Just Looking

He’s not looking at me directly, as if he’s too afraid. But I don’t want him to. I stare at him apprehensively where he’s frozen for 1/100th of a second in 1943.

Though there are a lot of people in the group of Jews being evacuated from the Warsaw Ghetto, the boy is the main subject. He is a bit separated from the group, many of whom seem terrified but caught up in the action of moving. His hands are held in the air as if he were playing the bad guy in a child’s cops-and-robbers game. But his expression is one of dark fear most Americans are unaccustomed to seeing on the face of a child.

“Forcibly Pulled out of Dug-Outs” Photograph from Jürgen Stroop’s report on the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, May 1943

This photo of the Warsaw boy was taken by a Nazi in 1943 as the ghetto was liquidated following an uprising. Jürgen Stroop, an SS official, included the image in a report on the operation he sent to the SS chief Heinrich Himmler. It is one of many iconic Holocaust photos taken by a perpetrator. But what do we really see when we look at Holocaust photos? This is what happened. This is what it looked like. This is one face out of an unfathomable number of dead. But in 1943 the photographer was just documenting a day’s work to let his boss know things went smoothly.

In the FASPE journalism group we spent some of our sessions talking about these photographs and the experience of looking. In a hotel conference room in Oświęcim, the Polish town that the Germans called Auschwitz, we talked about the ethics of looking at the countless images of Holocaust victims hanging in museums and memorials around the world.

What would we know of the Holocaust without such images? It is the photographs, not the headlines, that sear themselves into memory. But there is a cost to seeing them.

Critics say we have no business looking. It’s an intrusion. In displaying photographs of victims, we are colluding with the perpetrators. But others disagree. In The Cruel Radiance, Susie Linfield wrote that what such critics misunderstand is these photographs “depict the photographer as much as the subject.”

A photo on a placard in a clearing near a crematorium at Auschwitz-Birkenau shows a group of frightened, naked women in the woods that once stood where the viewer now stands. The Nazis made their victims undress before murdering them; it was more efficient that way, no need to deal with the tedious task of disrobing the dead. It’s blurry and crooked, taken furtively from a low angle looking up. The sloppy framing made me think the shutter must have seemed heavy and that he was as ashamed to look as he was fearful. The photographer was a Sonderkommando, a Jewish prisoner charged with disposing of the bodies of the Nazis’ victims, and he was documenting the crimes with a camera smuggled to him by the Resistance.

The faces in this photo no longer seem to be human faces. Their expressions are primal, animalistic. The woman in the foreground has been reduced to the physiology of fear, putting one foot mechanically in front of the other toward an inevitable death. Her body is going through a chemical process no different that that of a cow being dragged to slaughter. In a way, the Nazis succeeded in their quest to dehumanize their victims. What if that was my grandmother moving naked through the cold forest to her executionWhat if a million visitors every year looked at her, frozen in time, on the day she was reduced to nothing?

In a museum, as I was strolling from exhibit to exhibit, emotionally exhausted and mentally checked out, my eyes landed on the smiling German soldiers in a photo. I smiled too, reflexively. Human beings are social animals, hardwired to mimic the facial expressions of others. This trait helped us evolve.   But then I followed the soldiers’ arms to the tip of their guns to the faces of the kneeling men and my vestigial smile tightened into a sickly grimace that moved down my throat. This Nazi photo shows three men kneeling on the edge of a pit, their hands bound, while smiling German soldiers execute them. It’s a very logical way to murder: have the victims dig a pit, and then shoot them so that they fall into it. A sinisterly clever cooperation with gravity. In the background, other Germans stand casually watching. One of the onlookers has his arms crossed over his chest; one has a hand on his hip. Another has his hand on his forehead to block the glare and get a better look.

Before the FASPE program, I thought of the Holocaust as a fixed point in history. It began and then it was over. The line between good and evil was clear.

I know what’s going on in this photo. I know what the insignia on the uniforms means. I know what the pit is for. I know, eighty years in retrospect. Eighty years of looking back and processing what happened. These photos show victims in their last moments of life, but we look knowing they are dead. Looking at these photos, we make a conscious decision to be on the victim’s side. But whose side are we really on, the Nazi’s or the Jew’s? If I had walked upon that scene as it was unfolding, without a caption, without Holocaust scholars and museums to inform me and memorials to remind me, would my subconscious tendency to smile have halted when my eyes followed the shooters’ to the Jew at his moment of execution? Surely, yes. But how easy would it have been to reawaken that moment of mimicry into a year of collusion? Or years of averting my eyes?

To look at photos of the Holocaust awakens discomfort inside us–a Schrödinger’s box of self-reflection. We can never be fully sure if the part of us inside that box favors collusion or resistance. The truth is, the viewer is neither perpetrator nor victim, neither guilty nor innocent, but rather stuck between the two. We look, perhaps on a subconscious level, knowing that we are linked to both the smiling perpetrator and the terrified victim. We must look because these images depict the viewer as much as the photographer.

Much of the discussion around the ethics of Holocaust photography focuses on victims: should we look? Should we show? We want to identify with the victims and feel compelled to look, to attempt to understand what they went through.

There is a moral victory in victimhood, but we have to look at these photos because they place us next to the perpetrators. Because for a fleeting moment beneath our consciousness, we let our guard down, forget we’re looking at monsters and it fills us with shame. The Warsaw boy walks past me with his hands up, afraid of me. He doesn’t bother to look at me because he knows I won’t help him. The women run past me, unaware in their terror that I’m even there. The soldiers smile and execute, unconcerned by my presence, assuming I’m enjoying myself as well.

Here I am now, just looking. Not doing anything. I look at pictures coming out of Syria, of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, of Central African Republic, of the border between Texas and Mexico. I look and I don’t do anything. I stand in the gray area between resistance and passive collusion. The disgust I feel when I look places me in this uncomfortable territory where evil and empathy blur.

We like to think that Nazism is a singularity, existing only in the past. When we look at Holocaust photos, we want to see the perpetrators as monsters. They’re not us. They’re not human. They are not brothers, fathers, husbands and boyfriends. Nazi is something else. The Nazis dehumanized their victims, but in our obsession with proving our empathy, do we not dehumanize the perpetrators? By othering Nazis, we don’t have to come to grips with the fact that they, like us, are human.

After the war, the world said “never again.” Never again would we let monsters attempt to annihilate an entire people. But the problem isn’t monsters, it’s human beings.

You can also read this story on the FASPE blog.

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  1. Brandon Ross (@bross01)

    “But the problem isn’t monsters, it’s human beings.” So true. Really enjoyed the read. Thanks.

    1. karenpetree

      Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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