Struggle for Visibility: Photography in the Holocaust

When the Königs Wusterhausen satellite camp was evacuated at the end of April 1945, photographer Mendel Grossmann began a march into the unknown. Sick and emaciated, he was shot by his guards just before the end of the war at the age of 32. He carried his camera with him until the last moment.

A photo from the Lodz ghetto shows how Grossmann secretly photographed a train of people waiting to be transported to another camp behind the back of a folder. At that moment he risked his life and that of his family. The Lodz Jewish Council had expressly forbidden him to take private photos in the Jewish ghetto set up under German occupation. Grossmann had to live there with his family from 1940.

Grossmann buried the photos from the ghetto

The Judenrat had elaborate folders with statistics and photos created in the hope of convincing the German occupiers of the efficiency of the administration and the economic benefits of the ghetto. In addition to these commissioned works, Grossmann and his colleague Henryk Ross secretly took thousands of photos, which they buried before the liquidation of the ghetto in 1944 and saved them from destruction.

The sympathetic view of Jewish photographers on the victims of Nazi crimes is an invaluable corrective to the flood of images that were commissioned by the perpetrators. Shortly after the invasion of Poland, the Reich Ministry of Propaganda instructed the photo reporters to provide material for “anti-Semitic education”.

Exhibition view from the Museum of Photography.
© National Museums in Berlin / David von Becker

Well-equipped press photographers and members of the Wehrmacht and SS propaganda companies mercilessly portrayed the Jews crammed together in ghettos as members of an inferior race. They were photographed doing forced labor and the photos were distributed under the motto “The Jew learns to work”.

False evidence and propaganda

A color photo from the Warsaw ghetto from 1941 shows street vendors in front of ruins, with a warning sign above them: “Disease restricted area”. The following year, movie people scoured the streets for ghetto dwellers who didn’t look starving. They were taken to a restaurant for a supposedly documentary film scene. The aim was to show how a few wealthy Jews could live well at the expense of the starving masses in the ghetto.

Wehrmacht soldiers also took photos of the miserable creatures in the ghettos and sent them by field post with anti-Semitic comments to the Nazi inflammatory newspaper Der Stürmer.

Display board with photos of the liberation of the concentration camps, shown during the hearings of the International Court of Justice in Nuremberg, 1945/46.
Display board with photos of the liberation of the concentration camps, shown during the hearings of the International Court of Justice in Nuremberg, 1945/46.
© Yad Vashem Archives

Hundreds of photos from various sources lie on long light tables in the middle of the exhibition “Flashes of Memory – Photography in the Holocaust”, which was developed by the Yad Vashem Memorial in 2018. They are framed by chapters that critically examine the context in which they came about.

The importance of photo and film propaganda for the stabilization of Nazi rule is remembered, as well as the compliant film productions of Leni Riefenstahl and Hitler’s personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann. At the end of the course, almost unbearable footage from the concentration camps circulated by the Allies can be seen. The visual documentation of the atrocities was intended to show the world the moral superiority of the victors over the Nazi regime. The photos and films also served as evidence for later war crimes trials.

The critical perspective on the interests that guided the photographic documentation does not diminish the impact of the images. We only ever see the incomprehensible frozen and filtered, each from the perspective of the perpetrator, victim and victor. Those who know about it look more consciously, more closely and longer. Until the abyss you look into is unbearable.

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Source: Tagesspiegel

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