow guarding a scrawny plot of ghetto land wears one.

But it is another set of Ross’ photographs, called “Private” and previously unpublished, that cause the biggest shock, though at first one eagerly welcomes them. These photographs are filled with dappled sunshine, laughter, health, and love. Here, for instance, is a photograph of five children who sit on the floor while they eat. Unlike the other children we have seen—stunted, wrinkled figures draped in rags—these kids look like kids. They have smooth, unlined faces and ample skin on their bones; they wear clean clothes, including shoes and socks; they do not look cowed or beaten. One girl, a ribbon in her hair, impishly smiles as she opens her mouth wide for what looks—could it be?—like a nice soup dumpling. A later photograph shows a smiling woman in a polka-dotted bathing suit as she feeds her fat, naked child in a leafy backyard, while another introduces us to a shy little boy with a teddy bear almost as big as he is. Children do especially well in these pictures: They smile and play and are frequently kissed. The grownups seem fine, too. In one photograph we see a score of handsome, nicely dressed revelers at a wedding celebration; seated at a long table loaded with bottles, candlesticks, china, and silverware, they smoke, cheer, and smile.

At first glance these pictures seem wonderfully ordinary and might even suggest that the bad was not all bad. But, even apart from the omnipresent stars, something is terribly wrong. The pictures of happy children, we learn from the text, were probably taken in autumn of 1943: almost a year after most of the ghetto’s children had been deported for immediate gassing at Chelmno. It was primarily the children of the ghetto administrators, and those whose parents had agreed to round up others, who were spared. (What would you do?) Indeed, most of the people in these pictures, who still look healthy and human, were almost certainly members of the ghetto’s so-called elite: policemen, members of the Judenrat, those with money. At worst, they betrayed others, hastening the hideous deaths of their brethren; at best, they were protected from, and apparently inured to, the suffering around them. And one more thing: Within a year almost all of them, and their children, would be murdered too.

How are we to regard such pictures, or, rather, the people in them? Were they monstrously indifferent to others, or tragically ignorant of their own impending fate? Certainly they were victims; were they collaborators too? Do we exult that a few were saved, if only for a short time and at a terrible price? Is it a victory that some were able, almost to the end, to sustain a “normal” family? What does it mean to save one child’s life at the expense of another child’s death? (What would you do?) Do Ross’ photographs show something valiant or something repulsive? In short: How should we act in the “waiting room of Death” (as writer Jean Améry, a survivor of Auschwitz, termed the Jewish ghettoes)? To look at these pictures is to be twisted by such questions, and to know that the answers to them are necessary to seek and yet impossible to find.

Susie Linfield is the director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University, where she is an associate professor of journalism.

Reprinted with permission from The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence by Susie Linfield. © 2010 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

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Intriguing article – presented in a thought-provoking manner.A solid addition to
this week’s TABLET.

Anna Kelman says:

The question of what any of us would have done to save ourselves and our children is impossible to answer. The discrepancies between those Jews who had money and power and those who did not was true for all the ghettos of Europe. And extended into camps when Jews became kapos.

These are chilling photos. And a reminder of the impossible dilemmas that Jews faced during the Holocaust.

After my father died, I discovered photographs he had taken of Nordhausen Concentration Camp when his medical battalion liberated it on April 11, 1945. The four photographs, two of which are very blurred, revealed to me that my father had witnessed a camp, as he had never uttered a word about it. It took me more than a decade to move beyond the shock the photographs created and realize they presented me with clues to his enigmatic temperment. I travelled around the country to interview over seventy other veterans who also liberated camps. The trauma of coming upon the camps with no warning of what they would find there still grips these men and women– almost all of whom, like my father, took photographs of the horror they witnessed. For all of them, the reason to take the photographs was to create evidence, because they all anticipated that “no one would believe this.” They, like General Eisenhower, know that some day deniers would a rise.

The photographs the GIs took provide invaluable documentation, and as difficult as it is for me to look at my father’s and to come to terms with the inheritance they represent, I am grateful that my father did take them. As for so many other children of liberators, the photographs have let me know where my father was, what he witnessed, and that I must do my part to be the hinge between the eyewitnesses and future generations. Photographs will help us carry the memories of the Holocaust forward.

Ross’ photographs show something neither valiant nor repulsive–just the facts of life in the Lodz Ghetto. As many people have noted, the normal calculus of ethical behaviour does not apply in such a life and death situation. Ross and his colleague, Mendel Grossman, survived as long as they did (Grossman dying in 1945, Ross in 1991) because they were the Ghetto’s official photographers, but they also took upon themselves the often-risky business of documenting many aspects of ghetto life, including the lives of the ghetto “elite” for which, undoubtedly, they earned an extra piece of bread. We should not begrudge them that. All Lodz survivors have been looked down upon for supposedly collaborating with the Nazis by working in the ghetto’s factories; this, of course, is mostly nonsense as each and every Jew in the Lodz Ghetto was labouring under the same sentence of death. Many just did not know it for the longest time. We cannot blame ordinary people for not having extraordinary foresight or courage. We should be grateful for all the photographs (including those of the German accountant, Walter Genewein, who made hundreds of colour slides of the Lodz ghetto) and all the journals and diaries and all the material culture that remains from this period. It is a valuable treasure that give us insight into one of the most difficult periods in our history. The photos should be regarded with wonder that they exist at all. None of us know how we would react in the situations that were part of daily life in the Lodz Ghetto, and photographs are not newspaper reports and rarely can be relied on for moral judgements or even instruction.

John Bias says:

I really love my jew people right now. I am Son of King David Bloodline and Son of Cain Bloodline… I bless my Master Hashem who owns my soul right now.. I am Demicreator… I able to create the future for my Master Hashem.. I must bow to My Master Hashem right now…

Joseph Rones says:

Are we, indeed, not descendents of Able, but rather Cain?

pesach avram says:

thank you for examining the confused emotional subtext of holocaust photos. they are historical documents, pornography, factual, accomplices, and play
a host of other conflicting roles . part of the horror is that even after 65 years we cannot easily understand or accept or integrate their meaning, which is ultimately perhaps a saving grace, and warning.

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Picture Imperfect

Are there right and wrong ways of looking at Holocaust-era photographs?

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