Friday, June 2, 2023

Photographs from the Holocaust

image: Warsaw Ghetto Memorial 1948 (detail)

An earlier post analyzed Wendy Lower's stunningly original treatment of a single photograph of a 1941 mass killing in the town of Miropol, Ukraine (link). The photograph captures the murder of a Ukrainian Jewish mother and her child by German soldiers and Ukrainian militiamen. After extensive investigation Lower was able to determine the identities of the victim, several of the killers, and the photographer. Like many photos documenting the atrocities of the Holocaust, this photograph was taken by a member of the German armed forces, a Slovak named Lubomir Škrovina. Initially Lower takes him to be an accomplice or collaborator, but eventually discovers that he was a dissident and a supporter of the Slovak resistance movement. She finds that Škrovina was concerned to record for the outside world the atrocities he witnessed under German occupation. In fact, Škrovina was a resister, not a collaborator.

Now consider some of the best-known photographs from the Holocaust and their provenance. Some of these images come from the merciless destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto following the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. A largescale aktion was planned by the SS to put down the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in early 1943. The action was conducted by SS-Brigadeführer Jürgen Stroop, and it resulted in the deaths of 13,000 Jewish residents immediately. In the aftermath almost all of the 50,000 survivors were dispatched to the death camps of Majdanek and Treblinka.

We must ask a crucial question: how do we happen to have these photographs? Because the Nazi state was interested in documenting the success of its plans to exterminate the Jews of Poland and all of Europe. These photos were taken by a German military photographer at the orders of Stroop, to record the "efficiency" and completeness of the operation. Triumphal volumes of these photos were subsequently conveyed to Himmler and to the supreme commander of the SS, and eventually the collection of photos made their way into the Nuremberg trials. Originally titled "The Jewish Quarter of Warsaw Is No More!", the collection is now referred to as the "Stroop Report".

Perhaps the most powerful and widely known photograph of the Holocaust comes from the Stroop collection, the "Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto" image (reproduced below). It is an emotionally wrenching image of a group of adults and children with their hands raised being forced out of a Warsaw bunker by German soldiers. In the center of the image is a boy, apparently 8-10 years old, with his hands raised, and a German soldier in the background with a submachine gun aimed in his direction. The tragic inevitability of this group of innocent human beings at the power of ruthless armed men is a powerful emblem of the cruelty and remorselessness of the Holocaust. And what about the Nazi soldier? His identity is now known. His name was SS-Rottenführer Josef Blösche, and he was a notorious genocider who had joined the Nazi Party in 1938. This was no "ordinary man" along the lines of the policemen treated in Christopher Browning's study of Reserve Police Battalion 101 (link). (Blösche appears in several photos in the Stroop collection.) Blösche was convicted of war crimes, including murder of some 2,000 people, and was executed in Leipzig (GDR) in 1969. During his trial he was questioned about the moment captured in this photograph:

Judge: "You were with a submachine gun...against a small boy that you extracted from a building with his hands raised. How did those inhabitants react in those moments?"

Blösche: "They were in tremendous dread."

Judge: "This reflects well in that little boy. What did you think?"

Blösche: "We witnessed scenes like these daily. We could not even think." (Dan Porat, The Boy: A Holocaust Story (Hebrew). Dvir, 2013; quoted in Wikipedia (link))

Here are three especially powerful images from the Stroop file, including the "Boy in the Warsaw Ghetto". Blösche appears in the first and third images, and may also figure in the second image.

These are historically important images of a tragic moment in history. But they raise a difficult question: how should photographs like these be used? They are doubly charged with moral valence: they depict tragic and evil events in which pain and death are imposed on innocent people; they were produced by the perpetrators of that evil history; and they were produced for the purpose of glorifying the "successes" of the Nazi plan of extermination. All of the civilians in these photos are almost certainly doomed -- either immediately in the streets of Warsaw or in the death camps of Majdanek and Treblinka. So how can we treat these photos with the dignity that their human subjects deserve, while at the same time allowing the viewer to learn important aspects of the history of the Shoah that urgently need to be understood? (Recall the profound insights Wendy Lower reached in her analysis of an equally powerful and tragic image.)

Perhaps the question answers itself: treat images like these with the respect and dignity that the subjects deserve; and do so solely for purposes that lead to greater understanding of these terrible events -- not for entertainment, not for extraneous "marketing" purposes. For example, the World Wrestling Entertainment corporation recently used footage from Auschwitz to advertise an upcoming match. The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum released a compelling statement: “Exploiting the site that became a symbol of enormous human tragedy is shameless and insults the memory of all victims of Auschwitz”. WWE subsequently apologized (link).

We could say the same about careless and unthinking uses of these black-and-white photographs for purposes other than respectful understanding and remembrance.

(A full file of the Stroop Report photos is available here. Here are brief historical accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (link, link) and a video exhibition recording survivors' experiences from Yad Vashem (link).)


Paul D. Van Pelt said...

I do not mean to be insensitive. I was born in 1948, am neither Jewish nor black or female. Shame on me. I have friends who have one, some or all these characteristics. At the time of my birth, there was nothing my parents could do about any of this. My thin Native American heritage did not count. Then, no one would have even given that a thought. It was not on social radar. Other radar came later, I think. Much of more modern thinking falls upon modern thought; differing applications of morality, based on interests, preferences and motives. Ethics were less of a consideration. The advance of Capitalism and profit/loss ratios put us right where we are: If equality and fairness place the overall scenario well, all good. If not,...well, there you are.

Dan Little said...

Paul, I'm not sure what point you're trying to make here ... "Shame on me"? I'm not suggesting that the current generation should be shamed about these horrific facts about the past; rather, I'm recognizing that they were indeed horrific and unforgettable crimes. Does a person need to be black in order to be horrified at the 1921 Tulsa massacre? No. Did you imagine that the point of the post was to cast blame and shame on "us" today? No, that's not at all the point. Rather, it is our responsibility to confront those crimes so our own generation does not commit the same kinds of atrocities. As for "well, there you are" ... that sounds like just throwing up your hands about something terrible. But I doubt that this is what you mean to say ... Feel free to clarify.

Paul D. Van Pelt said...

Yes, I guess my comments are dark. Nihilistic. Near the end, I used the wrong tense with the word WERE. Should have written ARE. No, I did not mean to conclude we should throw up our hands, throw in the towel, crawl into a hole and die. But, we are doing that--- both intentionally and inadvertently, by doing more than we have always done. Roger Crisp, writing for Oxford's Practical Ethics, opined that morality does not matter much. Pretty nihilistic for a moral philosopher. The sense of hopelessness in his essay was palpable. I guess, coming from someone like him, it really shook me. A lot of people seem to be floating in this boat. If I am a chicken little, I am not alone. Thing is, when people lose hope, they may go crazy. And crazy is is not far from irrational. My wife used to love driving. Now, she is fearful just leaving our apartment. We would live elsewhere, if we could. I am sorry if I seem cold. It was not my way, only a few years ago. Intentional and inadvertent---isn't that a paradox?