Images from the Holocaust
In the sense of a culture of remembrance 4.0, projects in the funding priority "Education in digital learning spaces" include the effects of digital change on historical-political education on National Socialist injustice and develop exemplary new remembrance practices. The following is a discussion of these challenges and ways to address them.
Numerous images that have survived from the time of the Holocaust show people from the perspective of the perpetrator. From today’s vantage point, they raise ethical questions: Should photographs that were taken with racist, antisemitic, or misogynistic intent still be shown at all, and—if so—how and in what context? Does the source address only the image or also the view? How are such photographs presented in exhibitions and what happens to us viewers in the process? Experts address these questions from two perspectives in a debate contribution: The team of the #LastSeen project, Dr. Alina Bothe, Dr. Christoph Kreutzmüller and Katharina Menschick, discusses the results of their work in the context of the Image Atlas. Jonathan Matthews reports on his experiences as head of photo archives of Yad Vashem.
Dr. Alina Bothe, Dr. Christoph Kreutzmüller and Katharina Menschick:
A harmless black and white photo? Four people are standing on the edge of a square in front of a building that, on closer inspection, turns out to be a train station. They carry light luggage and look directly at the photographer. Passers-by, including two soldiers, walk behind them. So far, so good. In times of war, soldiers on home leave populated the trains and stations of the German Reich.
However, the stars that the people in the foreground wear on their clothes show that this is by no means a harmless farewell photo from a family context. The picture shows a deportation. It comes from a four-part series that Hanns Töpfer created for the war chronicle of his hometown Weiden. It is labeled with the brief sentence "Departure of the last Jews from Weiden and the surrounding area on April 3, 1942.” The people in the picture were deported to Piaski via Regensburg and murdered there. As part of the research for the project #LastSeen, which was funded in its first phase by the Education Agenda NS-Injustice, we included the photo in the Image Atlas we created, contextualized and annotated it.
Prior to its extermination of the Jews, the Nationalist Socialist regime also denied them the right to their own image. The National Socialists turned the persecuted into lawless objects of internal documentation, chronicles and performance records. The deported people were photographed against their will, even if, as in this case, this may not be immediately obvious. They were then abducted in front of their neighbors and often murdered on arrival in ghettos, camps or at a shooting pit.
May we show such photos today? Even though we started with the goal of collecting and showing such photos in a digital Image Atlas, we have given a lot of thought to the question, and have exchanged ideas with numerous colleagues. We think it is important to show these pictures. They are evidence that the deportations often took place in the middle of the day and before the eyes of many spectators. At the same time, they are in many cases the last photographs that show the deported people still alive. Some of the pictures were later found by survivors and family members of those murdered and given to the archives, where they are now available to us.
The central question is how to present these photographs. We were interested in finding a form of presentation from which a critical view of the images and their creation could emerge. As a result, each photograph is extensively contextualized, with markers that can be used to access additional information. One focus is on the names and biographies of the persecuted persons. Viewers of the Weiden photos, for example, will learn from the Atlas that Willy "Otto" and Rosa Hausmann and their children Hermann and Wilhelm are in the foreground. The perpetrators and bystanders who appear in many of the pictures are also identified when the information is known.
They are images that reveal the structural violence of persecution by showing barely visible violence. Deportation photographs from the Third Reich are often not "icons of extermination,” but images whose violence must first be revealed. With the knowledge of the history of the Hausmann family, it is no longer a harmless picture, but a picture of extermination that must be shown and seen. It shows an act that will not disappear by not being shown. But where are the limits? Do we reproduce images that show certain degradations of the victims of persecution, that contain antisemitic motifs? Yes, we do, in each case with an appropriate contextualization. In this context, we have to think about the digital possibilities of representation: are there forms of representation that correspond to the photographs as historical sources of the Shoah and the Porajmos, and at the same time dispel the dehumanizing perpetrator’s view of those persecuted?
The collection of photographs of NS deportations presented in the #LastSeen Image Atlas is incomplete in many respects. The deportations were preceded by years of persecution, which remain invisible in the photographs. Few show the perspective of the victims. Also, pictures of only a fraction of the deportations from the German Reich have been documented. Text tiles on the Atlas’s home page aim to make these gaps visible.
We are aware that the design of the Image Atlas cannot provide a definitive answer to the question of an ethically appropriate representation of (covertly) violent photographs. This is a question that needs to be asked and answered repeatedly, also by the viewers. It is a matter of looking closely, reflecting, understanding, and remembering. What do these images mean—historically, but also in the here and now? Ethics of showing are always closely related to ethics of looking.
Due to requests from the public, the exhibition of two photos at the memorial’s museum has been questioned: the undressing of women before they were shot in Liepāja, Latvia, in December 1941, and a frightened undressed woman running from her attackers during the Lviv pogrom in July 1941. In most cases, such censorship requests come from religious groups that feel their religious perspective is not respected in the portrayal. In recent years, however, requests have increasingly come from women’s organizations cautioning that depicting women who were subjected to sexual violence is demeaning to the victim. This sparked a lively debate at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.
One argument for removing the photos was based on the fact that depicting women in this context is disrespectful to them and their families. More importantly, people who have suffered sexual violence often wish to avoid publicity about the crime. Arguments in favor of displaying the photos focused on the need to preserve and show historical evidence, particularly in the former Soviet Union, where evidence of National Socialist crimes is scarce. For this reason, Holocaust victims have often spoken in favor of display. In the photo archives of Yad Vashem, it is rare for photos to be censored for ethical reasons. In two cases, it was decided to censor images that were supposed to appear on the website: 1) exceptionally gruesome images of body parts and 2) an album showing soldiers raping and murdering a woman as a group.
In contrast to these cases, the photographs mentioned earlier are among the best-known and most important documents of the Holocaust and are available in many forums both online and in print. Both sides—those for and those against portrayal—try to take the perspective of a victim who can no longer speak for themselves. Perhaps this is a mistake: it is not possible from today’s perspective to represent a victim objectively. Censorship of material is usually more about the values and ideologies of an existing generation than about indisputable philosophical ethics. This could be related to the fact that in the 21st century, we can no longer tolerate some images in the way that one could a generation or two ago.
But this assumption can also be questioned. During his recent visit to Yad Vashem, a well-known activist for the commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre argued for the preservation of the images, saying that they could support the victims in Bosnia in their desire to make their story more visible. This suggests that the generational question is also based on a distance from what is happening, and not only on contemporary ethical discourses. The younger the generation, the greater its sensitivity and commitment to treating those affected by violence with respect.
We should not lose sight of a crucial question in such a debate: Where can a boundary be drawn sensibly and individually? When making a fundamental decision for or against a representation, one runs the risk of presenting events such as the Holocaust without including what might be the most decisive aspect—namely as a story of mass murder, violence, and rape. It is likely that each generation will have to find this balance anew.