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Picture Imperfect

Are there right and wrong ways of looking at Holocaust-era photographs?

Susie Linfield
October 28, 2010
Image from Henryk Ross’s Lodz Ghetto Album, c. 1942.(Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; anonymous gift, 2007; © Art Gallery of Ontario.)
Image from Henryk Ross’s Lodz Ghetto Album, c. 1942.(Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; anonymous gift, 2007; © Art Gallery of Ontario.)

Almost as soon as the Holocaust ended, a debate erupted over whether, and how, photographs of the catastrophe could or should be viewed. (And even over whether they should have been taken; Robert Capa, for instance, refused to photograph in the death camps as they were liberated by the Allies, and James Agee would not watch newsreels of them.) It is a debate that has gained in vehemence—and, sometimes, vitriol—and that continues to this day. Some critics, photographers, and filmmakers—most notably, Claude Lanzmann—have argued that viewers are bound to have the “wrong” reactions to photographs of cruelty, including contempt for the victims, glib identification, or even a prurient fascination that can border on pleasure. I am not sure, though, what the right reactions would be.

Indeed, the impossibility of reacting to Holocaust photographs “correctly,” spontaneously, or on the basis of ordinary human intuitions is a key to the most diabolical aspect of the Nazi project. It is a key, that is, to the ways in which the victims were shoved into an indecipherable world where normal human instincts became crimes; where the survival of one was predicated on the deaths of others; where previously unthinkable forms of degradation became common; and where the victims were offered maliciously brutal choices that, if made, would annihilate them spiritually before their physical destruction was complete. The Nazis aimed to destroy the victims prior to their deaths, primarily by eradicating the bonds of self-respect, empathy, and mutual dependence that make civilization possible if not always good.

The Nazi project, in short, was something new, something original, something that “did not conform to any model,” as Primo Levi observed. It had two goals: to create a super-man, and to create a sub-man; as such, it was an assault not only on millions of individual human beings but on the very idea of the human being. What is a normal, natural, or appropriate reaction to this?

Photographs from the Nazi period evoke—though obviously in attenuated form—this demented universe, which is why our typical reactions to suffering are frequently upended when we look at them. To see such images is radically disorienting, for it is often hard to decide which kind of Holocaust image is worse: the ones that reveal the horror, or the ones that hide it. A collection of photographs taken by a Polish Jew named Henryk Ross and posthumously published, in 2004, under the title Lodz Ghetto Album epitomizes this confusion.

Ross was born in 1910. Before the war he had been a sports photographer for a Warsaw newspaper, and after imprisonment in the Lodz Ghetto he was one of two photographers employed by the Department of Statistics; in this capacity he took official photographs for the ghetto’s Nazi administration. Surreptitiously, though, he also took thousands of photos that documented the real face of ghetto life and death. Ross and his wife, Stefania, were among the 5 percent of ghetto inmates who survived the Nazi onslaught; after the war they remained in Lodz and then, in 1950, moved to Israel, where Ross worked as a photographer and zincographer. (He testified at the 1961 Eichmann trial, where some of his photographs were entered into evidence.) He died in 1991.

Ross’ crisp photographs look carefully composed, as if the professional standards he had learned in Warsaw had to be upheld at all costs—even if the subject, now, was the destruction of human beings rather than feats of athletic prowess. In the section of the book the editors have called “Public,” Ross portrays the despair and degradation of the ghetto as it was lived in full view of its inhabitants and its occupiers: the filthy, barefoot people on the streets with their battered tin soup bowls; the unburied corpses strewn on the sidewalks; the public executions; the human mules straining as they lugged heavy wagons of excrement (soon the carriers would die of typhus); the mutilated faces, disfigured by deep and bloody gashes, of those killed in the deportation roundup of September 1942, which targeted the young, the old, and the sick. One especially ugly picture of this event shows Jewish policemen grabbing ill people who, slated for transport to the death camps, were desperately trying to escape through the windows of the ghetto hospital. And everywhere in Ross’ images the yellow stars appear, like crazy little sparks of hatred: We see them sewn onto armbands, and onto coats front and back, and hanging on pendants around children’s necks. (Did the Nazis worry that these children would forget they were Jewish?) Even the scarecrow guarding a scrawny plot of ghetto land wears one.

But it is another set of Ross’ photographs, called “Private” and previously unpublished, that cause the biggest shock, though at first one eagerly welcomes them. These photographs are filled with dappled sunshine, laughter, health, and love. Here, for instance, is a photograph of five children who sit on the floor while they eat. Unlike the other children we have seen—stunted, wrinkled figures draped in rags—these kids look like kids. They have smooth, unlined faces and ample skin on their bones; they wear clean clothes, including shoes and socks; they do not look cowed or beaten. One girl, a ribbon in her hair, impishly smiles as she opens her mouth wide for what looks—could it be?—like a nice soup dumpling. A later photograph shows a smiling woman in a polka-dotted bathing suit as she feeds her fat, naked child in a leafy backyard, while another introduces us to a shy little boy with a teddy bear almost as big as he is. Children do especially well in these pictures: They smile and play and are frequently kissed. The grownups seem fine, too. In one photograph we see a score of handsome, nicely dressed revelers at a wedding celebration; seated at a long table loaded with bottles, candlesticks, china, and silverware, they smoke, cheer, and smile.

At first glance these pictures seem wonderfully ordinary and might even suggest that the bad was not all bad. But, even apart from the omnipresent stars, something is terribly wrong. The pictures of happy children, we learn from the text, were probably taken in autumn of 1943: almost a year after most of the ghetto’s children had been deported for immediate gassing at Chelmno. It was primarily the children of the ghetto administrators, and those whose parents had agreed to round up others, who were spared. (What would you do?) Indeed, most of the people in these pictures, who still look healthy and human, were almost certainly members of the ghetto’s so-called elite: policemen, members of the Judenrat, those with money. At worst, they betrayed others, hastening the hideous deaths of their brethren; at best, they were protected from, and apparently inured to, the suffering around them. And one more thing: Within a year almost all of them, and their children, would be murdered too.

How are we to regard such pictures, or, rather, the people in them? Were they monstrously indifferent to others, or tragically ignorant of their own impending fate? Certainly they were victims; were they collaborators too? Do we exult that a few were saved, if only for a short time and at a terrible price? Is it a victory that some were able, almost to the end, to sustain a “normal” family? What does it mean to save one child’s life at the expense of another child’s death? (What would you do?) Do Ross’ photographs show something valiant or something repulsive? In short: How should we act in the “waiting room of Death” (as writer Jean Améry, a survivor of Auschwitz, termed the Jewish ghettoes)? To look at these pictures is to be twisted by such questions, and to know that the answers to them are necessary to seek and yet impossible to find.

Susie Linfield is the director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University, where she is an associate professor of journalism.

Reprinted with permission from The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence by Susie Linfield. © 2010 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.

Susie Linfield is the director of the cultural reporting and criticism program at New York University, where she is an associate professor of journalism.