Holocaust photographers

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During the occupation of Poland by Nazi Germany and the forced internment of Jews in ghettos, some Jewish leaders saw in photography a way to facilitate some kind of survival. In an effort to convince the Germans of the economic benefits to the Third Reich of these humiliating and insanitary compounds not to liquidate them, the head of the Lodz ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, commissioned Jewish photographers to document in albums the industrious activity of their workshops.

But Mendel Grossmann and Henryk Ross together with the assistant Aryeh Ben-Menachem went further in the use of their cameras and, despite Rumkowski's express prohibition, they also portrayed overcrowding, misery and deportation. They took thousands of photos, and many survived the war and the destruction of the ghetto in hiding.

Notaries and victims at the same time

"The photos taken by Jews in the ghettos reveal suffering," says Israeli historian Vivian Uria, curator of the exhibition.

These and other historical images shape the collective visual memory of the Holocaust, the way in which the extermination of six million European Jews orchestrated by Hitler and his henchmen is perceived and remembered in the world. The bulk of this legacy is kept in the Yad Vashem memorial in Jerusalem, and a memorable exhibition that synthesized it in 2018, Memory flashes. Photography during the Holocaustcomes to Germany for the first time.

The exhibition, which can be seen until August 20 at the Museum of Photography in Berlin, displays a critical account of the photographic and film documentation taken by three types of authors: Jewish photographers in the ghettos, German soldiers, or official propaganda cameras. Nazi, and allied military during the liberation of the concentration camps. There are professional snapshots and others of a private nature.

Photos of the Holocaust exhibited in a showcase, in the exhibition 'Flashes of memory. Photography during the Holocaust', in the Museum of Photography in Berlin, in July 2023


“As the Holocaust recedes in time, the use of tangible evidence to enlighten new generations becomes more necessary, and visual evidence teaches more and better,” said Iris Rosenberg, director of communication for Yad Vashem, at the exhibition presentation in Berlin. The gaze of the Jewish authors, who were notaries and victims at the same time, contrasts with the anti-Semitic vision of the images captured by the Nazi occupiers.

“Jewish photographers reveal the personal suffering of ghetto dwellers, they are not humiliating portraits; their photos reflect compassion, identification and a shared destiny _–explains the Israeli historian Vivian Uria, director of the Yad Vashem museums division and curator of the exhibition–. Several of them, including those hired by the Jewish councils in the ghettos, also photographed clandestinely, facing very serious risk.

The look of the liberators

The allies immediately understood
that visual documentation of concentration camps would be key to revealing Nazi crimes to the world

This is the case of Mendel Grossmann and his colleagues in the Lodz ghetto, and that of the photographers from the Warsaw ghetto, whose names are unknown. The work of these strangers is part of the secret files organized by the historian Emanuel Ringelblum, who would be assassinated. The archives were buried in cellars before the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April 1943, put down by blood and fire by the Germans.

Ghetto photographers surreptitiously captured dying children on the street, families assembled for deportation, starving people dying, executions by hanging. In the images of the ghettos there are also uncomfortable moments: relatively normal costumbrist scenes that denote the privileged situation of certain families, although this would not save them after deportation and death.

Jewish photographer Mendel Grossmann in his darkroom in the Lodz ghetto (occupied Poland). Date: between 1941 and 1944

Jewish photographer Mendel Grossmann in his darkroom in the Lodz ghetto (occupied Poland), between 1941 and 1944


“By having an official camera, I was able to capture the entire tragic period in the Lodz ghetto; I did it knowing that if they discovered me, my family and I would be tortured and killed,” said photographer Henryk Ross, who survived the Holocaust and immigrated to Israel, in 1987. His partner Grossmann died in a death march evacuation in the last days of the war. In the Kaunas ghetto, in occupied Lithuania, amateur Zvi Hirsch Kadushin secretly took terrible – and blurry, given the extreme danger – photos from windows and corners. Kadushin managed to save himself and save the photos of him.

Instead, the perpetrators portrayed their victims in a derogatory, merciless, or, at best, voyeuristic manner. German soldiers passing through ghettos took snapshots for their personal albums, while official photographers from Nazi organizations took tens of thousands of anti-Semitic photos for racial propaganda.

The images were published in Nazi newspapers such as Der Sturmer either Illustrierter Beobachterwith headlines such as “Jews learn to work for the common good” (presenting them as slackers being rehabilitated in sweatshops) or “Gold in the ghetto” (pointing out finds of belongings hidden by their Jewish owners as a sign of greed). .

A TV cameraman and a US Army photographer after the liberation of the Ohrdruf concentration and forced labor camp (Germany) in April 1945

A TV cameraman and a US Army photographer after the liberation of the Ohrdruf concentration and forced labor camp (Germany) in April 1945


For the Hitler dictatorship, photography and film were crucial in manipulating the masses. Thus, there is filming of a restaurant and a ballroom in the Warsaw ghetto for a 1942 Nazi documentary that was never made. Witnesses from the time remember that the team scoured the streets looking for good-looking people to place them in the scenes and encourage the cliché of rich jew.

When the Allied forces liberated concentration and extermination camps in the final weeks of World War II, visual documentation became key to revealing Nazi crimes to the world and affirming the liberators' moral superiority, according to Yad Vashem analysis. .

Perpetrators' perspective

Official photographers of organizations
Nazis made tens of thousands of photos
in the ghettos with anti-Semitic and derogatory approach to racial propaganda

The Red Army liberated the first of these camps, Majdanek, in July 1944, and arrived at Auschwitz in January 1945. Official Soviet photographers documented the horrors discovered, and Westerners did so in the camps they were liberating. On occasions, former prisoners were used to recreate scenes for the cameras, for example to show the operation of crematoriums.

“The Allies quickly understood the propaganda value of these images, and the Americans and British encouraged their soldiers to take photos of the liberated camps,” continues Vivian Uria. They also brought official photographers and filmmakers to gather images for the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders and for the democratic re-education of the German population. Soviet snapshots were the work of the USSR military or news agencies.

In contrast to the photos of the ghettos – most of which are little known – the images of the liberated camps are the ones that remain engraved on the retinas of posterity: emaciated ex-prisoners in the barracks, piles of corpses, barbed wire fences and gallows with gallows. . This sample opens the focus to show all the realities of the atrocity.

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Éva Fahidi, Hungarian Jewish Holocaust survivor, January 2020 photo

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