Robert Hirsch, theme editor, is a photo-base artist, curator, educator, historian and author of Seizing the Light: A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography; Light and Lens: Thinking About Photography in the Digital Age; Photographic Possibilities: The Expressive Use of Concepts, Ideas, Equipment, Ideas, Materials, and Processes; Exploring Color: From Film to Pixels and Transformational Imagemaking: Handmade Photography Since 1960 plus numerous articles and interviews. Hirsch’s work has been exhibited in over 200 international solo and group shows plus he has curated innumerable exhibitions. He is a former director of CEPA and Southern Light Galleries. More at: www.lightresearch.net
Origins of the Holocaust and Photography’s Role in its Interpretation
“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous.
More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
Primo Levi’s If This is A Man (1947)
Photography and the Holocaust: Then & Now a journal theme that will examine over a number of essays photography’s changing role in documenting, interpreting, and understanding the Holocaust (Shoah). It will assess how photographs are an element in a larger systemic universe, deriving from multiple personal and community economic/political/psychological/social and technical perspectives, and how these viewpoints affect a photograph’s construction and how this directs its interpretation and circulation.The essays in this theme include references to film and photographs.
Photographs are excellent at reproducing Renaissance linear perspective and its aesthetics, but are not good at explaining what is actually happening. This is because photographic meaning is fluid and depends on its surrounding context, including the reader of the image and the historical moment as well as text, other images, and audio. The aforementioned cultural cues prompt how photographic images are understood and meaning is constructed.
Today we recognize that this ambiguity makes photographs unreliable as historic witnesses. However, when the Holocaust photographs were made most people accepted that photographs, especially such “documentary photographs,” were mirrors of reality. As a result, photo-based images have played and continue to play an enormous role in how the public comprehends the Holocaust. Also, this points to a divide with academics who are more responsive to the elusiveness of photographic meaning and the everyday cultural grasp of history.
The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah (Hebrew for catastrophe), was the genocide of European Jews carried out by Nazi Germany and their enablers during World War II. The Holocaust did not happen in a vacuum. It was the result of a combination of economic collapse, political rivalries with unintended consequences, and nationalism that fed into the world’s oldest form of racism: antisemitism [i] – the hatred of Jews that was fueled for over a thousand years by Christian Churches. [ii]
Paul Johnson has argued that antisemitism is a “disease of the mind,” a hatred so peculiar that it deserves a category of its own.[iii] It’s a disease of contradiction and irrationality.
Simultaneously, Jews are covetous capitalists and conniving communists; Christ-killing religious fanatics and godless atheists; superhuman rulers of the world who drink the blood of Christians (Blood Libel),[iv] and subhuman leeches of society. It has been said that if the Jews did not exist people would invent them so they would not have to take responsibility for their failures and problems.
Beginning in the nineteenth century some German and other European writers, philosophers, and theologians claimed that the presence of a Jewish minority in society was a chronic problem that must be solved. This “Jewish Question”[v] became the subject of heated debate in a time when Jews were gradually being granted civil rights and equality after centuries of unrelenting antisemitism that included being abused, banished, confined to ghettos, and murdered. More at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/myth-of-jews-killing-christian-children-persists-says-new-book-on-blood-libel/
The Scientification of the “Jewish Question” in Nazi Germany
The Scientification of the “Jewish Question” in Nazi Germany describes the attempt of a considerable number of German scholars to counter the vanishing influence of religious prejudices against the Jews with a new antisemitic rationale. Due to secularization, old, anti-Jewish religious stereotypes became ineffective so new explanations were needed to justify the dangers of Judaism. In the 1930s a new German research field called “Judenforschung” (Jew research) emerged. (more at: “Neurologists’ Role in Nazi “Racial Hygiene” Only Now Comes to Light,” Scientific America, October 24, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/neurologists-role-in-nazi-racial-hygiene-only-now-comes-to-light/) Its leading German proponents merged racial and religious typecasts to verify the existence of an everlasting “Jewish problem” with sham academic concepts for its solution.)
Some who supported this intolerance expected Jews to adapt or abandon their customs, behavior, traditions, and even religion in order to assimilate into Christian society. However, others denied that conversion or acculturation were real “solutions.” Rather, they believed that Jews were a separate “race,” whose activities, beliefs, and persona, were toxic and unchangeable and needed to be cleansed from Europe. (more at: “Extermination Camp,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/
Man having his nose measured
The Nazis goal was to solve the Jewish Question. Their answer was “The Final Solution.”[i] Between 1941 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its numerous collaborators systematically murdered about six million Jews across German-occupied Europe, which was about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population. The organized bureaucratic slaughters were carried out in programs and mass shootings; by government policy of extermination through slave labor in concentration camps, and in mobile gas vans and chambers in German extermination camps, mainly in Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka and in occupied Poland.[vii])
Boy from Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
Despite the universalization of the Holocaust, documentary photographic evidence shows that it was a unique government lead extermination program, on a coordinated industrial level, specifically designed to solve the Jewish Question. It even led to the creation of a new word Genocide—to describe its monstrous human and societal consequences. Aftermaths included the “Death of God” movement that challenged the notion of a cosmos-controlling God while German philosopher Theodor Adorno declared: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. And this corrodes even the knowledge of why it has become impossible to write poetry today.”[viii] The point being that neither gods nor humans could impose meaning on the incomprehensibility of existence.
The Holocaust is the first deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group to be extensively documented from multiple perspectives including the perpetrators, by-standers., and victims. Holocaust scholar Marianne Hirsch (not a relation) estimates the total number of surviving Holocaust-related photographs at over two million.(1) Many photographs were destroyed, some accidentally, during the war, others on purpose, by perpetrators of the atrocities to suppress the evidence. Conversely, the Nazis desire to control the writing of their own histories resulted in some Nazi photographs being stolen, hidden, and preserved as evidence of atrocities and used as evidence during the Nuremberg Trials (1945—1946) and subsequent US military tribunals.(2) Photographic examples include images by Spanish photographer and Mauthausen concentration camp inmate Francisco Boix and Joe J. Heydecker, a German author and journalist who photographed the Warsaw Ghetto during 1941 and 1942 as a German solider in spite of the Nazi ban issued in 1941 on independent photographers and the Stroop Report (The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw is No More!) on the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto (1943).(3)
- Marianne Hirsch, “Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory,” The Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2001, pp. 5-37.
- The Nuremberg Trials: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-stroop-report-may-1943
- Stroop Report: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-stroop-report-may-1943 and https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fb/Stroop_Report_photographs_-_Warsaw_copy.pdf
The photographs made under Nazi supervision raise the uncomfortable questions– how could people in a culturally and scientifically advanced democracy have fallen for ideas that were so cruelly wrong? What does their participation and complicity in the systematic dehumanization and murder of their colleagues and neighbors tell us about the difficulty of undoing the effects of long-term discrimination and persecution?
The challenge for every other picturemaker was visualizing conditions that verge on the limits of representation. Every photograph, regardless of who or what was being depicted, became a metonymical symbol of an evil, historical truth that rarely depicted annihilation itself.
Psychology these photographs demonstrate our disposition for bravery and compassion, even for those we do not know. There are accounts of individuals who stood up to protect Jews and other victims of the Holocaust. Examples include the Kindertransport project,[xii] those who sheltered at-risk families, while others spoke out, at great personal risk, when Jews were dehumanized.
Originally, the Holocaust was understood mainly from official sources (photographs, films, written records), especially Nazi documents based on the German obsession with documenting and counting their genocidal portrayal of Jews as untermenschs (an inferior race of people) who are responsible for all of society’s ills. It should be noted that antisemetic images predate photography, dating back to illuminated manuscripts and early printed broadsides circa 1475. As a result of Gutenberg’s printing press, these early printed works proliferated on the continent and provided millions of people the issues, iconography, and vocabulary that would mold negative public thinking about Jews.
Der Untermensch/The Subhuman
The Nazis had the resources to make in-depth use of this toxic visual history through all forms of media including moving and still photography. The Nazis showed a frightening understanding that by rewriting the past and controlling the narrative of history they could maintain their position of authority. In recent years, this official perspective has widened to include personal accounts that demonstrate resistance and heroism. However, today hateful actions can go viral via the Internet with global affects including providing the means for hate groups to more easily organize. What is intuitively at stake in such diametrically opposed views can be summed up by George Orwell in his dystopian social science fiction novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”[xiii]
Working from the premise that history is a mirror against which we view the present, this project will examine a highly select variety of photographic perspectives, both past and present, which will act as representatives for the much broader field.
In the era of Holocaust denial,[xiv] Fake News[xv] and Deep Fakes,[xvi] such photo-based images ask us to mediate on complex issues that caused the Holocaust. Constructively, this can discourage us from so easily being seduced by tribal self-interest in which loyalty takes precedence over truth, but instead strive to critically examine issues and images before making a conclusion, and to recognize ourselves in others.
Future threads in this theme include:
* Holocaust Photographic Perspectives
* Nazi Propaganda & Holocaust: Film and Media
* Henryk Ross: Life Inside the Lodz Ghetto – Hero or Kapo?
* How History is Constructed as a Social & Political Act by Tomasz Strug, Deputy Director & Chief Curator of the Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków, Poland.
* Children of the Holocaust
*Post-Holocaust Generation/Secondary Memory
* Holocaust Memories: Survivors, Memorials, Amateurs, and a Glimpse into the Future
* Media’s History on reporting about the Holocaust & antisemtism
* Summary and Conclusion
[i] The compound word antisemite was popularized by German anti-Jewish political agitator Wilhelm Marr in 1879 as a more palatable, pseudo-scientific sounding term for Judenhass, or “Jew-hatred.” In his 1880 bestselling propagandist pamphlet, “The Way to Victory of the Germanic Spirit over the Jewish Spirit” and the League of Antisemites, the first organization committed to combating the alleged Jewish takeover of Germany and German culture. Marr embraced the popular belief that Jews were a separate, sub-human “Semitic race” from white Europeans and must regarded as a nation with its own distinct culture and laws, rather than a religious group. This stigmatizing term is specific to Jews, and does not refer to other groups. The term is nothing more than a deceitful way of providing cover for Jew Hatred. It is a conspiracy-theoretic belief that the Jews are to blame for all that is wrong in the world.
[ii] Philissa Cramer, “British Jews to get apology 800 years after antisemitic expulsion,” Jerusalem Post, July 14, 2021, https://www.jpost.com/diaspora/british-jews-to-get-apology-800-years-after-antisemitic-expulsion-673763
[iii] Paul Johnson, “The Anti-Semitic Disease,” Commentary, June 2005, www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/paul-johnson-3/the-anti-semitic-disease/
[iv] Accusations that Jews ritually killed Christian children emerged in the mid-twelfth century, following the death of twelve-year-old William of Norwich, England, in 1144. Later, continental Europeans claimed Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood for ritual purposes. While charges that Jews poisoned wells and desecrated the communion host decreased over the years, the blood libel survived. See: Magda Teter, Blood Libel: On the Trail of an Antisemitic Myth, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020.
[v] “The Jewish Question,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_question
[vi] “The Final Solution,” https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-final-solution
[vii] “Extermination Camp,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extermination_camp
[viii] Theodor W. Adorno, “Cultural Criticism and Society,” 1951, in Prisms: Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought, translated from the German by Samuel and Shierry Weber, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1982), p. 34.
[ix] Marianne Hirsch, “Surviving Images: Holocaust Photographs and the Work of Postmemory,” The Yale Journal of Criticism, Volume 14, Number 1, Spring 2001, pp. 5-37.
[x] The Nuremberg Trials: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-stroop-report-may-1943
[xi] Stroop Report: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-stroop-report-may-1943 and https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/fb/Stroop_Report_photographs_-_Warsaw_copy.pdf
[xii] The Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) was an organized rescue effort in which some 10,000 predominantly Jewish children were rescued from Nazi occupied territories and transported to Britain, where they were subsequently housed and adopted by families.
[xiii] George Orwell, 1984, London: Secker & Warburg, 1949, p. 44.
[xiv] Claire Leibowicz. “Preparing for a World of Holocaust Deepfakes,” Tablet, May 4, 2021. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/holocaust-denial-deepfakes-
[xv] “Fake News, Lies and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction,” https://guides.lib.umich.edu/fakenews
[xvi] Joseph Foley, “14 deepfake examples that terrified and amused the internet,” Creative BLOQ, June 01, 2021, https://www.creativebloq.com/features/deepfake-examples
Additional information on figures
Polish poster advertising the antisemitic propaganda pamphlet, Śmiertelny wróg Chrześcijaństwa [Mortal Enemy of Christianity], written by Zbigniew Kowalewski in 1943. The image is based on an illustration by Philipp Rupprecht, which was published in the antisemitic German newspaper, Der Stürmer, in 1937. The poster has an image of a crucifix, in front of a background of buildings that appear to be on fire with a large image of a Jewish man looming over the scene. The man has a large nose and ears, hooded eyes, and fleshy lips; all stereotypical physical features commonly attributed to Jewish men. The crucifix is a reference to the deicide myth, which falsely blames and condemns Jews for the death of Jesus Christ, and for rejecting his teachings. The pamphlet’s cover is illustrated with the same image as the poster. The pamphlet details the alleged relationship between Jews and Christianity, and falsely claims that Jews spread ideas of world revolution. Both themes are displayed in the image; the crucifixion represents the adversarial relationship between Jews and Christianity, and the burning buildings represent revolution. Jewish conspiracies of world domination and revolution are longstanding antisemitic canards used by the Nazis and other groups to justify Jewish persecution. The pamphlet was part of a series of Nazi propaganda literature produced in German occupied Poland during World War II.
Blood Libel is the false accusation that Jews ritually killed Christian children for their blood. Gutenberg’s printing press gave millions of people access to new forms of printed information, including fake blood libel accounts. Simon of Trento became the first “poster boy” for the deadly canard and more than 500 years later there are still white supremacists involved in his cult. More at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/myth-of-jews-killing-christian-children-persists-says-new-book-on-blood-libel/
Image credit: Unknown artist. Simon of Trento, 1475. Woodcut. Public domain.
The Nazis enacted the Nuremberg Laws, because they wanted to put their ideas about race into law. They believed in the false theory that the world is divided into distinct races that are not equally strong and valuable. The Nazis considered Germans to be members of the supposedly superior “Aryan” race. They saw the so-called Aryan German race as the strongest, and most valuable race of all. According to the Nazis, Jews were not Aryans. They thought Jews belonged to a separate race that was inferior to all other races. The Nazis believed that the presence of Jews in Germany threatened the German people. They believed they had to separate Jews from other Germans to protect and strengthen Germany. The Nuremberg Laws were a major step towards legalizing discrimination.
Corinna Hartmann and Andreas Jahn. “Neurologists’ Role in Nazi “Racial Hygiene” Only Now Comes to Light,” Scientific America, October 24, 2017.
Taken during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, a boy holds his hands over his head while SS- Rottenführer Josef Blösche points a submachine gun in his direction. The boy and others hid in a bunker during the final liquidation of the ghetto, but they were caught and forced out by German troops. After the photograph was taken, all of the Jews in the photograph were marched to the Umschlagplatz (collection point) and deported to Majdanek (Lublin) or Treblinka extermination camps. This photograph has become an iconic symbol of the over one million Jewish children murdered by the Germans.
Credit: Unknown photographer. Boy from Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, 1943. Gelatin silver print. The Jürgen Stroop Report to
Heinrich Himmler, May 1943.
Warsaw Ghetto uprising: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Warsaw_Ghetto_Uprising
Josef Blösche: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Bl%C3%B6sche
Photographs from the Jürgen Stroop Report:
Figure 1.8 Francisco Boix
A prisoner lies dead on Mauthausen’s electrified fence. Thousands of images like this were smuggled out of the camp in the final days of World War II and used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials. More at: https://elpais.com/elpais/2015/05/11/album/1431356745_951078.html#foto_gal_3
Francisco Boix. Dead prisoner on Mauthausen’s electrified fence, circa 1944.
More at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Boix
Additional Information: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francisco_Boix
Figure 1.9 Kindertranspor
Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) was the informal name of a series of rescue efforts which brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1940. More at: https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/kindertransport-1938-40
Credit: Unknown photographer. Refugee Jewish children arrive in Great Britain from Nazi Germany, circa 1938—1940. Public domain.
Figure 1.10 Der Untermensch/The Subhuman
Cover of the Nazi Jew hating propaganda leaflet Der Untermensch (The Subhuman). More at: http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/holoprelude/deruntermensch.html
Credit: Unknown artist. Der Untermensch, 1942. Public domain.
Long before the deep fakes of digital imaging, this photograph of six huddling Jews being terrorized by German soldiers in Ukraine was utilized for Holocaust denial. In 1962, a far-right West German newspaper claimed it was a fake that had been staged by Polish communists to unjustly depict German war crimes. The fraudulent claim was finally discredited in 1965. This incident demonstrates that the core problem with Holocaust Denial is not just identifying the lies, but ascertaining what are the facts since the most malicious lies often contain kernels of truth. Credit: Unknown photographer. Ivanhorod Einsatzgruppen, Ukraine, 1942. Wiki Commons. Additional information: Claire Leibowicz. “Preparing for a World of Holocaust Deepfakes,” Tablet, May 4, 2021. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/holocaust-denial-deepfakes-misinformation-claire-leibowicz
This theme is supported by the following organizations and individuals:
VASA: Roberto Muffoletto, Director
CEPA Gallery, Buffalo, NY USA: Véronique Côté, Executive Director & Chief Curator
Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków, Poland: Tomasz Strug, Deputy Director and Chief Curator
Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo, Buffalo, NY USA: Elizabeth Schram, Director
Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo, Buffalo, NY USA: Katie Wzontek, Cultural Arts Director