Last year, I received a letter from Steve Gamester, a well-known documentary filmmaker and director requesting my professional assistance on a project entitled "The Last Holocaust Survivors." In honor of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, Steve was planning on filming a feature documentary that would focus on the personal stories of several Holocaust victims as well as survivors. The film would tell their personal stories and how technology was used to piece together the complex puzzle of the Holocaust. The project sought Yad Vashem's assistance and expertise in researching the stories and fates of Holocaust victims and survivors for the film.
Mr. Gamester ended his letter with the following sentence: “For many, the history of the Holocaust only exists in black and white; this can make it seem more distant, even less real. We’ll use the latest technology to colorize iconic and never-before-seen photographs. For some survivors, black-and-white photographs are the only links to their lost families; we’ll make it possible for them to see family members in color."
This was a challenging proposition. After all, Yad Vashem is committed to ensuring that the history of the Holocaust continues to serve as a powerful reminder of to where unchecked racism can lead. We aim to bring people closer to the historical information, to help them look at the world's current events through lens of the past, so as not to forget what happened to the Jews of Europe and North Africa not so long ago.
Yad Vashem is constantly researching new and innovative ways to use technology in the service of Holocaust remembrance, research, education and documentation. It is clear that new technological advances provide greater opportunities and abilities to collect, analyze and explore the vast amount of information in ways that were not available before, and to share that information with an ever-growing global audience via volumes and channels that did not exist in previous years. Yad Vashem is working on using digital technology to provide access to archival assets – documents, photographs and films – for a number of years, in order to assist serious researchers of the Holocaust period.
And yet, my answer was tempered by legitimate concerns. I replied that while there are those who feel colorizing archival photo makes the subject matter more relatable, it doesn’t make the historical context "more real." Furthermore, I expressed that adding color to a source and claiming that this improves its authenticity may even be an unintentional distortion of the subjects or objects in the photograph – and by extension, of the Holocaust. By way of further explanation, I argued that if the colorization of these archival photographs are presented to viewers as works of art – the creator has more leeway to manipulate the original format. The viewer is allowed to like or dislike the alteration, as it is clear that it is a work of art. But in the business of truth, this kind of “improvement" is a misguided fabrication at best. And we are in the business of truth.
There is an unbridgeable gap between the past and us. It would have been nicer if my grandmother's photographs from 1939 were in color, but they are not, since they were taken in black and white, and will always remain so, regardless of attempts to tamper with them.
While one may have good intentions to use archival documentation, such as artifacts or images, to illustrate historical events, alterations of these assets can misrepresent that historical timeframe. While some minor reparations, such as those utilized in professional conservation, are necessary to keep the original items intact for posterity, this process should not include any significant changes to the originals. Images in black and white are nevertheless filled with vivid detail, and it is the role of historians to interpret them with meaning – and by extent, endeavor to illustrate Jewish life before, during and after the Holocaust. Although far from vivid color images, they therefore serve as everlasting witnesses to the horrors of that dark chapter. As we move further away from the period of the Holocaust, it is incumbent upon Yad Vashem to continue develop practical and authentic ways to engage audiences from around the world, and impress upon them the importance of remembering the past – as it really was – in order to build a better future.
The Last Holocaust Survivors was completed and the documentary entitled "Cheating Hitler: Surviving the Holocaust" aired on the History Channel in November 2019.