The International School for Holocaust Studies
The Story Behind the Photograph: Excerpts from an Interview with Nina Springer-Aharoni, Curator of Films and Photos in the Yad Vashem Museum
By Jackie Metzger
Yad Vashem opened its new Holocaust History Museum about eight years ago to worldwide acclaim. The museum provides a powerful experience that takes the visitor into the difficult period of Nazi rule and the ensuing Holocaust. The new museum in its design and internal display is a radical departure from the old museum which served Yad Vashem for more than forty years. Visitors then were led through passages with walls which were covered with photographs that by and large were the sole means of presenting the Holocaust.
The new museum also has a very large number of photographs in the different galleries but in contrast to the old museum, they are only part of a very varied exhibit that includes artwork, artifacts, movies, documents and testimonies. One moves along chronologically from the prewar period, to the rise of Hitler in 1933, to the end of the Second World War in 1945 and beyond, and any two hour visit will hardly suffice to take in the visual effect of about 1,400 photographs and the other resources mentioned above. To provide one example, the first display the visitor to the museum encounters is a unique portrayal of life before the Holocaust through a movie - projected onto the entire triangular wall enclosing the museum - of real filmed footage and photos expertly put together by the video artist Michal Rovner. All the different snippets were combined to create a moving mosaic of Jewish life before the Holocaust and the viewer starts his visit with these photographic images of what was lost to the Jewish world in the ensuing years. The visitor will conclude his museum visit with another powerful photographic display of the victims as their portraits appear on Pages of Testimony in the special Hall of Names.
The subject of photography and the portrayal of the Holocaust presents an intricate web of considerations that touches on potentially explosive subjects like authenticity, identification, Holocaust denial, and historical documentation. Here we present excerpts from an interview with Nina Springer-Aharoni in which these and more subjects are pursued. Ms. Springer-Aharoni is in charge of the photographic documentation in the Yad Vashem Museum.
Q: Yad Vashem opened its new museum in 2005. Its size, with the breadth and depth of its content, is daunting. Can you describe the initial work involved?
Our very first task was to create the general concept of the whole museum. A team of historians, head curators and the designer sat for months preparing this concept that was to guide the contours of the planned museum.
Numerous meetings were held in order to decide on the historical and museological framework the new museum would present. When this took on the shape and form of the museum as it is today, we, the curators, were able to approach the materials at hand and provide the actual content for the framework that had been outlined. If you consider the photographic aspects of the museum, the task of selecting what would be hanging on the walls of the museum was an enormous one because of the many archives with large photo collections.
However, it was clear to us that after all our deliberations and following the guiding concept of the museum, the photographs and the movies chosen would focus on the personal stories behind the faces and that the Jewish narrative would emerge from the darkness designed for it by the Nazis.
Our first source obviously was the large collection of photographs in the Yad Vashem photo archives. In addition, we approached other archives and private collections in Israel and overseas in an attempt to find new visual materials for the subjects chosen. The process of choosing photographs was often intriguing because certain events during the war were clothed in secrecy and hence no photographic testimony ever existed. This applied mainly to the subject of the Final Solution. One of the outstanding examples of this photographic vacuum is the Wannsee Conference held in Berlin in January 1942, whose task it was to improve the efficiency of the Final Solution. So this crucial intersection in the narrative of murder is visually presented in the museum with fifteen portraits of the men at the conference plus a photograph of the Wannsee House building in which the conference was convened. (The photograph itself is from before the war).
Q: What other specific problems did you face?
There were many.
Identifying figures in the photos was an integral part of our museological aim to recover the names and narratives of the individual victims and consequently we have been very involved in verifying the correct identification of people, places, and scenes in the photographs. There are sometimes varying descriptions and identifications in Holocaust archives for certain photographs and thus we place great importance in checking for errors.
As mentioned above, there are about 1,400 photographs in the museum from which some have been selectively expanded upon with names and narrative. Part of the identification process took place during the initial investigative research process and further identifications have been facilitated since the opening of the museum with the help of the public. Problems of identity with the passage of time from the event, now about seventy years ago, in addition to objective factors like size and quality of the photograph, make it imperative to check and double check all information.
One case where we erred in identification and changed the photograph after the opening of the museum was with the author of the Lodz diary written by David Sierakowiak. His photograph is taken from a class photo with a caption that identified 28 figures which had already appeared in archives and a publication. After two visitors to the museum both pointed, independently, to another face in his school class photograph as being that of David Sierakowiak, we were persuaded that their identification was the correct one. Both people came from Lodz and remembered the author from their school days.
On the subject of identification, we have created another avenue through which the public can contribute from their personal knowledge of people they see in the museum photographs and whom they can positively identify with a name and any additional information. Anonymous No Longer is an online exhibition on the Yad Vashem website of about one hundred photographs to date with numerous identified figures. All the pictures are from the museum display. Next to the photograph, we have added the description and on the figures in the photo, their names only. The public is invited to contact Yad Vashem with any additional information they might have on any photograph in the exhibition.
This exhibition is inherently different from all our other online exhibitions, which all have a specific theme. This one has no coordinating subject and its sole purpose is to provide an easy means for the general public to participate in the very important task of naming the victim, returning the identities stolen by the Nazis even before they killed them. This has been a guiding principle of the museum since we opened it.
There are also photos in the museum without any text and identification next to them although we do have names of figures in the photos. This is the resulting compromise arrived at between the historians, designers and the museum staff, each side with its specific agenda. The curators and museum staff who, in the final stretch, had to lay out the details of how each and every gallery would finally be organized, had to cut down on the captions next to the photographs to avoid overload for the viewer. The mentioned online exhibition is a valuable way of redressing the minimalistic text approach by providing another way of returning the victims' identity through the use of names and stories on the website.
Q: Would it be correct to say that someone who doesn’t visit the Yad Vashem website will not be aware of the additions and corrections?
That is correct but the other side of the coin presents the positive aspects of the internet. And that is that many more people are exposed to the new information on the website than actually visit the museum. Several important identifications have been made through people contacting the website.
It is possible to find more than one identification for a certain figure in a photograph and the exhibition presents the different names where this situation exists. It has to be understood that the Holocaust in all its brutality changed peoples’ appearances totally and the objective difficulties of identification stem from this salient fact. One example of different identifications in one picture after the liberation is the iconic photo of starved prisoners on the bunk beds of the concentration camp Buchenwald looking out from their cramped wooden slats at the photographer. Clearly the museum couldn’t encompass this problem in its presentations but the website exhibition is a more flexible vehicle for presenting these aspects of various identifications. The website exhibition Anonymous No Longer is therefore a dynamic addition that illustrates the idea of a living museum
Q: How about the obvious dissonance between the stated aim of the museum to present the Jewish narrative and the fact that the vast majority of the photographs are pictures taken by the German perpetrators?
Indeed, most of the photographs are German documentation and the photography of Jewish photographers like Mendel Grossman in Lodz or Zvi Kadushin in Kovno is the exception to the rule. From the outset, it was clear to us that to remain consistent with the central concept of presenting the Holocaust through the Jewish narrative, we would have to present the materials in a very personal manner, touching on the person behind the tragedy. Finding the names of people, identifying the names of streets and other locations, providing dates – all these aspects were part and parcel of fleshing out the Jewish story contained in the photographs most of which were taken by German photographers. Thus, Nazi photography with its own tendentious agenda could be employed to strengthen the real narrative of Jewish suffering. And it should be clear that every Holocaust museum in the world including Yad Vashem is based largely on German photography for the simple reason that the Germans expressly forbade photography in all areas of their occupation. This prohibition came into force from November 1941 and included the ghettos, camps and all death sites. Most of the existing photography was carried out by special photographers that belonged to the German PK-Propaganda Companies or Propagandakompanien, and a few German soldiers with their private cameras who photographed without permission.
Let’s take the example of the famous German documentation of German soldiers smiling at the degradation and bullying being meted out to Rabbi Moshe Hagerman of the town Olkusz near Krakow. The date is July, 1940. Despite the fact that the photographic documentation is German, we have reconstructed a lot of what transpired on this day in Olkusz and the specific information describing the scene: the barefoot Rabbi ready for prayer but being humiliated by laughing soldiers creates for the viewer an empathy with the victim’s fate. This is a good example of German documentation being presented with enough facts to verify the Jewish subject and generate an empathetic response from the viewer in the context of the Jewish narrative. The following is the caption of the picture as it appears in the museum database:
Olkusz, July 31, 1940. “Bloody Wednesday.” Rabbi Mosze Izak Hagerman is led to the marketplace, where the Jewish men were rounded up and ordered to lie face down. Following a day of humiliations and beatings, they were allowed to go home.
I turn to a poet for gaining a philosophical insight into the essence of a photograph. After all is said and done, Wisława Szymborska, Poland’s Nobel prize-winning poet, captured an essential truth about photography of tragedies and perhaps any photography in her poem called: Photograph from September 11. The poem is her personal, poetic reaction to the tragedy of the Twin Towers in New York in 2001. The following excerpt is taken from the poem.
The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.
- - -
I can do only two things for them-
describe this flight
and not add a last line.
And thus, after spending innumerable hours looking at photographs of the Holocaust, after pursuing historians’ attempts at understanding and explaining, after viewing the terrible movie documentation of the Twin Towers tragedy many times, it appears that Szymborska’s formulation is an apt one; that tragedies of this dimension never permit closure, perhaps, in the hope that returning to them again and again will somehow contribute to their non-recurrence.
As Nina Springer-Aharoni pointed out to us in the interview, the photographs of the Holocaust have become an indispensable form of historical documentation and she quotes Eric Kolke in his comment on the Auschwitz Album that photographs are perforce “the main eyewitnesses to the event.” As such, we are indebted to the Yad Vashem museological staff that has presented the public with this important photographic documentation.