Photography during the Holocaust: Contrasting Perspectives

In a time of rising anti-Semitism, and a rapidly dwindling number of remaining Holocaust survivors, raising awareness of the horrors they endured is one of humanity’s essential responsibilities.

Photographer Mendel Grossman developing photographs in the ghetto of Lodz (Yad Vashem Archives)
Photographer Mendel Grossman developing photographs in the ghetto of Lodz (Yad Vashem Archives)

Museums are equally faced with the task of finding new ways to interest the public in learning about difficult facts.

“Flashes of Memory: Photography during the Holocaust” is an exhibition that successfully manages to tie the past with the present. The Instagram generation, used to seeing well-curated self-optimization photos that are perfectly staged through filters and digitally enhanced, will discover through this exhibition that photography in the Nazi era was already used as a tool to manipulate public opinion, But also service. As essential documentation of atrocities for subsequent war crimes trials.

Exposing the ‘manipulative power’ of the camera

First shown at Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, “Flashes of Remembrance: Photography Devours the Holocaust” has now left Israel for the first time and is currently on display at the Museum of Photography in Berlin.

“The camera, with its manipulative power, has great impact and far-reaching impact,” Vivian Uriah, director of the Yad Vashem Museum Division, pointed out when the exhibition opened in 2018. While “photography pretends to reflect reality, it is actually an interpretation of it,” she said.

The three-part exhibition offers three different perspectives: photographs taken by the Nazis, photographs taken by Jewish photographers, and photographs taken by soldiers of the army that liberated Germany from the Nazis.

Pictures of children used for antisemitic attacks

The Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, which had been stoking anti-Semitic outrage since the 1920s, for example printed pictures of Jewish men sitting together in a pub and accused them of conspiracy. It even used pictures of children to claim that Jews had a basic instinct.

Beginning in 1932, the anti-Semitic tabloid began using the subtitle, “German Weekly for the Struggle for Truth.”

During the war, the propaganda paper published photographs sent by Wehrmacht soldiers taken in ghettos in occupied Poland, captioning them with anti-Semitic remarks.

Jewish photographers also took pictures in the ghettos. They were appointed by the so-called Judenräte (Jewish councils). These Jewish municipal administrations were appointed by the occupiers and were required to implement Nazi policy. The photographs were intended to document how “efficiently” the ghettos were run, while the councils actually forced Jewish residents to hand them over for forced labor or deportation to concentration camps. The extensive photographic documentation was intended to prove to the Nazis that Jewish labor was indispensable.

Although expressly forbidden by the Judenräte, some commissioned photographers risked their lives to use their cameras to depict the suffering and horror in the ghettos.

Heinrich Ross, who took photographs in the Lodz ghetto, is quoted as saying that he knew that his family members would be tortured and killed if he was caught taking photographs.

Meanwhile, the Nazis relied on anti-Semitic stereotypes to portray the ghettos as production facilities where “lazy Jews” were taught to work.

The exhibition shows the imbalance between the powerful mass media Nazi propaganda industry, including the elaborately staged films by Leni Riefenstahl, and the life-threatening efforts of a handful of individuals trying to provide correctives. “This is an extraordinary example of human will,” said Vivian Uriah.

Some of these photographs survived destruction by being buried or hidden, and would later serve as evidence in Nazi war crimes trials.

Ally’s pictures served their own purposes

Another section of the exhibition is dedicated to photographs taken by allied soldiers. As they liberated the concentration camps, they documented the horrors of the Holocaust. Through piles of corpses, or photographs of the extremely emaciated bodies of survivors, the planned destruction of human life can no longer be denied.

Annoying and disturbing, pictures of allies are naturally classified as pictures taken by “good people”. But it should still be noted that their images sometimes served their own purposes: many images of people behind barbed wire fences in the Auschwitz concentration camp, waiting to be freed, were staged for the cameras.

The iconic image of a Red Army soldier hoisting a Soviet flag on the roof of the Reichstag building on May 2, 1945, the day of Berlin’s military surrender, serves as a famous example of how post-processing can tarnish the power of a historical documentary. Photo.

The Soviet Red Army photographer who took the shot, Yevgeny Khaldei, scratched one of the two wristwatches worn by the soldier from the photo negative, as it was a sign of looting—and the liberators must not have suspected looting.

The Soviet News Agency later added a cloud of smoke to the shot, darkening it and enlarging the flag to give the image more drama.

The show highlights the manipulative power of images from all angles. “Flashes of Memory” is on display at the Museum of Photography through August 20, 2023.

This article was originally written in German.

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